Late last year the Department for Education and Employment issued new advice to teachers on the management of health and safety on school visits.
Schools Minister Charles Clarke said: "This guidance reflects and spreads the existing good practice. It will ensure that pupils on school trips are as safe as possible, by being an invaluable resource for any teacher planning a school trip. It offers a wealth of sound advice on how to prepare for every type of school trip from residential visits and field studies in the local park to foreign travel and adventure activities."
For once, the ministerial self-congratulation was well justified. This is excellent guidance, which, if followed, will ensure that trips and visits go ahead without being followed by the kind of headlines we have seen in the past few years.
The vast majority of school trips proceed without incident and there are those who believe that exciting and adventurous activities for children have been curtailed in a culture of fear and foreboding based on a few high profile accidents. Certainly children are in far more danger crossing the road than they are on a school trip, and last year there were more children killed and injured on fairgrounds, which are not routinely inspected, than on adventure holidays, which are.
But a series of accidents, ranging from the Lyme bay disaster, when four young teenagers lost their lives on a canoeing expedition, to drownings where staff present had no lifesaving qualifications, led first to adventure activities being licensed and inspected and now to this new guidance.
The guidance sets out everyone's responsibilities very clearly; from the governing body and the head down to the party leader and the parent along for the ride. It makes it clear that a full risk assessment must be carried out before the trip. This should anticipate possible hazards, detail necessary safety precautions and state what action would be taken in an emergency.
The guidance gives advice on staff-pupil ratios, on vetting the suitability of parent volunteers, on preparing pupils for the experience and on giving information to parents. Where schools run their own adventurous activities, canoeing, mountain walking, climbing or sailing, the guidance makes it clear that supervising teachers should have appropriate and up-to-date qualifications. There's some excellent advice on group travel outside the UK and a good section on emergency procedures. There are also sample forms which schools could adopt for their own use.
Some teachers will resent the additional work involved in risk assessment and preparation. But children have died on poorly supervised swimming expeditions, on adventure holidays led by unqualified staff, and on foreign trips where local standards didn't match those in the UK - those lives would have been saved by the advice in this document.
The guidance is not law, though it covers legal requirements in a number of Acts ranging from the Health and Safety at Work Act to the Activity Centres (Young Persons Safety) Act. Teachers who take children out of school should familiarise themselves with its contents.
Health and Safety of Pupils onEducational Visits. Guidance issued November 1998. Available free from the Stationery Office,tel: 0808 100 50 60 or write to DFEE Publications, PO Box 5050, Sudbury, Suffolk CO10 6ZQ