Calm waters

26th August 2005 at 01:00
Preparation is the key if you're taking pupils on wet pursuits. Gerald Haigh

Imagine you have a group of children on a bug hunt in a nature reserve.

Before you know where you are, three of them are out of sight round the bend ahead. It's a moment or two before you notice, but eventually you walk quickly forward only to meet two of them running back. It seems they've found a little pond. They're looking for tadpoles, but Gemma's fallen in.

Could you cope with that? Are you trained and qualified?

According to Lifesavers (the Royal Lifesaving Society) the most important qualification you need is enough understanding and experience to know that the incident shouldn't have happened in the first place. A preliminary visit and a talk to the rangers on the spot would have got the little pond on to the risk assessment agenda. The Lifesavers leaflet "Group Safety at Water Margins" says you should always check out a venue before you go with a group. If a pre-visit is not possible, then the group leader should get information in other ways so you're adequately prepared for the visit.

The leaflet isn't about how best to plunge in and rescue someone. It's for adults, including teachers, who take children near to water: pond dipping, towpath walking, doing beach studies. It's one of numerous initiatives by the organisation aimed at reassuring teachers that, with good planning and realistic risk assessment, there's no reason why teachers should hold back from taking children on trips and outings.

"There are thousands of school trips going on every year and they happen without anything going wrong. As it is we're in danger of bringing up a generation of children who don't know anything beyond the blackboard," says Adrian Lole, the society's development director. "An important part of good planning is sticking to the plan once it's made, and that means being prepared for something different - if the weather changes, for example. On a properly organised trip there's always a plan B and a plan C. There shouldn't be any unknowns out there."

The most dramatic example of what can happen came to light earlier this year at the inquest on 16-year-old Herve Bola. Herve drowned on a 2002 residential trip with Redbridge Youth Service to the authority's outdoor centre in South Wales. He was with a small group who, after a day of abseiling with their teachers and instructors, were allowed to jump into a two-metre deep natural pool to cool off. Herve was immediately in trouble and, despite everyone's efforts, drowned. The inquest jury returned a verdict of unlawful killing.

The National Union of Teachers was deeply disturbed by the verdict. Gethin Lewis of NUT Cymru believes it will deter teachers, youth workers and others from providing young people with "valuable educational and social opportunities".

Solicitor Louise Christian, who represented the Bola family at the inquest, says that it's wrong for the profession to think that Herve's case undermines teachers. "It's dangerous to come out with the reaction that no kids will be able to go on trips. This was a death which was preventable; nobody should be deterred."

But schools can be confident about children and water. Children at Fladbury first school, right by the River Avon in Worcestershire, go out on the river paddling and racing in "bell boats". The ultra-safe crafts, devised by Olympic canoeing coach David Train, consist of two big and stable canoes fastened together side by side with a platform between.

"We do risk assessments, we only use qualified people and of course we have parental permission," says headteacher Ann Embury. "The river here is placid, too. I wouldn't want to do it on the Severn."

But what really keeps Fladbury children safe on their bell boats is the fact that they are subject to school routines and rules. "The most important thing is the discipline of the children," says Ann Embury. "We have high expectations of behaviour and strict guidelines. They know how to behave and listen to instructions."

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