Safety fears and financial constraints mean fewer students are going on field trips.But these problems can be overcome, reports Sue Royal
An experienced geography teacher takes a new colleague to a quarry for a friendly chat about how to conduct a field trip.
But the new teacher interrupts his explanation with a flat refusal to get involved. There's an element of risk, he tells his incredulous colleague, so I'm not prepared to do it.
The publicity given to tragedies, like the one involving two teenage girls who were swept away while fording a river on a school trip to Yorkshire late last year, has made teachers increasingly anxious about safety on school trips.
But are their concerns justified? Field study trips can range from examining geological strata in the countryside to looking around historic cottages. Although they are most often used as part of geography and biology courses, they are an invaluable way of bringing a subject alive and do not need to involve arduous physical exertions.
However, safety fears and financial constraints mean field study trips are declining. State schools particularly can no longer afford to use the large field centres which take care of safety as part of their brief. If schools organise their own trips, they have to make their own safety arrangements, which canbe daunting.
But with help this can be overcome. After a survey highlighted teachers', parents' and governors' concerns about taking groups out of school, an educational charity, the Field Studies Council, ran a successful pilot safety course last year at its centre near Shrewsbury. It has now launched a four-day course for teachers and trainees, the first to be jointly accredited with the Geographical Association.
"These courses ought to be integrated into ongoing training for all," says Anthony Thomas, the FSC's chief executive. "They aren't just relevant to geography and biology."
Primarily, the course aims to reassure. The message is, don't panic and definitely don't think outdoor activities are too risky to contemplate. "We are not talking mountaineering leadership here, I'm talking about someone who says, 'I'm taking this group out and I want them to come back in the same state as they went out'," says Mr Thomas.
First, people have to establish why they want to work outdoors, he says. Once they know their objectives, a site can be chosen and the hazards assessed. This involves working out the likelihood of an accident and how serious it would be. "There is no such thing as a place without risk, but we get people to ask themselves: 'what can manage?'," he says.
Then they have to deal with a worst-case scenario such as a minibus accident, which is set up using volunteers who feign injuries.
Through practical experience, people can find out whether they need more training or can cope.
Geography teacher Margaret Carpenter took part in the pilot course and is loud in her praises.
"It was more of a refresher for me, as I have been trained in mountain leadership and done a lot of fieldwork, but it was very practical," says Margaret, who teaches at Longsands college in St Neots, Cambridgeshire.
"It was also useful because you look at the way you organise your trips, compare notes with others and tighten up here and there.
"The first aid was excellent - lots of practical situations that you were suddenly presented with, such as someone falling downstairs and an accident in the dark.
"The people who taught us really know what they are doing and take kids out every day, so we knew we weren't just getting the textbook version.
"Teachers need to cover their backs. It reassures parents and looks good that you have kept up with all the latest developments, such as first aid, which changes all the time," she says.
For those who can't attend a course, the Royal Society for the Prevention of Accidents (Rospa) provides a guide for teachers planning a trip. The Rospa Guide to Health and Safety at School (No 6: School Trips Part 2 - Adventures at Home and Away) is online at: www.rospa.co.uksetrips2.htm.
The benefits of field studies far outweigh any risks, says John Barker, former director of PGCE at Kings College, University of London. Trainee biology and geography teachers' experience of fieldwork varied enormously, from none at all at school or university, so training is invaluable.
"Once they are working in a school, they will probably be involved in trips straight away," he says. The FSC in-service training course got an overwhelming thumbs up from the trainees.
"It cements everything they know," says Christopher Lane, head of geography at Millfield school, Somerset.
The Field Studies Council, Preston Montford, Shrewsbury, Shropshire SY4 1HW. Tel: 01743 852100. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org A two day course for qualified teachers costs pound;55. PGCE and NQT course sponsored by the the BritishEcological Society (biology) and the Field Studies Council (geography)costs pound;35. Courses run from October 2001 to March 2002. Participants can follow them up with a dissertation and get a diploma from the University of Westminster in the management ofoutdoor activity.