How can we stop these tragedies?

13th July 2001 at 01:00
Are schools doing enough to prevent tragedies such as the drowning of Bunmi Shagaya? Phil Revell reports

The death of 11-year-old Bunmi Shagaya on a school journey to Dieppe has reopened the debate about the safety precautions taken by the organisers of educational trips.

Hundreds of thousands of children take part in school visits and trips each year - and the vast majority return home safely. But the death of Bunmi - the fifth English girl to die on a school journey in 18 months - has led to renewed calls for tougher safety measures. Many of the deaths that have occurred in recent years have involved water, and Val Sumner, spokeswoman for the Royal Life Saving Society, is in no doubt that specialist training is required for teachers who supervise children swimming on school trips.

"Teachers may be brilliant in the classroom," she says, "but what qualifications and experience do they have to take children off-site? When children swim on school trips it is often in the sea or in open water - the most dangerous places to swim. The ability to swim in a public pool is not a guide to how a child would cope in the sea."

Many local authorities accept the RLSS bronze medallion as a suitable qualification for party leaders but even Mrs Sumner questions whether it is suitable for teachers leading school trips. "The bronze medallion course teaches rescue skills," says Mrs Sumner, "whereas what a group leader needs are prevention strategies. It's about observation, awareness and intervention."

Marcus Baillie, chief inspector of the Adventure Activities Licensing Authority, argues that there is no such thing as a risk-free journey - something that schools need to make clear to parents. "I would encourage schools not to hide the risks," he says. "Parents are adults - don't tell them how safe everything is - educate them about the risks."

The AALA was set up after the Lyme Bay tragedy in 1993, when four teenagers drowned. Commercial providers of specified adventure activities are subject to inspection by the AALA, but schools and voluntary organisations are outside the scheme. The organisation's remit is due to be reviewed in 2002, but a flurry of legal cases over the next few months could lead the Department for Education and Skills to bring the review forward.

Manslaughter charges could be brought against the teachers accompanying Rochelle Cauvet and Hannah Black who died while "gorge walking" in Yorkshire last October with a party from Royds school, Oulton. Sixty-four-year-old Paul Dove also faces a possible court case over the drowning of nine-year-old Elizabeth Bee in September 1999. The Hampshire teacher was at the helm of a dinghy said to be "grossly overloaded" when it capsized in Portsmouth harbour; the Crown Prosecution Service is considering a prosecution under maritime law.

These cases reinforce the view held by many in the adventure activities industry that it is time for schools and voluntary organisations such as the Scouts to be brought under the AALA's control. "The tragedy of licensing," says Peter Barnes, who runs the outdoor education programme at the University of Central Lancashire's Cumbria campus, "is that it has not saved a single life."

He argues that high-risk trips have always been those run by schools and voluntary agencies, where training and risk awareness is often below the standard expected by professional providers.

Many people believe it is not feasible to inspect every school and voluntary organisation running trips and activities. Some would therefore like to see the AALA set up a registration system that would demand minimum safety standards. Such a register could avoid the current anomaly, where some activities require inspection while others do not. Swimming, despite its recognised high risk, is not currently a licensable activity.

But the Local Government Association points out the practical difficulties involved. "Which school trips would be included?" asks a spokesperson. The LGA argues that safety on school journeys is much more to do with ensuring that current guidance is followed by schools.

Most local education authorities offer guidance on pupil-teacher ratios, risk assessments and suitable qualifications for party leaders. But there is currently nothing in law that requires a school to inform its LEA about trips undertaken.

One solution would be for the Government to give LEAs powers to require schools to have effective policies for school journeys. "If LEAs were required to approve school-trip policies they would take that responsibility very seriously indeed," says the LGA spokesperson.

School trips Police divers bring Bunmi's body to shore. She was found in shallow water less than 10 metres from where she was last seen


July 2001: Bunmi Shagaya, 11, drowns while on a trip to Lac de Caniel near Dieppe with classmates from Hillmead primary school, Brixton. The following day, Yunus Ismail Moola, a 17-year-old student at Gloucestershire Central Technology College, drowns in a Worcestershire quarry during an end-of-term barbeque.

April 2001: Art teacher Joanne Tanner, 24, from St Sampson's secondary school in Guernsey dies in the French resort of Valloire after skiing into a padded marker-post.

February 2001: Nasreen Jamalzadeh, 15, from Ursuline high school in Wimbledon, dies after being thrown from a toboggan in the Austrian Alps.

October 2000: Rochelle Cauvet, 14, and Hannah Black, 13, from Royds School in Oulton, near Leeds, are swept away while "river-walking" across the Stainforth Beck near Settle, north Yorkshire.

January 2000: Rachel Williams, 15, from Hayle community school, Cornwall, dies after skiing into a tree in Heavenly Valley, Nevada.

August 2000: Craig Norsworthy, 15, from Edinburgh, is killed when a coach carrying 38 youngsters careers off a road near Paris.

September 1999: Elizabeth Bee, 9, from Hampshire, drowns after becoming trapped under a capsized boat during a trip to Portsmouth harbour with Boundary Oak School.

June 1999: Gemma Carter, 13, from Cockburn high school, Leeds, drowns while paddling on a school trip to Le Touquet, France.

July 1997: Nicola Moore, 16, Robert Boardman, 14, and Keith Ridding, 14, from St James high school in Bolton, Lancashire, die when their coach leaves a road near Albertville in the French Alps.

July 1997: Adil Naseem, 11, from Hounslow, Middlesex, drowns on a day trip to an activity centre in Buckinghamshire, with Feltham Hill school.

July 1996: Caroline Dickinson, 13, of Launceston community college, Cornwall, is raped and murdered in a Brittany youth hostel.

June 1996: Richard Barber, 13, from Ladderbanks middle school, Baildon, West Yorkshire, is found dead in a waterfall pool on a school trip to Buckden House, an outdoor education centre in the Yorkshire Dales.

May 1995: Joan Whitehall, 47, secretary at Walter Hall junior school in Mapperley, Nottingham, is dragged to her death after slipping from a barge taking pupils on a trip along the Grand Union Canal at Erdington, Birmingham.

March 1993: Four teenagers from Southway comprehensive in Plymouth drown on a canoeing trip across Lyme Bay, Dorset.

November 1993: a teacher and 12 schoolchildren from Hagley RC high school in Stourbridge, near Birmingham, die in a minibus crash on the M40 after attending the Schools Proms in London.

October 1988: Vivienne Barley, 14, and history teacher Bernard Butt, 41, both of TP Riley school in Walsall, West Midlands, are killed when their cruise ship sinks after a collision with a freighter near Piraens, Greece.

April 1988: Lee Powell, 15, Andrew Watts, Daniel Howton, 14, and Michael Taylor, 13, fall more than 250ft to their deaths on a trip in the Austrian Alps with Altwood CofE school, Maidenhead, Berkshire.

May 1985: Ricci Lamden and James Holloway, 11, Nicholas Hurst, 10, and Robert Ankers, 12, from Stoke Poges middle school, Buckinghamshire, drown after being swept out to sea while exploring rocks near Land's End.


DFES guidance on school trips can be found at Water safety advice for teachers can be found at The Royal Life Saving Society's website, with details of water safety and lifesaving courses, is AALA 029 20 755715 or see

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