Know your ropes

24th September 2004 at 01:00
The right training is essential for staff on school trips. Phil Revell explains the options

Everyone recognises that outdoor and adventure activities are valuable, but how can schools make the experience affordable for pupils? A few days stay at an outdoor centre can cost hundreds of pounds. If teachers want to make the experience part of the school's core curriculum, as many experts argue they should, then cost is a big hurdle to be overcome. One way around the problem is to run the activities in-house, by school staff qualified to lead in the outdoors.

Old Swinford Hospital school in Stourbridge, West Midlands runs a huge range of activities. It's a state boarding school and staff have to keep active teenagers busy seven days a week. Mike Beal is the activities co-ordinator. "Somebody is out with the kids every weekend," he says. "We have an adventure week every summer. This year, one group were cruising around the south coast. Almost every member of staff is involved. Only the senior management team will be left at school."

But Mr Beal wants staff who lead these activities to have had proper training. "This year, one teacher took a group canal boating. He is a very experienced boater, but I still wanted him to take the inland waterways certificate of competence."

Mr Beal is qualified in three disciplines: dinghy sailing, power boating, and clay shooting, where he holds the shooting safety officer's certificate. Other Old Swinford staff have rock climbing qualifications.

Even so, the school still uses specialist centres. "That's not just about safety, it's about a better quality experience."

Having qualified staff can lead to savings, even at an outdoor centre. It means that school staff may be able to lead or assist with some of the activities.

Another option is for staff staying at a youth hostel or campsite to buy in a qualified instructor to assist them with an activity. The Adventurous Activities Licensing Authority can advise on suitably qualified people in every region.

Most of the outdoor leadership awards come from the various governing bodies that regulate the sports. For hill walking and climbing, that is the Mountain Leadership Training Board. Their base level qualification is the walking group leaders award, suitable for open country walking, but not for "steep ground". For mountains and cliff tops, the board recommend the mountain leader award, which takes some time to work through.

For teachers who only want to take a group open country walking or on the Duke of Edinburgh bronze programme, there is the basic expedition leaders award run by the British Sports Trust.

Many of the fatalities that have shocked teachers and parents over the past 10 years have involved water. No teacher should allow a group to swim in any location without having checked its suitability and ensured adequate numbers of qualified lifesavers. The Royal Life Saving Society's bronze award is the baseline here.

On the water, the two main governing bodies are the Royal Yachting Association and the British Canoe Union. The association's entry qualification is the dinghy instructors' award, while the union runs various leadership awards depending on whether groups will be on placid or moving water, or the sea. Both governing bodies recommend that teachers take their groups to approved centres for professional instruction and supervision.

Teachers can qualify to lead mountain bike trips with the Off-road Training Consultancy (OTC). Their national mountain bike leader scheme is a recognised award and is available at a variety of outdoor centres. British Cycling runs a separate award for road bikers, the activity coach award.

Winter sports are a grey area for many schools. The trips take place outside the UK and are nearly always with a commercial provider. Teachers assume that everything will be covered. But many school ski operators provide morning instruction only. In the afternoon, teachers are allowed to lead groups on easy slopes. Yet skiing and snowboarding are potentially dangerous activities and leaders should have had some preparation. To become a ski instructor is a long and difficult process, but the English Ski Council does run more manageable courses for teachers.

For more general training for school leaders who may be organising a city visit or language exchange, there is OCR's certificate in off-site safety management, a level 3 qualification, which does exactly what it says.

Whatever qualification teachers are interested in, it is worth remembering that expertise dates very quickly. People need to keep their training up-to-date and periodically validate their school's safety systems with an outside expert - possibly the local education authority adviser.

Finally, it's worth remembering that the drive to the venue is statistically the most dangerous part of any trip. Is your driving up to standard? Minibus manufacturers such as Ford and LDV offer driver training when you buy a new bus but, amazingly, not all schools take up the offer.

Training is also available from local branches of the Institute for Advanced Motorists.

Government advice can be found at listing for outdoor activity centres that have been inspected and licensed can be found at the Adventurous Activities Licensing Authority website:

Who offers training

On the water

British Canoe Union:

Royal Yachting Association:

In the water

Royal Lifesaving Association:

Walking and climbing

Mountain Leader Training Board:

British Sports Trust:

Winter sports

British Snowsports Association:

English Ski Council:

General training in safe leadership

Cycling and mountain biking

British Cycling:

Offroad Training Consultancy:


Institute of Advanced Motorists:


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