Ministers tread water on adventure weeks

11th February 2000 at 00:00
PROPOSALS to bring in a David Blunkett-style back-of-an-envelope plan for 16-year-olds to have a summer week of outdoor activities have not been ruled out north of the border.

But the Scottish Executive has yet to back a scheme that took civil servants in the Department for Education and Employment by surprise last month when the Education Secretary revealed outline details. It is believed the Executive is playing a waiting game with its new devolved powers.

Mr Blunkett wants to offer adventure activities as a means of engaging potential school drop-outs in education, training and work. Confidence building, team work and relationships are central to his thinking.

Approaches to the New Opportunities Fund may help finance a scheme that in Scotland could involve up to 60,000 young people.

South of the border, the DFEE hopes to establish the scheme by summer 2002 through a number of pilots. If it proves successful, it could develop later in Scotland.

Rough details emerged last week at the first meeting in Scotland of the Adventure Activities Industry Advisory Committee, which supervises the licensing of outdoor centres for the Health and Safety Commission.

Interest among public and private centres in Scotland is keen as they spy a potentially lucrative business, although places would be at a premium if all 16-year-olds were given the chance to take part.

Meanwhile pressure is growing on the Executive to take devolved powers over outdoor centre licensing once the current British-wide scheme ends in 2002. The Scottish Advisory Panel for Outdoor Education is pressing for more powers to come north of the border.

The contentious licensing of centres was introduced three yers ago following the Lyme Bay canoeing disaster in Dorset in which four pupils died while on an adventure week. Ministers south of the border recently backed a continuation of the licensing scheme for a further three years without substantial amendment.

But Drew Michie, who chairs the advisory panel, believes Holyrood could adapt the regulations to circumstances north of the border. The legislation does not yet apply to schools which organise their own trips, voluntary organisations such as the Scouts or Guides, or groups over the age of 18.

So far, 134 outdoor providers have won a licence in Scotland.

Mr Michie said: "People were very sceptical before the licensing scheme started but having had it for three years they have benefited from supportive inspections. It has raised people to a standard and there is a reluctance to let it go. However, the scheme has failed to reach the mark because not enough parents and teachers have enough knowledge about licensing."

Marcus Bailie, chief inspector of the licensing authority, said opposition has melted away. "A lot of centres were using staff who did not have proven levels of competence and we are finding that less and less now. One of the big changes is that centres have to look carefully at what staff they use. That is the cornerstone of safety in the outdoors," Mr Bailie said.

Centres have complained about the cost of obtaining licences for between one and three years but Mr Bailie said the average was pound;540 for an 18-month licence.

"I am more and more convinced that we are effectively appointed by the DFEE to help provide them with evidence that this is a safe sector. This is not a dangerous sector," Mr Bailie said.

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