Not half as risky as crossing the road

3rd December 2004 at 00:00
small paragraph in a newspaper started me reminiscing the other day.

Apparently there is concern for the future of two historic craft based at Greenwich, Cutty Sark and Gipsy Moth IV. Lack of funds has caused years of neglect and unless remedial work is carried out to rotting timbers and fixtures both crafts will be beyond saving. To make things worse, there is little public interest in a recovery project because the past achievements of both vessels have been forgotten.

Reading the names again took me back almost 30 years to my days in Kilmarnock when I organised an annual outing to London for primary seven pupils. The Monday to Friday trip cost pound;25 per head and Bay City Rollers gear was fashion of the moment.

Our Thursday programme started with a visit to the Houses of Parliament. A stroll to Westminster Steps followed and then we took a boat on the Thames, passing under Tower Bridge and on to Greenwich. There we toured Cutty Sark and Gipsy Moth IV.

Note that we didn't lose anyone in House of Commons corridors, no one fell overboard, nor did anyone strangle himself in the Cutty Sark's rigging.

This may have been the world before formal risk assessments but teachers were perfectly aware of possible dangers and planned outings accordingly.

Road crossings were chosen with care, supervision ratios took the nature of the group into account and heads were counted regularly.

In the case of our London visits, we abandoned them eventually due to an increase in IRA terrorism. Yet again we were assessing risk - without using the terminology - and altering our actions as a result of changing evidence.

My involvement in school journeys did not end there. We simply moved to venues whose potential dangers were more within our ability to influence.

Danger is present everywhere and the risk assessment only formalises the judgments we once made informally.

Risk assessments should not dissuade schools from organising visits and outdoor activities. They just mean that more time has to be given to paperwork, unfortunately. From what we hear, an increasing number of teachers are reluctant to take on out-of-school visits for fear of litigation following an accident. One school's cancellation of a visit to an outdoor centre reached the newspapers and the clues suggest that it was the centre we have been using for years because of the high quality of safety awareness obvious in the staff.

David Bell, Ofsted chief in England, has pleaded with teachers to continue school visits, citing them as valuable experiences for pupils. While I cannot remember a similar Scottish plea, the Executive is due to publish guidelines for outdoor visits soon. Let's hope they are helpful to teachers and not so restrictive that they are discouraging.

Some teachers' unions are advising members not to take part in any outings unless there is a guarantee that they will not end up in court. Their concern is understandable. We have seen tragic cases in England and we find ourselves saying: "Well, that's the thanks the teacher gets for trying to do something extra. I'm not putting myself in that position."

But "doing something extra" without covering potential dangers was never good enough. When the truth comes out in court, usually we see that the teacher made errors of supervision or judgment which would never have been acceptable.

Reporting Scotland broadcast a useful information snippet recently. It appears that no child in Scotland has been killed or seriously injured on a school activity in the past 20 years. Each year 25 children are killed on our roads.

Let's give ourselves some credit. It looks as if Scottish teachers have a good record at assessing danger and coping sensibly - a thought which may help our confidence when we decide where we stand on outdoor visits.

Brian Toner is headteacher of St John's primary in Perth.

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