Ministers pressed to update advice on trips
Ian Pearson, safety manager with NST Travel, one the country's leading school tour operators, believes that Scottish ministers have yet to catch up with safety advice given to English schools after government guidelines were issued in 2002.
"There is a difference in practice between Scotland and the latest developments in England which are serious and need to be addressed," Mr Pearson told The TES Scotland.
He also contends that current advice given by the Scottish School Board Association on school trips is inadequate. Its leaflet has been widely distributed.
The saga of schools in East Renfrewshire and Falkirk councils which were caught out after a small Scottish tour operator went bust has merely underlined the need for stronger measures. Local authorities have their policies on trips but many need to be overhauled, Mr Pearson believes.
Over Easter, three secondaries nearly lost their ski trips to the United States after a Newton Mearns-based operator, American Dreams (Scotland), was wound up. It lacked any financial cover. East Renfrewshire pumped in pound;50,000 to save the trip for 114 of its pupils while Falkirk put up pound;14,500.
Mr Pearson said it was now standard practice for every authority in England to have an outdoor education administrator to oversee best practice and for every school to have an educational visits co-ordinator. "It has highlighted issues of safety when organising school trips," he said.
Under a proper safety management system, schools should be able to assess the reliability of their tour operator and the risk of the tour itself.
"But it's not easy for them and teachers need help and guidance to be able to do that," Mr Pearson said.
Teachers who wanted to check whether a company was covered by the gold standard of the Association of British Travel Agents (Abta) or the Air Travel Organisers' Licensing (Atol) system had merely to check the websites of both organisations.
Other forms of financial protection were harder to guarantee but Mr Pearson advised teachers to ask for external verification of cover. Any outdoor centres should be licensed by safety agencies and national governing bodies.
An emerging system of safety management, which would include aspects such as accommodation, transport and emergency procedures, is being developed south of the border by the School Travel Forum, a loose collection of 26 operators. England also enjoys an advisory council on educational visits that is backed by the major teaching associations and unions.
A Scottish Executive spokesman said that new advice is in the pipeline. "We are currently updating our guidance on safety during school trips, building on existing direction and recent material produced by the Department for Education and Skills, and expect to issue this in the autumn."
In the meantime, schools and authorities must ensure pupil welfare and safety is a priority.