Terror on the ski run

18th May 2001 at 01:00
The quick thinking and bravery of teachers saved a pupil's life in the Italian Alps. But there are lessons for all staff taking school trips. Phil Revell has the latest on insurance deals and expert guidance

Holly Ashdown is lucky to be alive. On a school ski holiday in February, the 16-year-old lost control, crashed through trees and tumbled down a steep slope. Holly was saved by her one remaining ski, which caught on a tree branch near a steep drop. She was also saved by the bravery of three teachers who rescued her.

The first staff on the scene were Wendy Roberts and Ken Burkett, who made their way down the perilous slope to help her. One slip would have sent them to a certain death.

"I was petrified," says Holly, a Year 11 student at Rainham School for Girls, in Gillingham, Kent. Having adults to share her predicament was some comfort.

Ian Mitchell is an experienced skier and climber and was the party leader for the trip to Tonale in the Italian Alps.

"My first reaction was to start down (the mountain)," he says. The ice made the descent a dangerous proposition, but his colleagues had risked their lives to get down to the girl.

"I thought 'Could we use something as a rope?'." He snow-kicked his way down to below the others' position. Then using scarves collected from other pupils, he secured Holly to the tree that had broken her fall, then waited for the mountain rescue team. Even then, the ordeal wasn't over. Helicopters could not land in the wooded area and the group had to wait for the ski patrol to reach them with ropes and a stretcher.

The events made headlines and the issue of safety on school trips was back in the news. Even with an experienced leader, risks remain. This is why such trips need meticulous planning.

In the past year, two girls have died on a field trip in Yorkshire and a teacher has been killed on a skiing holiday. In another accident, 15-year-old Nasreen Jamalzadeh died sledging without a helmet in Austria.

In France, Mark Duckworth, a teacher from Leeds, was sentenced to six months in prison for manslaughter after a Boulogne judge found him responsible for the death of 13-year-old Gemma Carter, who drowned on a school trip in 1999. The outcry after the Yorkshire river deaths was met with despair by travel companies, which see bookings drop after such incidents. But some argue against this trend.

sociologist Frank Furedi thinks society has become obsessed with safety and that we need to get rid of the "culture of fear" that leads adults to curtail children's enjoyment of the outdoors, and fosters an indoor playground of Playstation and videos.

But there have been too many such accidents. In two recent tragedies, local education authorities argued that the teacher leading the trip was experienced in the outdoors.

Yet, by the same logic, just because most people have experience of the classroom since they were once pupils does not mean that a member of the public could walk in and take the class?

Leading a group off the school site is not the same as making a trip as an individual, and teachers' training does not equip them for such outdoor pursuits .

The proper assessment of risk is not just good practice; it is a legal requirement. Party leaders must say how they will manage risk. If children are swimming, the leader must make lear how they will be controlled and what life-saving arrangements are in place. A commercial provider of outdoor activities needs a licence from the Adventurous Activities Licensing Authority (AALA).

The authority's website gives details of all licensed centres and what activities they are accredited for. Some activities - low-level walking, quad-biking - do not require a licence, but schools need to contact the local outdoor education adviser to make sure the centre operates a safe regime.

Those who think that they have the expertise to offer adventure activities, such as mountain walking or canoeing, need to look at their practice carefully. They should validate their planning and risk assessments with experts. The AALA can tell you how to do this, as can an LEA outdoor education adviser.

All school trips should be covered by insurance and, while there are many companies offering school insurance, one, ACE, offers both a comprehensive all-risks policy for all school trips, plus a package of advice and information to help teachers with their planning.

Party leaders should have some training. Many FE colleges offer the Certificate in Off Site Management, designed to build awareness of the legal and moral responsibilities of taking children out. There is a three-hour exam which can be taken at any OCR exam board centre.

One of the venues for the course is the National Mountain Centre at Plas y Brenin in Wales, where the two-day course costs pound;195. The centre is also offering a new walking qualification. The new award fills a gap below the demanding Mountain Leader Award and would qualify people to lead in areas like the Shropshire hills, Dartmoor and the North York moors, but not in more challenging mountain country such as Scotland's Cairngorms or the Snowdon ridge. It would be ideal for teachers leading field trips or Duke of Edinburgh Award groups.

Outside Britain, schools are reliant on the reputation of specialist travel companies - and on their own planning. The Rainham group was led by an experienced teacher with colleagues in support. Pupil-teacher ratios were well within recommended limits and supporting staff had some training. The Tonale run was a "green", at the lowest level of difficulty. It's not easy to see what else the school could have done to avoid the accident.

And therein lies the rub. Even on well-managed trips there will be occasional accidents. Skiing is potentially dangerous, as is rock climbing and mountain walking. It's important that parents realise that risks can be managed, but not eliminated.

"These trips are so valuable," says Ian Mitchell, who intends to carry on organising them. "I worry, of course, but you can't quantify what the pupils get out of the experience."


DFEE:Excellent guidance for schools is contained in a booklet Health and Safety of Pupils on Educational Visits. The department's guidance can be found at www.dfee.gov. ukh_s_evindex.htm

AALA: Tel: 029 20 755715 www.aala.org

NATIONAL MOUNTAIN CENTRE, Plas y Brenin: Tel: 01690 720214. For more information about the new walking qualification, including details of the other venues offering the award, contact the UK Mountain Training Board on 01690 720272

ACE:Off Site Activities Risk Management. Visit www.eduvia.com - or call ACE on 01293 726410.

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