A taste of risk without any recklessness

7th February 1997 at 00:00
The weather forecast is for a very cold day with a high of -1C at sea level. This will fall to -6C at 300m with additional wind chill. The staff at the Shropshire Outdoor Education Centre at Arthog in mid Wales are planning the day's activities. At the morning briefing deputy head of centre John Pinder is concerned that the Year 6 group the centre is hosting do not have enough warm clothing. Some activities are rejected, others are modified. The mountain walk is shortened and the centre's supply of spare fleeces, pullovers and mittens is pressed into service.

Adventure involves an element of risk by definition. The issue is to reduce the risks to a minimum while retaining the adventurous nature of the activity. This principle was thrown into sharp relief by the accident in Lyme Bay in October 1993. Four sixth formers died on what should have been a simple canoeing trip across the bay.

In the aftermath of the Lyme Bay disaster there was a public outcry. Centre managing director, Peter Kite, was charged with manslaughter and pressure mounted for the government to take action to regulate activity centres. Simon Jenkins, Devon's chief education officer, said at the time: "It is unbelievable that such centres are not regulated given the potential for putting young people at risk."

The government was initially in favour of a voluntary code, but caved in when the judge hearing the Peter Kite case commented: "Where parents and teachers send their children for activity holidays, the potential for injury or death is too obvious to be left for the inadequate vagaries of self regulation. "

Peter Kite was found guilty and sentenced to three years in jail. The government brought in the Activity Centres (Young Persons Safety) Actwhich allowed for the inspection and registration of activity centres. It is generally accepted that the industry has a good safety record. It is difficult to spot any pattern in the accidents that have occurred. In the lead-up to the new legislation the Health and Safety Executive inspected 311 centres and concluded that "the overall attitude of providers to safety was positive . . . the picture indicates a high level of safety awareness".

Most centres will have been inspected by the new licensing authority by the beginning of this summer's season. Tourism Quality Services based in Cardiff won the contract to administer the inspection scheme and is currently processing applications from the 1,000 or so centres that may need to be licensed. Marcus Baillie is the director of the inspection authority, the Adventurous Activities Licensing Association. Baillie is massively experienced and his appointment led to some relief in an industry which had been concerned that an outsider with little understanding of outdoor pursuits might be appointed.

The Arthog centre was one of the first to be inspected and John Pinder felt it was "professionally done and useful to the centre's programme of self assessment". It was awarded an unconditional licence, which means it can offer the full range of outdoor pursuits.

It is generally accepted that local education authority centres such as Arthog offer the highest standards. Its seven full-time staff are qualified teachers with an impressive range of qualifications in outdoor education. Arthog not only takes school groups but also trains instructors. The centre can equip clients aged between eight and 18 for the full range of activities - from wellies to wet suits. It spends #163;15,000 a year on equipment.

David Jamieson, MP for the Plymouth constituency where the Lyme Bay victims lived, lobbied for the new licensing system. He argues that the new Act "isn't going to wipe out all accidents, but it will address those areas where there has been negligence in the past".

But some feel that the legislation does not go far enough. Schools and voluntary organisations are not covered by the regulations and not all adventurous activities are included.

The Centre for Alternative Technology near Machynlleth in Wales offers residential weeks for schools. Activities include mountain walks and night lines (blindfolde d trails over, under and around obstacles), but as the regulations stand it has no need to register. The accident in 1995, when children from Stoke Poges Middle School in Buckinghamshire were swept from rocks to their deaths at Land's End, would not have been covered by the new regulations. Neither would an accident in Shropshire in which 11-year-old Hayley Hadfield died when she fell during a woodland walk. The centre concerned, Manor Adventure at Craven Arms, was prosecuted by the Health and Safety Executive.

Liverpool- based Mountain Ventures was prosecuted and fined #163;8,000 after 12-year-old Lyndsey Henderson fell 30ft into a quarry. Lyndsey was part of a group of pupils and teachers bivouacking overnight near the company's Bryn Dur Centre in Snowdonia. Lyndsey got up in the night and stepped over a low wall, not realising a cliff face was on the other side. She suffered a punctured lung and ruptured spleen, and broke several ribs. HSE staff felt Lindsey was lucky her group missed her so quickly. Without early medical attention she would have died. The two instructors with the group were qualified, but the teacher with the group, Graham Dorrett, told the trial neither he nor the pupils had been made aware of the potential dangers. This kind of night bivouac is not covered by the new regulations.

The National Union of Teachers argued during the consultation period that schools should be included. The union's general secretary Doug McAvoy wrote to the HSE arguing that schools offering adventurous activities for their own pupils "should be required to seek a licence if they are offering instructio n and leadership in an activity which would require the operator to seek a license if the activity was offered on a commercial basis".

The Consumers Association was also concerned: "All children are entitled to the same level of protection . . . the proposed regulations are not going to do the job parents expect. People are looking for a guarantee that a minimum standard of safety will be met."

Schools were not included in the legislation and there is no requirement for them to be licensed provided they are offering activities for their own pupils only. But the legislation does have implications for schools.

The detailed regulations are accompanied by guidance from the Health and Safety Executive. This sets out what benchmarks will be applied in the interpretation of the regulations. It covers definitions of activities, staffing ratios and appropriate qualifications.

Schools which offer adventurous activities will need to look at this document very carefully. Although schools do not have to register, there is a legal duty of care which implies that responsible authorities should make use of the best advice available. In any accident investigation it is likely schools would be judged on the basis of the advice in the guidance document. A key expectation is that centres should get expert advice from "competent persons" to assess the risk in the activities they offer. Schools may have staff qualified to lead adventurous activities, but few will have the expertise and experience required of a "competent person".

One consequence of the Act for schools will be the need to carry out risk assessments and to have these validated by a suitably qualified expert. There is already evidence that there is confusion about the scope of the new regulations.

PGL (Peter Gordon Lawrence) is the industry leader in commercial activity holidays with bases in England Wales and France. Centres abroad are not covered by the inspection regime and not all PGL's centres in the UK offer activities that would require registration. Yet Martin Hudson from PGL cites cases where headteachers have assumed all residential activity holidays were to be licensed. PGL is a member of the British Activity Holidays Associatio n, which welcomed the new regulations but is concerned that "good providers may be unable to obtain licenses because they are outside the scope of the Act".

The BAHA is so concerned about the possible confusion that it has set up an independent inspection regime. The Adventurous Activities Licensing Association is aware of the potential for misunderstanding the regulatory structure. Over the past few months AALA officials have been in discussion with activity providers not at present covered by the regulations, with a view to setting up a voluntary scheme. The Duke of Edinburgh's Award Scheme and the Scout Association have both been involved in the discussion s and AALA spokesman John Welsh Heron believes that a voluntary scheme will be operating before the year end.

Back at Arthog the pupils from the Martin Wilson Primary School in Shrewsbury are studying the water cycle on a walk in the shadow of Cader Idris with instructor Andy Meadows and teacher Helen Jones. Multilayered and muffled against the wind the children turn a corner to see the whole expanse of the valley open up before them. Shafts of light pierce the clouds and illuminate the fields and cliffs.

"Gawd Miss," says Suzy, "isn't it beautiful?"

Helen Jones turns to me. "That's why we do it, isn't it?"

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