Legal issues

30th May 2003 at 01:00
A 13-YEAR-OLD girl drowned on a school visit to Le Touquet because a beach outing was inadequately supervised, a Leeds inquest has found.

The coroner's court jury returned a verdict of death by misadventure after hearing how Gemma Carter, a pupil at Cockburn high school, Leeds, had died during an evening paddle in June 1999. But it criticised the organisation of the beach activities - specifically the lack of formal head counts by the teacher in charge.

The Leeds case follows the prosecution of a Salford school for failing to protect a 14-year-old pupil who was injured on a visit to Snowdonia. The boy suffered a hairline skull fracture after falling down a hillside when his group became separated in bad weather. One of his teachers also broke a leg and six other boys aged 12 to 14 had to be rescued by an RAF helicopter. The school was fined pound;3,000.

There may be good reasons for schools making their own trip arrangements, but heads should consider carefully why they are not using a specialist provider. A do-it-yourself visit requires schools to assume full responsibility for travel, accommodation and activities. Schools using tour operators retain responsibility for ensuring that safety assessments are carried out. But school leaders are spared the specialist audits and safety-management arrangements that reputable tour companies undertake.

The 2002 supplements to the Department for Education and Skills' guidance, Health and safety of pupils on educational visits 1998, recommend that local authorities should appoint outdoor education advisers to advise schools on safety management and the training of leaders. They should also keep lists of approved providers for particular trips.

The Department has recommended that schools appoint educational visit co-ordinators to liaise with LEA advisers, and to advise group leaders on planning, supervision and risk assessments.

A proper risk assessment is the first step to good safety management and the main defence against any criminal charge or civil action for negligence. But visit co-ordinators should not be anxious about this. They do not have greater legal liability than other members of staff, so long as they operate within the school's policies and within the limits of their own knowledge.

The School Travel Forum has published a booklet, "Planning an educational visit with a tour operator", available free on www.educationaltravel.org.uk. "Health and safety of pupils on educational visits 1998" and the 2002 supplements can be accessed on www.teachernet.gov.ukvisits.Some LEAs are running courses for educational visits co-ordinators. Courses are also being held during the summer term by Quick Guides: details from quickguides@waitrose.com

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