Outings are about pleasure, not panic

4th March 2005 at 00:00
ecently, politicians have been extolling the virtues of educational outings as a response to teachers' increasing reluctance to participate.

Well-publicised reports from south of the border on fatalities during expeditions, and the subsequent blaming of teachers, have led to a general cooling of enthusiasm.

So, to help, the Scottish Executive has published its guidelines, Health and Safety on Educational Outings. They are meant to be encouraging. Peter Peacock, the Education Minister, described them as "giving teachers, and others who work with young people, the confidence to take them out of the classroom environment, while reassuring parents that their children are safe and secure".

The guidelines may reassure the few parents who are inclined to plough through them but most parents achieve confidence in their school's arrangements from personal experience.

Certainly, the Executive's advice is comprehensive and no teacher need ever complain about lack of guidance. The guidelines set out procedures which good organisers of outings have followed for a long time. The message to teachers is to "follow the guidelines and there's nothing to fear", although I suspect many would prefer a more positive approach.

As always, it's irritating when politicians jump on a bandwagon. They are right about the value of educational visits and teachers agree that they produce benefits usually not available in school. We also know how enjoyable they can be. But, until now, no one has shown any interest in outings or supporting them. Not politicians. Not education authorities.

Outings are seen as extras, organised in odd moments with a few phone calls here, some letters there. Like many of the best school activities, such as music, drama and sport, educational visits traditionally have relied on the drive of enthusiastic individuals. At best, the new document may help disengaged teachers to appreciate the burden of work which someone undertakes for an outing, whether a walk to the local library or a four-week trek in the Central American rain forest.

At worst, it may be an emphatic turn-off. The problem is its sheer bulk. At 90 pages long, with three full pages required for the contents and 11 pages of model forms as the final chapter, any teacher setting herself up as a group organiser should be in no doubt of the magnitude of the task. And that's before she tackles practical issues such as collecting the cash, devising a mobile phone policy which will keep everyone happy and infecting other adults with enough enthusiasm that they want to join in.

And remember bus drivers. Once upon a time, they always knew where they were going. Increasingly, the route becomes the leader's responsibility too, so you bring your Collins Road Atlas and perch at the front of the bus, navigating.

If our education masters are serious about the value of school excursions, the time has come to show the colour of their money. No longer can we rely on the enthusiastic individual. Each school needs a designated co-ordinator to undertake and pass on training, develop school procedures, advise on the educational aspects of outings - and generally support and give scope to the enthusiasts as well as encouraging the interested but hesitant teacher.

Schools are now expected to have designated child protection officers and health and safety co-ordinators. They now need regular time away from normal teaching duties, and a training and clerical budget, if they are to fulfil their role's expectations.

The outings co-ordinator requires the same consideration if schools are to forsake the amateur approach to educational outings. Visits should be designed to enhance the curriculum and interest the maximum number of pupils. Such a professional approach reflects the spirit of the Executive's guidelines. It's also the only way to establish the confidence and co-operation of teachers.

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

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