With many children losing out on the benefits of school trips, Hannah Frankel looks at the harm caused by the myriad regulations meant to protect pupils from risk
Try telling Dougie Crawford that skiing is too dangerous. The 19-year-old Scot has won a place in the British ski team and is set on World Cup and Olympic glory. But such home-grown talent could become a thing of the past if school ski trips continue to decline at the current rate. Just 1,300 pupils went on school ski trips last year - a massive drop since the heyday of 1980, when 550,000 took to the slopes.
The reasons are varied and complex, but most commentators blame the slump on expense; government policy against term-time holidays; excessive paperwork; and the perceived accident and compensation culture.
None of the above stopped Dougie from going on three adventure holidays as a pupil at Glasgow High School. He says the experience helped to develop him as a professional skier and was well worth the risk. "Competitive skiing can be dangerous," he admits. "You're travelling up to 80mph and you know at some point you will probably have a crash, but you could just as easily get run over by a car. You can minimise the risks by obeying the rules and using your common sense, but a little bit of risk can be a lot of fun."
However, such positive endorsements have been overshadowed over the past 15 years by high-profile accidents. These have reinforced the public's growing belief that the 7 million pupil visits taken each year are highly risky, even though they account for just three deaths per year, compared to 700 young people who die on the roads and a further 400 from undiagnosed heart problems.
Inflating these modest figures were two terrible accidents in 1993: the Hagley High School minibus crash that left 12 dead, and the infamous Lyme Bay canoeing tragedy, in which four sixth-formers died.
Understandably, teachers are concerned that they will be held accountable for "genuine accidents", but the only teacher to ever face criminal proceedings over a school trip was Paul Ellis, a geography teacher from Fleetwood High School, who was jailed for manslaughter in 2003 after a 10-year-old boy drowned in the Lake District. Other than that, teachers have rarely appeared in court.
Teachers from Comberton Village college in Cambridgeshire refuse to be deterred from organising school ski trips, and to date have taken more than 1,000 pupils to the Alps. Parents are reassured by the wealth of experience built up over almost 30 years, plus a staffing ratio that allows for every eventuality.
"We are a sports college and we feel that all children should have the opportunity to show excellence in a sport," says Sarah Hill, who leads the trips. Over the years, pupils who started as beginners on the school trips have gone on to become ski instructors and guides. "This becomes part of their life experience and many go on skiing with friends or with their family."
The Government promised to promote experiences like this during the 2005 general election, and its Manifesto for Education Outside the Classroom is due later this month. It is expected to call for all pupils to be given at least one residential experience during their school time, in addition to a wide range of experiences outside the classroom.
Other developments include a national set of safety rules for school trips overseas, drawn up by the British Standards Institution. The new voluntary standard, which is due early next year, is expected to ensure that one person will be charged with overall responsibility for each trip, while other staff will have more defined roles.
But schools are likely to be weary of still more documentation. According to the Better Regulation Commission's report "Whose risk is it anyway?" the state has taken far more responsibility for the public "than is healthy or desired", with at least 1,000 regulations to protect the public introduced this year alone.
In particular, the report criticised the Adventure Activities Licensing Authority, which has refused licences to just 13 organisations since 1995, but has been responsible for the closure of 600 activity centres as a result of additional costs. Such over-protection is far more dangerous than the so-called risks associated with school trips, argues Tim Gill, author of No fear: Growing up in a risk-averse society. "There is no such thing as a zero risk life," he says. "If that is what we strive for, the danger is we will have a generation of children who won't know how to live their lives."
Research indicates that the damage has already begun. A study involving more than 10,000 children conducted by Michael Shayer, professor of applied psychology at King's College, London, con-cludes that 11 and 12-year-olds'
cognitive and conceptual deve-lopment is now, on average, between two and three years behind what it was 15 years ago. The findings, which will be published next year in the British Journal of Educational Psychology, indicates that the growth in TV and video-game culture, at the expense of hands-on play, could be to blame.
The report should be ringing alarm bells across the country, warns Sue Palmer, a TES magazine columnist and author of Toxic Childhood - a book that seeks to explain why one in six children in the developed world are diagnosed with developmental or behavioural problems; a figure rising by 25 per cent each year. "Without unsupervised play and a degree of independent risk-taking, children will be damaged," she says. "If these developmental needs are not met, they won't be bright enough or balanced enough to keep the show on the road"
TRIPS OFF THE BEATEN TRACK
Malawi and Zambia
The NASUWT has long advised its members not to lead school trips, but that did not put off member Claire Davidson, an English teacher at Ridgeway School in Plymouth. She ignored the advice when she embarked on school trips to Malawi and Zambia in 1993.
"At first I was terrified," she says, "but I knew I'd done all I could to minimise risk. You can easily see the difference in the pupils who've taken part. They are confident and happy, having had the experience of a lifetime."
Mike Ullman from Hockerill college, Hertfordshire, has led trips to Ecuador, India and Romania, but next year he is taking pupils to Rwanda.
"It is an unusual destination," he admits, "but it's part of our global citizenship agenda and the school is very knowledgeable about the country and the genocide. I expect the trip will have a long-lasting impact on everyone going."