Finger on the safety catch
Three months after the Lyme Bay canoeing tragedy, five Hampshire primary schools did something that many teachers and parents will find astonishing. They sent parties of children to the Dorset activity centre run by Active Learning and Leisure Ltd, the company that was last month found guilty of corporate manslaughter.
Whether it was the right thing to do in view of the subsequent conviction is open to question. But at the time no guilt had been proved and neither the schools nor the parents wanted to disappoint the children.
More importantly, they also had the reassurance that the land-based activities at the St Alban's centre had been checked out - before and after the deaths of the four Plymouth teenagers - by the county's inspector for outdoor education, Dane Oliver.
"I did find it surprising that they wanted to go ahead with the trips despite what had happened," he said last week. "But I would like to think that it reflects the confidence that they have in our system of checking.
"After my first visit in August 1992 I identified the improvements that would have to be made to the shooting, archery, and climbing facilities at the centre, as well as its problem-solving course, before any Hampshire group could be sent there. And when I returned in April 1993, within three weeks of the deaths, I found that all the work I had asked for had been done. As none of the five groups was planning to do water-based activities I did not inspect them. In any case, I would not have allowed any Hampshire group to go sailing there because the instructor-pupil ratio in that activity was inadequate."
In addition to scrutinising the centre, Dane Oliver also checked the instructors' qualifications and was able to give the schools the names of the staff he had vetted so that they could ensure that the correct instructor was looking after their children.
Such thoroughness is, however, standard practice in Hampshire, which is one of the very few LEAs to employ an officer like Dane Oliver, whose sole responsibility is to protect young people taking part in outdoor activities.
"Some counties have tried to reduce risk by producing a questionnaire for governors to send out to centres, but the task of answering them is proving intolerable to the centres," said Mr Oliver, who is a qualified mountain leader and the former PE inspector for Hampshire. "They end up with hundreds of letters and questionnaires from individual schools. And then there's the difficulty of knowing whether those schools which get a completed form back actually know how to interpret it.
"Instead, I send out an activity-specific questionnaire on behalf of all our schools which requires centres to make statements on instructor-pupil ratios, equipment etc. When it is returned I identify the activities that conform with Hampshire regulations and send the centre a note specifying the activities that can be done by our children. I also tell the centre that I am lodging a copy of my letter with the county legal department and I follow up that letter with a visit. Nobody is nodded through in the interests of expediency because I have to be able to look parents in the eye and say that their kids are being looked after by competent people. The centres are quite satisfied with this system, however, because it means they only have to deal with one inspector."
Dane Oliver and his small team of administrative staff at the county education offices in Winchester Castle logged no fewer than 2,748 trips in 1993, involving 25,000 children - surprisingly high figures given the Lyme Bay tragedy and widespread publicity on the dangers posed by outdoor activity centres. "You can compare these figures with those of some authorities where nobody has an accident because nobody ever goes anywhere," he said.
However, there are some clouds on his horizon. The biggest is the plan to break Hampshire up into three unitary authorities - Southampton, Portsmouth and the New Forest - and a two-tier county of nearly one million people. Dane Oliver fears that a new Southampton authority would absorb outdoor centres into its leisure department - Hampshire has eight outdoor activity centres and three field studies centres - and would try to make them commercially viable.
"Until now Hampshire has maintained a policy of not charging its schools for day use of the centres but that must be in jeopardy now. There is also a danger that the pay rates that attract properly qualified teachers will be reduced - seasonal staff at commercial centres are being paid only Pounds 60-Pounds 70 a week 'all found' whereas the local authority staff earn perhaps twice that much. That will be a tragedy because the great strength of these centres lies in the quality of the permanent staff. We will be seeing the removal of any sort of continuity."
His face becomes flushed with anger as he anticipates that scenario. And he is equally frustrated with the Government for refusing to introduce a statutory inspection and accreditation scheme for outdoor centres.
"I call their policy the Pontius Pilate approach," he said. "As there's no mandatory checking, the articles of government have been changed to make it clear that it's the schools' responsibility, even if they do not have the expertise. I think it's immoral."
Most of the centres that he visits are safely run, but he has seen enough bad practice to know why a national inspection scheme is needed. Touring one centre with its manager he suddenly realised that a gun which should have been pointing at the rifle range was actually being aimed at their heads.
"I said to the manager: 'I don't want to alarm you but a boy is pointing a rifle at your left eye'. I suggest we step back."
The hapless manager was even more embarrassed when Mr Oliver discovered that children doing scuba-diving in the centre's pool could have been struck by any arrow from the archery range that was more than 30 degrees off target.
"On another occasion I checked out a centre endorsed by the Wales Tourist Board," he said. "Although it was approved to teach sailing there was no one on the staff who was qualified in this activity. It was also approved for climbing but there was only one person who had a single-pitch supervisors' award (the basic qualification for rock-climbing instructors).
"Eventually, it was agreed that certain activities would only take place if a named, qualified instructor was supervising any Hampshire groups. It would have meant that other clients would not have had qualified instruction, but at the end of the day you look after your own. Under the present system that's all you can do."