Let's liberate pupils, not suffocate them

7th July 2006 at 01:00
Visiting Africa put the risks of more conventional school trips into perspective for Ewan Aitken

I had the huge and humbling privilege recently of spending time with schools and officers in Meru South district in Kenya. The trip reflected Edinburgh's plans for a long-term relationship with that authority as part of our developing global citizenship work.

Though it was a "fact-finding" trip, it would be true to say that I found out much more than simply information for an authority-to-authority relationship.

Along with Roy Jobson, Edinburgh's director of children and families, I visited 12 schools in three days and met several local officers. Those three days had a profound influence on both of us.

Bouncing many miles down dirt tracks in the back of a Land-Rover does your spinal cord no favours. But we had to do that for only three days. What would a lifetime of travel on such roads do for your health?

Standing in classrooms of 50 children with earth floors, no windows, no electricity and even fewer resources in 30C-plus heat throws a different light on the terms and conditions debates I find myself engaged in on the Scottish Negotiating Committee for Teachers.

Knowing that those children will have for lunch only what the school is able to grow in its garden and cook over an open fire makes our debates about school meals, free or otherwise, seem quite pathetic.

And having seen sanitation consisting of "longdrops" covered by corrugated iron shelters, I will struggle to take seriously complaints about the state of the toilets in one of our schools.

But perhaps what was most challenging was the fact that in among all this struggle was a passion for learning, a desire for knowledge and understanding and a valuing of education that was seriously inspiring.

We travelled with a group from Drummond High who are twinned with a Meru South school, as are seven of Edinburgh's schools. They spent a week on a musical collaboration project. They were outstanding ambassadors for the city and for Scotland, as were the staff who went with them.

One of the group said to me: "This is changing my life." Those days spent in Meru South were an added-value educational experience that cannot be recreated in the classroom. You had to be there.

Yet it was high risk. The accommodation was basic. The food was cooked and eaten out of doors. The risk of injury, illness or accident on the roads was high. That's why it was so powerful and so profound. The school had done its homework and their planning minimised the risk as best it could, But it was a riskier place than the wilds of Edinburgh.

Despite that, trips such as these must be part of the opportunities schools offer their pupils. I know many schools across the country which do just that and I applaud them. Yet I hear of others choosing to be risk-averse and not travel abroad, or in some cases not even in our country, in case the staff are sued should something go wrong. The fear of litigation is undermining a vital part of our education system. We need to challenge that fear head-on.

Some weeks ago, there was a tragic accident at a beauty spot in Scotland. A young child was swept away while posing for pictures. It is difficult to imagine just how horrible, devastating and painful that experience is for all involved, especially her parents.

But no one is saying that the family should not have gone to the beauty spot. Nor is anyone going to sue the parents for not having done everything they could to protect their daughter - and rightly so. Their pain is already too great as it is.

Why then, if something goes wrong on a school trip, is the lawyer's office the first port of call? As long as the school has taken reasonable steps to assess risk and plan against it, then schools should be encouraged and supported to take pupils to risky places. And if something goes wrong, we may weep in grief - but we should know that litigation will find us no peace.

I have no problem with schools being accountable for their actions. But when it comes to trips, let's not so tie them up with methods of accountability that it stops them creating the opportunities for the kind of life-changing experience I participated in two weeks ago.

Over-protecting young people is as potentially damaging as under-protecting them. If we wrap young people in cotton wool, we are more likely to suffocate them than liberate them. If we are going to create the opportunities for pupils to be global citizens, then we need to give schools the space to take risks as well as precautions.

Ewan Aitken is education spokesperson for the Convention of Scottish Local Authorities and executive member for children and families at Edinburgh City Council.

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