Adventures in the great outdoors
For any teacher planning a field trip or outdoor expedition for pupils, these are worrying times. Accidents are comparatively rare, but a series of recent well-publicised deaths has ensured that the public is well aware of the dangers of skiing, climbing or even hiking while in the care of others.
In 2001, Rochelle Cauvet, 14, and Hannah Black, 13, were killed "river walking" in the Yorkshire Dales, swept away by a swollen tributary of the River Ribble. In 2000, the Scout Association was forced to overhaul its outdoor activity rules after two of its members were killed within weeks of each other in the Welsh mountains.
Then, last month, a 42-year-old geography teacher, Paul Ellis, was jailed for manslaughter. Ellis was accused of "unbelievably negligent and foolhardy behaviour" after the death of 10-year-old Max Palmer, killed by a raging stream at Glenridding in the Lake District. Such is the concern that the second largest classroom union, the NASUWT, is advising its members not to take part in such trips "until society accepts the notion of a genuine accident".
In this context, agreeing to take a group of children with special educational needs to Snowdonia seems particularly brave. Nine students from Years 10 and 11 at Glebe School in West Wickham, Kent, have just returned from a three-day expedition to the Ogwyn Valley, near Capel Curig, where they experienced a programme of climbing, canoeing and dry-slope skiing.
Glebe's strategy was not just to conduct a comprehensive risk assessment, but to get the teenagers to do much of it themselves. It proved a more than useful exercise.
Glebe is categorised as a school for pupils with moderate learning difficulties, but, according to Martin Crabbe, the teacher in charge, they were able to talk in straightforward terms about what could go wrong and what could be done beforehand to prevent accidents. "One of the things we have learned is that the more the pupils are involved, the more they understand. I have never got them involved in risk assessment before."
Glebe students are not children whose disability or vulnerability is obvious. "Moderate learning difficulties" tends to mean they need help with reading and writing, and the Year 10 group on the expedition are probably at the higher end of the school's achieving spectrum. Some also have behavioural weaknesses, but the trip seemed to bring out the best in pupils who struggle in the classroom but often seem quite at home in other activities. "I was very impressed by their behaviour. When they knew it was time really to be serious, they behaved really well."
The school is extremely careful about which groups it takes, and is prepared to cancel trips at short notice, particularly if the weather is threatening. Glebe has built up a great deal of experience with outdoor work. In the past year there have been trips to France and the Chilterns, and several students used the Capel Curig expedition in the Duke of Edinburgh award scheme.
The school takes field trips very seriously; there was even a formal debrief after this one at the Kensington Gore headquarters of the Royal Geographical Society, whose rooms have been used to prepare generations of expeditions - including Hillary and Tenzing's successful assault on Everest 50 years ago. The meeting was hosted by the Expedition Advisory Service of the RGS, which offers free advice, information and training to RGS fellows planning expeditions. The EAS normally works with schools planning trips abroad, but is developing an interest in teachers working with additional educational needs, who can find it hard to get insurance for trips or the appropriate curriculum material. There is now a special section of the RGS website offering contacts and advice. "Those new to working with a particular need may be uncertain about how to go forward, and our network can help put them in touch with people who have experience," explains Shane Winser, who runs the EAS.
The Capel Curig trip, particularly the skiing, was a hit with almost all of the students, despite their eight-hour minibus journey, and they were keen to go back another time, with increased independence. Using a professional climbing wall and depending on the judgment of a partner on the other end of the rope had also been challenging.
There was another point to the trip. The OCR exam board (formerly the Oxford and Cambridge group) has chosen Glebe as a pilot school for a new GCSE geography course which features a more substantial practical option.
The new syllabus is known as a "hybrid", comprising two different styles of qualification. The first part is examination based, concentrating on a few key geographical concepts in depth, including extreme environments and "consumption". This qualifies the students for a short-coursecertificate.
Then, in the second year, they can choose between practical or academic options - although the short course itself can be fairly practical, as Glebe has discovered. The traditional GCSE has tended to cover a great deal of academic ground quickly, whereas the new pilot course allows students to take time on topics, such as the make-up of their immediate locality, which for Glebe School is ideal.
In the first year, students have the choice of three extreme terrains to study: mountains, desert and polar regions. Glebe pupils were given the choice and - in a way fortunately - opted to study mountains. "It's far easier for them to get to," says Martin Crabbe. "Some schools can afford to go to southern Spain or Morocco and look at semi-desert areas, but our pupils don't have that kind of money." The polar icecap was out of the question.
"The idea, really, was just to have a look at the context for the work. It wasn't to go and research the area, to look at glaciation or anything like that. It was so that when they do the work back in class they have something to refer to. They loved it, but it's not for everybody."
He knows that some of the students may not get any grade at all at GCSE.
But, whatever the academic outcomes and the (remote) risk of physical danger, Glebe will continue to put well-run field trips at the heart of its school life.