A new study says adventure trips for pupils have many benefits and are generally very safe. Phil Revell reports
Heads who refused to abandon adventurous school trips, despite headline-grabbing fears over safety, have been vindicated by a parliamentary report which says the risks have been overstated.
"Many (schools) are deterred by the false perception that a high degree of risk attaches to outdoor education," said the education select committee report.
The committee wants much stronger guidance from the Department for Education and Skills, including a manifesto for outdoor education, and it raised concerns about the bureaucracy surrounding school trip planning, which deters many schools.
At Calder high school near Halifax, teachers who regularly take children on challenging trips agreed with the conclusions. Last year the school's geography department took a group into the cave complex at Ingleborough.
"Of course this involves us in some risk-taking, but the systems in place for risk assessment are both professional and thought-provoking," says head of department Tina Smith.
"These experiences are of immense value," says headteacher Stephen Ball.
"And when a risk assessment has been carried out thoroughly then teachers are protected."
That view is echoed at Arthur Terry high school in Birmingham, where trips with Outward Bound are used to build a sense of team-working among Year 7 pupils. "It has a big impact. Our ambition is to take the entire cohort," says assistant head Sue Bailey.
The school offers to pay for pupils who cannot afford the trip. Head Chris Stone believes the investment pays off in terms of personal development, but there is a more tangible payback.
"Our work on value-added scores shows that children who go on these trips go on to be more successful in lessons," he says.
The report reveals that accidents are extremely rare, and teachers are unlikely to appear in court even if there has been a fatality. There has been one death in the past 18 months. Deaths over the past 15 years have averaged two or three a year - figures inflated by just two horrific incidents in 1993: a minibus crash and the Lyme Bay canoeing disaster (see box, right).
But even if schools can be reassured about the levels of danger, the perception that outings will involve hours of risk-assessment form-filling may still prevent trips taking place.
The select committee heard about one school where a teacher was expected to complete 16 pages of forms before visiting a bird sanctuary. Outdoor education providers complain about multiple overlapping inspections and local authorities that demand safety information using different forms and standards.
In many schools, teachers are concerned about the workload involved in preparing for a trip and the possible consequences of an accident. This has been the basis for the National Association of Schoolmasters Union of Women Teachers' long-standing advice to its members not to lead school trips.
But Ian Park, the outdoor education adviser for Buckinghamshire and chair of the national outdoor education advisers panel, says: "In Bucks forms amount to two sides of A4.
"If schools are using a commercial centre they simply have to check that risk assessments have been carried out - and they don't have to do their own risk assessment for activities that will be led by trained instructors."
Mr Park's own research suggests that the widely-held perception of the decline in school trips is another myth, despite its inclusion in the select committee report.
A DfES estimate of 7 million pupil days a year is just that - an estimate.
But new procedures have allowed local authorities to assess accurately how many trips are being run.
"There were half-a-million pupil days out in Bucks last year," says Mr Park. Extrapolated across the country, that would give a figure of 20-25m pupil days per year, triple the DfES figure.
Mr Park has polled his adviser colleagues on the issue and few report an overall decline - quite the reverse. And outdoor education providers also fail to support the contention that trips are on the wane. PGL-3D, one of the biggest companies in the market, reports that business is very healthy.
But Tony Thomas, chief executive of the Field Studies Council, which runs a network of study centres across the UK, says: "Together with the Youth Hostelling Association we have seen a reduction in bookings of 33 per cent for 2005."
It appears that curriculum-related field trips are in decline, possibly being replaced by adventure trips focusing on personal development, or end-of-term "reward" trips to leisure spots such as Alton Towers.
Some outdoor education providers would like the Government to promote the curriculum benefits of the more traditional school visit.
The FSC is part of the Real World Learning campaign, which includes the National Trust and other outdoor learning organisations. It has been pressing the Government for the kind of reforms suggested by the select committee.
It wants a government manifesto for outdoor education and may be leaning on an open door. The first meeting to discuss this with the outdoor community took place last week, just a day after the MPs' report went public.
In Birmingham, Chris Stone felt the main threat came from the workforce agreement. From September there will be strict limits on the time that schools can expect teachers to spend covering for colleagues. Yet term-time trips will involve cover.
"We are a workforce remodelling pilot for the authority," he says. "But the increased cover costs are forcing us to look for ways to manage this without passing the costs on to parents. That's a bigger threat than concerns about safety."
The outdoor education community is looking for more than warm words. A residential experience for every child has been its long-held ambition.
"If the Government adopts these proposals, it will be the first step to making out-of-classroom learning a right for every child, and we'd certainly welcome that," says Tony Thomas.
* 1993. Four sixth-formers die in a canoeing accident in Dorset's Lyme Bay.
* 1995. The Government creates the adventurous activities licensing authority.
* 1998. The DfES issues health and safety policy on educational visits.
* 2000. Two Leeds schoolgirls die while "river walking" on a school trip.
Leeds local education authority is prosecuted by the Health and Safety Executive.
The National Association of Schoolmasters Union of Women Teachers advises its members not to lead trips.
* 2003. Geography teacher Paul Ellis is jailed for manslaughter after a nine-year-old boy dies on a trip.
More detailed safety guidance published by the DfES. Schools told to appoint educational visit co-ordinators for trips.