The Department for Education was not in the dock with Peter Kite and Joseph Stoddart during the Lyme Bay trial, but it still received what could be construed as a reprimand from Mr Justice Ognall. "Where parents and teachers entrust their children for activity holidays, the potential for injury or death is too obvious to be left for the inadequate vagaries of self-regulation. "
The judge is, of course, by no means the only person to have told the DFE this in the 18 months since four Plymouth schoolchildren died on a tragically ill-conceived canoeing expedition. Teacher unions, sports bodies, MPs, local education authorities, the outdoor activity centre operators themselves and, most poignantly, the parents and classmates of the dead teenagers have all called for a statutory scheme for inspecting and accrediting centres. To no avail. The mantra that Ministers repeat ad nauseam is "the industry can regulate itself".
The Government's argument is that introducing a statutory scheme would require unduly complex legislation and would ultimately deprive some children of the opportunity to enjoy outdoor adventures because centres would be forced to recoup inspection costs through increased charges. Instead, the DFE has asked the Health and Safety Executive to undertake a modest inspection exercise (200 centres over two years) that may identify some of the danger areas. It has also sent out new guidelines to schools and has invited the independent Activity Centre Advisory Committee (ACAC) to draw up a code of practice and establish an inspection and accreditation scheme similar to the Wales Tourist Board's.
Eric Forth, the Minister of State for Education, has made this strategy sound almost plausible in his House of Commons statements, but closer examination of the realities exposes the many flaws in the Government's arguments.
The scheme that the English are trying to emulate covers only 120 of the 500 Welsh centres, even though it has been running for five years. This is doubtless because the only sanction the Wales Tourist Board can use against recalcitrant operators is to refuse to promote their companies' activities in tourist literature. Rather more importantly, the ACAC, a committee which represents the major professional, trade and statutory bodies involved in outdoor activities, does not have enough cash in its kitty to organise a day trip to Brighton, let alone a national inspection scheme. Furthermore, it has no offices, no secretariat, and has not even fixed a date for its next meeting, although it is likely to take place next month. All it has, apart from some very able volunteers, is a large but empty begging bowl which it is holding out to all the Government departments which could conceivably take an interest in outdoor activity centres.
If ACAC gets the money it is seeking - Pounds 250,000 to Pounds 350,000 - it will reform itself into an advisory board representing only consumer interests and will set up the limited company that would run the inspection service. In the unlikely event that this pump-priming cash is handed over quickly, the scheme could be up and jogging, if not actually running, by 1996. But if there is a delay (so far the DFE has said it will not add to the Pounds 10,000 it has already provided) a 1997 launch date looks more realistic.
In the meantime, it is true that as most schools have now received the ACAC code they can ask centres whether or not they abide by it. But without inspection teams there can be no assurance that centres are actually complying with the code (although most are being properly run). Schools can also continue to send centres the questionnaires that some LEAs have devised, but whether the heads and governors know enough about outdoor education to interpret the answers correctly is a moot point. Schools can also probably rest a little easier knowing that the Lyme Bay tragedy has encouraged many centres to put unqualified staff through training courses and tighten their procedures.
It is, however, still true that there is nothing to stop unscrupulous or shambolic operators opening a centre. It is worth recalling what Bill Higginson, the man who positively vetted Mr Kite's centre for the British Activity Holiday Association, told The TES back in February:"If you want to open kennels it can take 14 months to become registered, but opening an activity centre is much, much easier. You don't need any qualifications, you can put an advert in the local paper and open your centre tomorrow. If you have cockroaches in the kitchen the public health inspector can close you down, but you can run sporting activities involving any risk at all and there's nobody who can legally stop you doing it." Mr Higginson is a man who knows what he is talking about too, because as we revealed, his own centre continued operating after it failed the Wales Tourist Board inspection.
For all these reasons, then, we must hope that David Jamieson's private member's Bill, which received its first reading on Wednesday, will attract the all-party support it will need to force a Government retreat. The MP for Plymouth Devonport has campaigned unrelentingly for a statutory scheme since the Lyme Bay tragedy, and remains optimistic despite his previous setbacks. But he may have to reconsider his suggestion that the Office for Standards in Education, rather than the HSE, could run the projected inspection scheme. Until OFSTED has proved that it has the primary school inspection programme under control, it would surely be ill-advised to entrust it with another, even heavier, responsibility.