Know your rights

21st March 2003 at 00:00
The Government has introduced new measures to make school trips safer. Susannah Kirkman reports

School trips are a major worry for teachers. In the wake of one of the latest tragedies, when two Leeds schoolgirls were drowned on a river walk during a trip to the Yorkshire Dales, Leeds City Council has been fined pound;30,000 after admitting to inadequate safety measures. The family of one of the teenagers is also considering a civil prosecution, saying that the teachers in charge were partly to blame.

One of teachers' main fears is that they will be prosecuted if something goes wrong, says Ken McAdam, member adviser for the Association of Teachers and Lecturers. In fact, if you are acting in the course of your duties, your employer will be held responsible and you will be covered by their individual liability insurance.

But there is plenty you can do to prevent accidents and ensure that the trip goes smoothly. Your priority should be to make sure you follow the procedures recommended by your local education authority and to become acquainted with the new guidelines from the Department for Education and Skills.

The Government is beefing up safety procedures by recommending that every school in England has an education visits co-ordinator (EVC) to oversee the planning of trips and the training of leaders. Training for the new co-ordinators should start soon. The DfES has also issued two extra booklets for teachers as supplements to its good practice guide.

The first, Standards for Adventure, explains the role of the EVC and leaders' responsibilities. For low-risk activities, such as a walk in the park, off-site leaders and supervisors will only have to show that they have experience in organising this type of visit. But for specialist activities such as canoeing or skiing, teachers should have relevant qualifications from an adventure licensing authority such as the British Canoe Union or the English Ski Council. Local authorities will use outdoor education and technical advisers to check that teachers have the right qualifications.

The EVC will also help group leaders to carry out a risk assessment of any out-of-school activity. The failure to make an adequate risk assessment was one of the causes of the Yorkshire Dales tragedy , according to the prosecution case for the Health and Safety Executive.

The second booklet, A Handbook for Group Leaders, says that risk assessment doesn't end when the trip begins; it should be revised in line with changes to the itinerary, staff illness or the weather.The Leeds school party set out to tackle Stainforth Beck after heavy rain, although the stream was notorious for rising rapidly after bad weather. The handbook specifically advises teachers to check the local weather forecast and "seek local knowledge of potential hazards".

Another useful tip is to ensure that pupils' medical needs are known in advance and that staff are competent to handle them. If a child suffers anaphylactic shock or goes into a diabetic coma, have teachers agreed the correct procedures with parents and do they know how to carry them out?

Specific recommendations for residential visits include locking external doors and closing windows if there are no night-time reception staff.

"Don't be lulled into a false sense of security by local assurances, such as 'there is no need to lock doors in this part of the country'," the guide warns.

Despite the potential pitfalls and the occasional high-profile tragedy, the ATL reports that its members have not been put off organising outside trips, which they see as an important enrichment of pupils' education.

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