You're new and keen to take your pupils on a school trip. But, warns Gerald Haigh, be aware of the risks.
Teachers new to the job have always been keen to take children out of school. They've been taught the value of first-hand experience, and they want their pupils to see the rock formations, historical sites, shopping malls and the breathtaking landscapes for themselves. Schools thrive on these injections of new energy. It's important, though, to realise why your senior colleagues can be wary of excursion plans, demanding what can seem like irksome amounts of paperwork and detail.
For one thing, the head or deputy knows that any trip out of school eats up timetable time, staff and money. He or she has to be convinced that there are real compensating gains in line with the school's performance targets.
Then there's the question of safety. As soon as pupils go beyond the school gates, the risks to them increase. Even a minor accident can bring distress, recrimination and absence from school, perhaps at a crucial time. Any experienced teacher will be able to recall several mishaps that may have been difficult to foresee. Like these, for example:
* A teacher lined up her primary school party on the steps of a hostel for a photograph. In the minor jostling for position, a girl went over a low wall and fell several feet into a basement area. She was taken to hospital unconscious, but recovered completely.
* A school party was contentedly having a picnic break in the Yorkshire Dales when a boulder, set rolling far up the hillside by unknown idiots, bounded across the picnic area. A girl turned to see what was happening just in time to be hit in the face, losing several teeth.
* A boy attending a musical event at a school in another town trapped his hand in a toilet door and suffered permanent damage to a fingertip.
Each was a distressing incident that spoiled the day for at least one child and a family. And had luck run the wrong way, the children could have been much more badly hurt.
The answer is not to be put off - schools desperately need people with creative ideas and the energy to back them up - but to ensure that any plans for outside visits of any kind are soundly and carefully laid. This is a serious and potentially life-threatening business.
The good news is that your school will not really let you do anything dangerous. They'll have a governor (and local authority) policy covering safety on school trips, setting down supervision ratios, risk-assessment guidelines and planning requirements. You'll have to think everything out and set it down in a proposal for approval before you do anything else. A preliminary visit should always be the starting point for planning and risk assessment.
The buck, in other words, stops somewhere beyond you. Your duty, though, is to make sure management understands what the words in your plans actually mean - what exactly is "rough mountain walking", for example? The head ought to question you about this, but if he or she doesn't, then take the initiative and explain. Better now than after a problem.
You're not a puppet, though. Once the coach, or the crocodile of infants, pulls out through the gate, you're like the ship's captain - bound by company rules, but entirely capable of bringing either credit or disgrace to the directors. What matters now is not so much the planning file in your haversack as the attitude of mind you bring to it. Here are some pointers to keep you focused on what's important.
As you get ready to move Something unexpected will happen today. The chances are it will be small and, perhaps, hilarious. It might be worse than that, though. So do you feel ready for anything?
Are all your adult helpers well briefed (including any last-minute substitutes)? The supervision ratio is one thing. If it's to mean anything, the supervisors need to know what their duties are, both routine and in an emergency. Check again that you know all your supervisors by name. You may need to call out to any of them, urgently, from a distance.
Do you have a complete list of contact phone numbers with you - for school and for the children's parents? If you are going to be away out of school hours, you need good agreed contacts for senior colleagues. If you're going to be late, someone has to go down to the school to tell waiting carers, or let them know by phone chain.
Do you have all the food, paperwork and equipment you need? Best work from a checklist on this. It's easy to forget something obvious, such as the day's packed lunches.
Are your pupils well briefed? Good behaviour is safe behaviour. They'll behave better if they know what's going on and understand the reasons - and, better still, if they've been involved in the planning and preparation. If you're a teacher at a religious foundation, have a moment of prayer before you move off. Whatever else, it provides an air of calm and serious intent.
Do you have a first-aider with you, fully equipped with the right kit for the day's activities? That's only the start. You'll have to make sure the first-aider is in the right place at the right time, or else you'll need more than one.
If you're boarding a coach, is it up to scratch, with seatbelts and a generally well-maintained air? If it's not, don't move until a senior colleague has seen it. If necessary, be unpopular and demand a replacement.
As the trip develops Be friendly but relentless about discipline. Poor discipline leads to unsafe behaviour - walking around on coaches, running across roads to shops, bunking off, covert drinking of alcohol. Ensure threats are converted into strong actions on return to school.
In the case of some well-publicised school travel accidents, it's difficult to imagine that the children's activities could have been approved by school management. Either the activity wasn't clearly explained at the planning stage, or someone introduced a change on the spot. Sometimes, teachers give in to suggestions from peers or pupils - "Come on, it looks terrific up there!" So be strong.
Do not give in to requests (sometimes they come from adult helpers, even well-meaning coach drivers, as well as pupils) to vary or extend the programme. Your careful plans and risk assessments can't cover ad hoc arrangements, and you're out on a limb as soon as you stray from what school management and governors approved.
You could, of course, have built in some sensible alternatives at the planning stage. Do this next time. Don't let anyone take your pupils off to do something you're unhappy with. The words "My party is not going to do that," take some saying, but they are necessary at times.
Use as many "fail safe" rules as you can. So when walking, if you are seen to stop, then everyone stops until you say differently. If someone gets lost, there's always an agreed meeting point. No adult helper should ever be out of sight of another. It should always be possible for one adult to go for help while another stays with the children.
Toilet visits must always be supervised, no matter how frustrating and time consuming this can be. Monitor all this constantly during the trip.
Count obsessively. Use a buddy system by all means, and break your party down between helpers, but still count the whole party in, out, on, off, up, down all the time.
Don't be rushed (especially by a double-parked coach driver). Never take assurances at face value - if someone says, "she's on the other bus, Sir", then go and actually look at her.
Assume that everything will take longer than ever seemed possible. You think you can have a 15-minute toilet stop on a motorway with 50 children? Think again. The safety implication is that if you start to rush, you risk miscounting, you raise frustration levels and you damage discipline.
Your trip must be positive, active and busy, but always under calm and confident control. And as in your teaching, this means you mustn't try to do too much in the session.
On return, for peace of mind, make sure you know that every pupil has been delivered into the hands of adults known to you and to them (usually their own or a classmate's parents). It's easy to drop your guard at the last minute. Then you'll sit bolt upright at 3am realising that you left without knowing what happened to Jody. Was she in the toilet when you switched the lights off and locked up?
Consider getting qualified There's a lot to learn about taking children out of school. Most teachers pick up the principles from more experienced colleagues - but the things they learn are not always reliable or safe, because practice up to not-so-long ago could be very hit and miss.
It's a good idea, therefore, to consider getting qualified. It's not so well known that there's a general qualification that says you've been basically trained for everything from walking infants to the library to a seniors' day trip to Paris, or a residential ski trip. The "Certificate in Off-Site Safety Management" was developed by OCR (Oxford, Cambridge and RSA Examinations), the College of St Mark and St John and the British Association of Advisers and Lecturers in PE, and covers just about everything - planning, preparation, risk assessment, legal responsibilities and evaluation.
Targeted at anyone who takes children out and about, the certificate is a useful addition to a teacher's personal porftolio. Such are the legal complexities and the high profile given to safety failures that a young teacher intent on taking children out might well consider asking his or her senior colleagues for support in taking the course.
It takes 15 hours and is currently run at around 30 colleges and outdoor centres.
For details of the Certificate in Off-Site Safety Management, contact OCR, Coventry Office, Westwood Way, Coventry CV4 8JQ, or call 02476 470033. For further reading, download the Health and Safety of Pupils on Educational Visits - A Good Practice Guide from the DfEE website at www.dfee.gov.uk