Along with countless other teachers in the UK, I spent last week leading a school ski trip. The group of 11- to 17-year-olds were having a wonderful time in the mountains near Kitzbuhel in Austria when a call came through from one of our parents, wanting to know if their child was safe. They had just heard the news that a young lad had died on a ski trip in Austria, but didn't know which school was involved.
Their sense of relief was palpable when I told them everyone in our party was fine. But mixed emotions ran through my own head: thank goodness it wasn't us; how terrible for the family and friends; how on earth must the staff and pupils on the trip be feeling; how could it have happened?
That evening, we kept a minute's silence for Hayden Waller, the 12-year-old from The Howard School in Rainham, Kent, who fell to his death hiking near Mallnitz. It was a sobering reminder to everyone to respect the environment we were in.
Safely back home, I was able to find out more. My strongest feeling was one of deep admiration for Hayden's family, who have said they don't hold the school responsible for the accident, despite the strong inclination of anyone in such a tragic situation to want to find someone to blame. What happened, it appears, was something that could easily have occurred on any trip. Indeed, the very day Hayden died, we had given our pupils two hours' free time after skiing. They were allowed to go to the shop or for a walk in the village, so long as they were in a small group and told us when they had returned. They were warned about the traffic and the icy conditions. No different, I'm sure, from the arrangements made up and down the mountains of Europe and America this half-term.
But we must also hope that the authorities will respond to this tragedy sensibly. Of course there needs to be an investigation, but we mustn't allow the teachers to feel they are on trial. The last thing we need is a massive inquiry that recommends even more detailed risk assessments and statutory procedures. No sensible risk assessment would have prevented this accident. Pupils cannot be supervised every minute of the day. There has to be a level of trust and responsibility, just as there is when parents let their children walk or cycle to school each day or go out to play with friends.
At our school, the annual ski trip is an important part of our extra-curricular programme, made accessible to all students through a bursary scheme. For some of this year's participants, it was the first time they had ever seen a mountain up close. For others, captivated by the whole experience, it was another sprinkle of fertiliser on our seedbed of growing aspiration, so important in a community that has a tendency to undervalue its own potential.
Giving young people the chance to visit such places broadens their horizons and helps them set challenging goals for themselves. Residential experiences, especially abroad, are particularly good at helping pupils develop important social skills, independence, and an appreciation of different cultures. They also give them the chance to overcome challenges, both individually and in teams. The impact on self-esteem can be huge, especially for those who find some aspects of school life challenging but have the chance to shine doing something they discover they are good at in an unfamiliar environment.
Our thoughts are with Hayden's family, friends and colleagues, but let's not forget the great benefits that such trips provide.
- Andy Buck's book, 'Making School Work: A Practical Approach to Secondary School Leadership', is published by Greenwich Exchange.
Andy Buck, Headteacher of the Eastbrook-Jo Richardson Partnership in Barking and Dagenham, east London.