Tragedy sparks safety backlash

13th July 2001 at 01:00
A union is advising teachers not to go on school trips after last week's drowning, reports Esther Leach

TEACHERS on the school trip to northern France, which ended in the drowning of 11-year-old Bunmi Shagaya, are not expected to return to work before the end of the term.

The six teachers, including head Nicholas Oliver, are described as "still very shaken up" and doctors have advised them not to return to Hillmead primary, in Brixton, south London.

Robert Blower, a spokesman for Lambeth council, said they were being offered counselling after arriving home grief-stricken and emotionally drained. One teacher collapsed and was treated in hospital when she was told that Bunmi's body had been found.

He added that some of the 41 children on the trip have returned to class and counsellors and educational psychologists were at the school. In a statement, the Shagaya family said: "We want to know where the teachers were when our daughter allegedly drowned. We wish we were there to save our daughter."

A magistrate in France is expected to be appointed this week to lead an investigation into Bunmi's death at Caniel Lake at Cany Barville, near Dieppe, where she disappeared on Monday, July 2. Her body was found in shallow water three days later after a search involving up to 100 officers, divers, sniffer dogs and a police helicopter. She had been discovered missing during a roll call by staff after the visit to the lake.

Bunmi's body was flown home on Tuesday and a postmortem examination is being carried out. Her funeral is expected to take place tomorrow.

Mr Blower said teachers may have to return to France to answer questions from an investigating magistrate. He also confirmed that the council is commissioning an independent inquiry into the tragedy which will look at the preparations for the trip, events on the day, reporting of the incident and action taken.

Questions will be asked about the level of supervision on the trip. According to the LEA, the trip was well within the requirement of one teacher for 10 pupils but there is uncertainty over whether parents were consulted about their children's swimming capabilities. Bunmi was not a strong swimmer. She had achieved her 10-metre swimming certificate this year. Lambeth said that the school trip was properly insured by Zurich Municipal and that swimming was not considered a hazardous activity.

Earlier, the School Journey Association, which helped Hillmead organise the trip - its first overseas-said the school had been told that, while swimming was available in the area they were heading to, it could be a hazard and would involve heavy insurance cover.

The association's chairman, Peter Gallally, said the decision to swim had been made when the school party arrived in France.

Nigel de Gruchy, general secretary of the National Association of Schoolmasters Union of Women Teachers, said his thoughts were with Bunmi's family. He repeated the advice to union members not to go on school trips. "The risks are too great. Accidents will always happen and the media is already pointing the finger of blame at teachers even before the facts have been established."

A spokeswoman for the National Union of Teachers said it would not give the same advice to its members. "There are 7.5 million children in this country who will go on some kind of school trip and we really cannot give that kind of blanket advice," she added.

The Royal Society for the Prevention of Accidents said there were no statistics as far as it was aware comparing deaths on family holidays and school trips. But spokesman Roger Vincent said parents needed to take responsibility and ask their own questions about how safe their child will be on a school trip.

"They (parents) shouldn't just hand over their child to the school and say 'it's all right'. Parents should be asking the questions...what will they be doing on the trip, are they swimming, are they skiing, can my child do these things, how well trained are the teachers in these activities, is it safe to send my child on this school trip? If you are not satisfied say no, even if it means disappointing your child."

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