No great risk in taking pupils on outdoor trips

1st May 2009 at 01:00
Teachers should not fear criminal prosecution if tragedy strikes on a school trip

Teachers should not fear criminal prosecution if tragedy strikes on a school trip, according to a public prosecutor who was "very actively involved" in the court cases that followed the Lyme Bay disaster, in which four pupils were killed.

Peter Boeuf said he wanted to "dispel the fear which has pervaded the teaching community" that there was "a great risk" involved in taking pupils on trips.

Teachers had been prosecuted only in extreme cases, stressed the former chief crown prosecutor for London; even then, juries had proved reluctant to convict.

The most dangerous part of any school trip was the transportation to and from the event, said Julian Fulbrook, a barrister and author of Outdoor Activities, Negligence and the Law. Most organised activity was "incredibly safe", although risk assessment was essential, he told a "myth busting" session at an outdoor learning conference in Crieff, organised by Learning and Teaching Scotland this week.

"It does not need to involve huge amounts of paperwork no one looks at. It needs to be practical and based on common sense," he said.

Recent research showed that teachers identified risk assessment, rather than risk itself, as the major barrier to taking pupils out of school, said Pete Allison, a lecturer in outdoor education at Edinburgh University.

The legal experts also branded the 1997 legislation which followed the Lyme Bay tragedy "draconian" and "over the top". It meant outdoor activities for under-18s had become subject to tighter regulation, placing them "up there in the pantheon" of explosives, North Sea oil and nuclear radiation, said Dr Fulbrook.

Mr Boeuf cited the Lyme Bay case as an example of juries' reluctance to issue guilty verdicts in tragedies, even when four pupils from Plymouth drowned because the expedition was badly-prepared and poorly-equipped. Although the managing director of the company running the coastal canoeing excursion was jailed, the centre manager, who waited for three hours after the group was due to return before raising the alarm, was not convicted because the jury could not agree on a verdict.

"With some care and pre-planning, teachers don't have to fear criminal law," Mr Boeuf concluded. "Accidents will happen, such is life."

Only 20 teachers have been prosecuted in as many years, said Dr Fulbrook, who is also dean of graduate studies and senior lecturer in law at the London School of Economics. Those leading to conviction were "overwhelming cases", including that of Paul Ellis, a geography teacher, who failed to ask youngsters if they could swim and ignored warnings from staff before taking them "pool plunging" in the Lake District. A 10-year-old boy died.

However, both lawyers acknowledged that media "feeding frenzies" could put pressure on prosecuting authorities to take action and might have an impact in borderline cases, even when there was no one to blame.

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