No need to tighten school trip rules in aftermath of fatal crash, heads urge

9th April 2010 at 01:00
Tragedy will have been felt by all teachers, says SLS, but they should not be discouraged from organising outings

The most dangerous part of any school trip is the transportation to and from the event - not the activity or event itself.

This message was designed to encourage teachers not to shy away from more adventurous excursions when Julian Fulbrook, a barrister and author of Outdoor Activities, Negligence and the Law, spoke at a Learning and Teaching Scotland conference last year.

But, in reality, whenever and wherever tragedy strikes it cuts deep, as Scotland was reminded last week.

Seventeen-year-old Lanark Grammar pupil Natasha Paton died last Wednesday when the coach she was travelling in crashed less than half an hour into a journey to Alton Towers.

The bus, carrying 39 pupils and five teachers, plunged off a bridge during heavy snow on the A73.

Ken Cunningham, general secretary of School Leaders Scotland (SLS), said the tragedy would have struck at the heart of every primary and secondary school in the country. "Every teacher will have thought, `There but for the grace of God go I'," he said.

Hundreds of school trips took place every year and the vast majority were a success, he stressed.

"A huge amount of effort goes into ensuring health and safety."

He warned against further tightening the rules and regulations surrounding school trips in the wake of the accident.

Already, "paperwork, stress and strain" were putting teachers off organising outings, he said.

Natasha, who would have turned 18 on Tuesday, is believed to have been thrown from the coach as it careered off the road. She was found underneath the bus after a headcount revealed one of the group was missing.

Other pupils on the Lanark Grammar S6 annual trip to Alton Towers were injured in the crash, but the last passenger was discharged from hospital on Wednesday.

According to THINK!, the UK Government's road safety campaign, all youngsters aged 14 and over must wear seat belts on coaches. They, rather than the driver, are responsible for ensuring they are fastened, but "vehicle operators" must notify passengers that seat belts are compulsory.

But safety campaigners have expressed frustration that regulations requiring children under 14 to wear seat belts on coaches have still not been passed.

"How you ensure that at all times and in all places seat belts are on is difficult to know," Mr Cunningham said.

Nevertheless, ensuring that someone is responsible for checking seat belts are fastened is one of the factors group leaders should consider when planning a trip, according to the Scottish Government publication Health and Safety on Educational Excursions: A Good Practice Guide.

It is also up to the group leader, according to the guidance, to take into account "seasonal conditions, weather and timing".

The Lanark Grammar trip went ahead in driving conditions described by some local people as "mental" and "treacherous".

Morag Towndrow, headteacher of Barrhead High in East Renfrewshire, cancelled a trip to Alton Towers on the same day as the crash that killed Natasha.

According to An A-Z of Scots Education Law - A Guide for Parents, produced by Consumer Focus Scotland, the education authority would be legally responsible for any "reasonably foreseeable" failure in its duty of care, meaning that pupils or parents could take legal action against the authority in relation to any injuries sustained, even where they themselves "may also be partly at fault".

Teacher union law experts, however, countered that if staff sought expert advice - in this case, from the coach driver - and were reassured it was safe to undertake the journey, they would not be held liable.

The cause of the crash is still being investigated by police.

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