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Death reignites trip safety fears

Despite this week's tragedy on a Yorkshire caving expedition, schools are urged to keep on running adventure activities. Michael Shaw reports

Schools are being urged to continue with adventure activities after the death this week of a 14-year-old boy trapped underground on a caving trip.

Joseph Lister, a pupil at Tadcaster grammar, became separated from classmates when water began rising in the cave in the North Yorkshire Dales.

Joseph was later recovered unconscious by a rescue team and he was taken to hospital, where he was pronounced dead five hours later.

The incident has renewed concerns about the safety of school trips and comes less than a fortnight after ministers published a manifesto promoting outdoor education.

Figures compiled by the Adventure Licensing Authority, which is funded by the Department for Education and Skills, suggest that, of 1,420 accidental or sudden deaths of young people in the UK each year, just three are on school trips and these are usually road accidents.

Teachers' unions expressed sadness over Joseph's death but said schools should continue with adventure activities.

Martin Ward, deputy general secretary of the Secondary Heads Association, said: "While incidents like this are deeply distressing they should not be used as a reason to stop the excellent education work that happens on outdoor trips.

"We need to reassure parents that it is safe to send their children on school trips and that accidents are very rare."

This view was shared by Cynthia Welbourne, North Yorkshire's director of education. "It is a very hard thing to lose a single individual," she said.

"But, on balance, we continue to have the view that well-organised safe activities offer a great deal to young people."

The caving trip is being investigated by North Yorkshire police, who have been interviewing pupils, a teacher and a caving instructor.

Tadcaster grammar had sent 100 pupils aged 13 and 14 to the council-run Bewerley Park outdoor education centre for a week of activities, which was cancelled after the death on the first day.

Pupils were split into groups to take part in activities including canoeing, abseiling and hill-walking.

Joseph was one of a group of 11 who were taken by an experienced qualified instructor into the cave, known as the Manchester hole, which was considered suitable for novices. It was decided that the group should leave the cave when the instructor noticed that water levels, seldom above ankle height, were rising. Police were called when the group then noticed that Joseph was missing.

Geoff Mitchell, head of Tadcaster grammar, said the school felt "as if it's missing a beat of its heart".

He said that Joseph, who wanted to be a professional footballer, had "an infectious smile" and had been popular across the school. "He was a slightly larger than life character who would bounce along into the room, talk to you about things and he'd actually do something that was incredibly refreshing in young people - he would tell you the truth."

Previous deaths on school trips include that of Asif Bharucha, aged 17, who died last year after falling while on a clifftop walk in Cornwall, and Alex Foulkes, also 17, who drowned after slipping into a river in the Italian Alps.

The Commons education select committee concluded in a report on outdoor education this year there was "genuine fear" among many teachers about arranging school trips but that was not substantiated by statistics.


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