Michael Evans traces the development of a specialised school safety unit at Exeter University
The time is long gone when a school visit involved simply choosing the day, booking the coach and telling the children to bring a packed lunch. A series of highly-publicised tragedies on sports fields and school trips has focused attention on some casual attitudes of the past.
Today "planning" is the watch- word - and that includes planning for possible disaster. Things can sometimes go horribly wrong, and when they do, distraught parents will demand instant explanations and will not hesitate to use the courts.
Those involved in physical and outdoor education are now more aware of possible dangers. Parents' increasing litigiousness has highlighted the need for clear guidance on planning and effective risk assessment.
With this in mind, in November last year the school of education at Exeter University organised a regional conference and workshop for teachers - "Aspects of Health, Safety and Risk Assessment in Physical Education". This identified a need to provide support for vulnerable teachers and, as a result, three of the school of education's staff set up the National Unit for Safety Across the Curriculum (NUSAC). The three became NUSAC's co-directors.
It was evident a thorough assessment of risk could only be done effectively if the whole of the school curriculum and school environment was considered. It was also agreed that the most up-to-date research would be vital in the development of these policies.
NUSAC also promised to co-operate with other agencies to create a network of partners to support and resource schools, teacher training and continuing professional development nationally.
Parents have every right to expect that their children will be safe when engaged in all educational activities, but it is no secret that OFSTED has found that many schools give safety a low priority.
It is therefore encouraging to see yet another teacher training institution prepared to take a lead: new entrants need to be aware that safety education is not simply about teaching safely - in the workshop or on the sports field - it is also about teaching safety, that is, the concepts that underpin risk management.
Many institutions have largely ignored these areas in the past, with the result that newly-qualified teachers don't know much about safety awareness when taking up their first posts. The knock-on effect is little inclination to promote high safety profiles in their schools.
NUSAC's present research project - "Safe Practice in Physical Education" - is investigating current practice and will go on to study levels of teachers' awareness, particularly with regard to the increase in litigation and claims for compensation. A report on the first phase of the project should be published in December; NUSAC plans its second conference and workshop to follow it.
NUSAC's co-director Sue Thomas says the unit also welcomes collaborative research work and can undertake commissioned research projects in relation to safe practice in educational contexts.
All three co-directors are specialists in cases relating to physical education, sport, all aspects of outdoor education, residential activities and field trips.
Membership is open to all schools, colleges, institutes of higher education and local authority providers. There is currently no subscription and members are given access to the unit's extensive health and safety support resource library. This includes an extensive collection of health and safety guidance from national societies and professional associations, most of which may be borrowed or, in some cases, copied.
If access to Exeter is difficult, material can be borrowed by post. In this way it is hoped to ensure a truly national membership.
A NUSAC journal and bulletin is planned for three or four times a year to keep the unit in touch with teachers and share the findings of its various research projects.
NUSAC is the result of a clearly identified need. It will provide a valuable additional safety resource for all schools, but especially for teachers involved in PE and outdoor education.
The National Unit for Safety Across the Curriculum (NUSAC) can be contacted by post at: NUSAC, The School of Education, University of Exeter, Heavitree Road, Exeter EX1 2LU; by phone 01392 264847264862; by fax 01392 264921; by e-mail, C.W.Raymond@exeter.ac.uk; S.M.Thomas@exeter.ac.uk; or 106365.720@compuserve. com
NUSAC also has its own web site at http:www.ex.ac.uknusac