It should have been a lovely day out to Alton Towers. Instead, a school coach crashed in "horrendous" weather conditions, leaving a teenage girl dead. A snowfall in spring may have been unexpected, but it also led parents to question whether the trip should have gone ahead in the first place. But cancelling a visit is always fraught with difficulties.
On a seperate occasion, Mark Simpson* was "uncomfortable" leading a school trip to Paris in February, when there was thick snow on the roads, but felt compelled to carry on regardless. "Even though the coach had snow tyres, we skidded quite badly on the motorway," Mr Simpson says of the three-hour drive to Dover. "I was incredibly nervous. I knew it was unsafe to travel."
So why didn't he pull the plug on the outing? Chiefly because parents had already coughed up pound;270 for the four-day trip and there was no guarantee that they would get their money back.
"I was told that the insurance would only kick in if the Department of Transport declared it unsafe to travel, which hardly ever happens," Mr Simpson adds. "I felt I had to run the trip against my better judgment."
Dangerous driving conditions are not confined to winter, or even to freak spring snowstorms. Heavy rain and flash flooding are perennial hazards. So what should you do if you think a seemingly innocuous trip could turn dangerous?
Philip Parkin, general secretary of the Voice teachers' union, says safety must come first. "Are parents more willing to risk losing their children than losing money?" he asks. "Decisions have to be made after taking well- researched advice, but be prepared to be unpopular."
Tap into local knowledge, such as the police, the Met Office, the NHS or local news sources, he suggests. Consult the insurance policy as well, or contact the policy holders or parents themselves for advice.
Ultimately your decision could end up leaving parents out of pocket, but balanced against the possible financial loss is your common law duty of care to act like any reasonably prudent parent. This means you could leave yourself open to legal action if you decide to go ahead with a trip despite advice to the contrary.
From a refund perspective, much depends on the insurance policy in force, says Ian Pearson, safety manager for NST Travel Group.
The school's or the tour operator's travel insurance may well cover a flight cancellation, delay or emergency expenses, but a "disinclination to travel" rarely has financial protection.
"In my experience, most policies do not give cover for cancellation due to cold or severe weather conditions," says Keith Sharkey, managing director of Halsbury Travel. Instead, the coach operator may suggest postponing the trip.
Mr Pearson agrees that tour operators want to help schools if at all possible. "We are looking for a lifetime relationship with a school, which means we would rather reimburse or re-schedule a trip than hang them out to dry," he says.
Re-scheduling is not always practical, and in any case you may have to make a decision before you know whether you will be refunded. In such cases, your best bet may be to rely on having an understanding tour operator.
That is why schools need to think about contingency plans before the day itself, says David Brierley, Voice's solicitor and health and safety specialist. "Information should be given to parents so that they are aware of any financial risk," he says. "Safe travel is as important as the safety of each of the activities once the children are there."
So make bad weather, pupil illness or any other "deal-breakers" an integral part of the initial risk assessment.
It is also worth checking what the existing school insurance already covers. Many risks will automatically be included, but additional cover may be required if a gap in provision is spotted. Group leaders are bound to feel more confident about making changes if a pre-assessed plan B is available.
* Name has been changed
What you should do
- Check the school's insurance policy for any potential risks.
- Check that the tour operator's insurance is adequate, especially for public liability, motor insurance and risk of bankruptcy.
- Make sure parents have been told about the risks and the extent of the cover. If necessary, suggest they take out their own travel insurance.