Editorial - From cotton wool to crash helmets

22nd May 2009 at 01:00
Guidance for handling thrill-seeking teens is welcome, but resources may be an issue

Whitsun has arrived and school trip season will soon be in full swing. But will the timely publication of safety guidance for educational visits offer peace of mind or cause panic among teachers organising this year's outings (page 1)?

At first glance, the 200-page document is utterly daunting. The government's stated aim might be to stop children being wrapped in cotton wool, but after reading this epic document schools could be forgiven for wanting to go out and stockpile crash helmets and bulletproof vests instead.

It must be acknowledged that times have changed since children ventured to Barry Island once a year and sat around building sandcastles, drinking fizzy pop and eating soggy jam sandwiches. In fact, far from being a cotton-wool generation, young people are increasingly involved in high-octane activities, from white-knuckle rides at theme parks to bungee jumping, windsurfing and pot-holing. They may have been banned from climbing trees, conkers contests or playing in the street, but the majority are still adrenalin junkies.

It is important, as society becomes more litigious and teenagers seek out ever-more exciting thrills, that teachers in Wales should have some guidance to turn to. It is also vital that every adult supervisor should be trained in any activity undertaken by the young people in their care.

The burden of responsibility on teachers running school trips has never been greater. If it is not the fear of a child choking on their own vomit after drinking too much alcohol, it's the dread of a teenager tomb-stoning off a 30ft cliff when your back is turned. Not many would envy a teacher the job of looking after a party of fun-seeking, excitable teenagers out to have a good time.

A spate of tragic teenage drowning incidents on school and college trips in the 1990s and earlier this decade demonstrate how easily things can go wrong. These deaths certainly made those in the education profession more cautious. And who can blame them? A single error of judgment and a school trip could end in tragedy, the life of the teacher responsible left in tatters.

This new guidance will bring greater consistency and clarity to the mind-boggling administration of school outings. The document looks worse than it actually is. On the whole, it advocates common-sense precautions that most teachers probably already take.

But there could be potential spoilers for school trips of the future. As the "rarely cover" rule comes into force this September as part of the 2003 workforce deal, how will schools be able to afford the staff to cover colleagues out on school trips?

Also, will teachers resent the new advice to drop the cotton-wool culture when they are in the firing line if something goes wrong? Ironically, as the government goes on a mission to introduce young people to the great outdoors, schools might have to restrict the horizon-broadening experiences they offer pupils - not only for safety reasons, but for their own self-protection.

Nicola Porter, Editor, TES Cymru E nicola.porter@tes.co.uk.

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