Officials call time on 'cotton wool' culture

22nd May 2009 at 01:00
New advice urges schools to run high-octane trips - even extreme sports

Schools should break free of the "cotton-wool culture" and organise higher-octane trips for their pupils.

That is the advice of the Assembly government, which wants schools to organise more adventurous outings - including extreme sports - to teach today's youngsters to manage risk and take responsibility for their actions.

In a 200-page guidance document, launched by the government in north Wales last week, the steps teachers should take when organising visits are outlined in depth.

The government wants the guidance to become an educational visits "bible" for all local authorities and schools in Wales to follow.

Officials are keen to encourage school trips to outdoor activity centres in Wales, so pupils can enjoy the natural beauty of their country. Teachers are also encouraged to arrange more exchange trips abroad.

The guidance includes practical advice for teachers on arranging transport insurance, how to cope with pupils' illness and homesickness, what to do during "downtime", and how to deal with drugs, smoking and alcohol use by pupils.

Teachers and union leaders generally welcomed the All Wales Guidance for Educational Visits and Outdoor Learning. But there are concerns that smaller schools may not be able to meet the tough safety and staffing requirements because they lack time and resources.

For instance, the government wants every school to have a senior member of staff trained to act as an educational visits co-ordinator. Many larger schools already have one - often the deputy or assistant head - but many smaller schools do not, teaching unions warned.

Rex Phillips, Wales organiser for the NASUWT teachers' union, warned the guidance would have training and funding implications. The government had made a "bold statement" about getting away from the "cotton-wool culture", he said, but "What checks and safeguards will be built into the system?"

The document recommends that teachers make an "exploratory visit" to check the educational merits of trips and assess any risks. Schools should also agree a written code of conduct with pupils and parents. There needs to be an alternative plan in case things go wrong. The guidance also encourages schools to carry out a post-event debriefing.

The document contains detailed guidance on hazards and safety tips for many types of activity, from everyday pursuits such as swimming to extreme sports such as white water rafting.

Potentially dangerous activities must be approved by a competent outdoor adviser, it says. Teachers who want to lead such activities should have relevant qualifications.

Jane Hutt, the education minister, said: "With the foundation phase emphasising the benefits of learning outside the classroom, and the introduction of adventurous activities to the PE curriculum, this document is critical in ensuring the continuing safety of young people."

Anna Brychan, director of the NAHT Cymru heads' union, said the guidance would ease the concerns of heads worried about the growing "compensation culture".

"It's sensible to give advice like this and it will prove useful," she said. "I'm glad it says explicitly we don't want cotton-wool children. That's something we have been speaking out against for years."

Gareth Jones, director of the ASCL Cymru heads' union, said the detail in the guidance was "daunting", but it would prove useful for heads. "We must achieve a balance between keeping children safe and depriving them of essential learning experiences by wrapping them in cotton wool," he said.

Dr Philip Dixon, director of the ATL Cymru union, said: "Anything that stops us trying to protect youngsters from the risks of the real world is good."

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