Carolyn O'Grady on how to make school trips safe and successful.
Trips and activity holidays are scary. Even very experienced teachers charged with ushering 30 children around a strange city or overseeing them for a week in the country cannot remain unperturbed. However, very few would argue against such outings. Though national curriculum pressures and cutbacks are undoubtedly affecting the amount of time and money which can be given, most schools would fund-raise till they drop to give their pupils a taste of new cities, a chance to study nature at first-hand and to take part in outdoor adventures in challenging, but safe situations.
But while accompanying children can be very rewarding it can also be exhausting and frightening. Safety is the paramount consideration on any trip, and the first rule is to check out school policies. They will probably take account of local authority regulations and advice on subjects like adult:pupil ratios and safety and discipline.
Apart from these, policies should cover codes of conduct; consultation arrangements (for example with headteachers, parents and pupils) and planning and organisation procedures. Policy statements on evaluation and follow-up work, financial procedures and insurance requirements may also be available.
The next dictum is: know your own limitations. Chris Lowe, headmaster of Prince William School, Oundle, is author of the School Travel Organisers UK Handbook and an experienced leader of school parties. "Don't go Rambo-like into it" is his advice to the newly qualified teacher. If possible, he advises, be an observer on the first trip and if not, be the accompanying teacher not the leader. Start with day trips and then only later do overnight stays and trips abroad.
He recounts his first nightmare visit to London with a group of 10- year-olds. "They'd all done it before and knew more about where we were going than I did and they were off and about, with me trailing behind, trying to keep them all together and work out where we were supposed to be going."
Apart from learning that experience counts for a great deal, the main thing he took on board, he says, is best encapsulated in the army dictum: "Time spent in reconnaissance is never wasted."
His tips: "Go and have a look. The safest trip is the best planned trip. You can't guard against unique accidents, but you can plan and anticipate everything else. Think it through; plan the route; work out, for example, how you would take 30 children across a road; think about the meal breaks and visits to the toilet."
Spell out the rules to pupils clearly before the visit. Make sure they know exactly how they are expected to behave and what will happen if they depart from those standards.
Remember, too, that pupils also have to obey the rules of the places they visit, the purpose of which may be hard for them to understand. One teacher recounts how during a stay at a youth hostel children were instructed to lay the table for breakfast the next morning. "Make sure that beakers are placed upside down," instructed the warden. But in spite of this strong, repeated direction, the cockiest of the pupils left them the right way up. Next morning the beakers were full of bugs.
Keep in mind the requirements of pupils with special needs. If you have children in wheelchairs, ascertain in advance how accessible a centre is and whether facilities are available for, say, hearing or visually impaired children. Are there materials for different levels of ability? Can they pitch talks at the right level and offer explanations to those who may have difficulty understanding?
Often the teachers accompanying a group are not the people who have most information about the pupils in the group. Make sure that you get all the information about a child's needs, including details of medication, dietary requirements or special equipment needed.
Each winter brings stories of children stranded on mountains during bad weather. Preparation is vital, and equipment and clothing must be right. For trips into the wild a mobile phone is useful.
Overnight stays present their own problems, but activity holidays are currently causing the most controversy and anxiety. Such holidays give children a chance to try new physical activities, to get into the countryside and to test themselves physically and emotionally in challenging environments. But since the Lyme Bay tragedy revealed the potential for negligence and possibly worse in these centres, schools have understandably not wanted to take all the responsibility for evaluating them.
Happily, the Government has now dropped its opposition to statutory regulation of outdoor activity centres. A private member's bill setting out the principles of compulsory licensing of adventure activity providers and inspections of the centres is now expected to be on the statute book this summer and will then have to be followed by secondary legislation detailing how such arrangements can be made. This should take effect by early next year.
Essential reading is the Department for Education's Safety in Outdoor Activity Centres. Guidance (Circular number 2294), which advises on procedures to ensure, as far as possible, the safety of pupils attending outdoor activity centres. It still puts the onus on schools to make the decisions but it contains good advice.
* School Travel Organiser's UK Handbook: The Complete Guide to Arranging School Travel. Hobsons
Carolyn O'Grady is author of the School Travel Organiser's UK Handbook: Special Educational Needs Edition, published by Hobsons
Teacher organisers have a general common-law duty to act as a reasonable parent would in looking after pupils in their care during a visit. They are also responsible under their conditions of employment for "maintaining good order and discipline among the pupils and safeguarding their health and safety both when they are authorised to be on school premises and when they are engaged in authorised school activities elsewhere".