Tripping over on procedure

9th July 2010 at 01:00

Our Year 5 children have just returned from a school journey to the Isle of Wight. When I was a sprightly young teacher, I used to run Isle of Wight school journeys too. But in those days, we didn't have to worry about risk assessments, crates of medicines, and an adult to every one and a half children. It all seemed so much easier.

When my imagination runs riot and I consider all the things that could go wrong, I'm surprised my teachers even agree to go. But they do, everybody has a thoroughly enjoyable time, and accidents and incidents are always minimal.

Which is a relief, because I've just received my local authority's new Policy and Procedures for Off Site Visits, Edition One. Having read it, I think I'd be hesitant about taking children to the end of the road, let alone such a hazard-laden place as the local park, or - heaven forbid - on an underground train where they could get chewed up in the escalator, fall off the platform, or have their hearing severely impaired by the noise of a train emerging from the tunnel.

The document starts by saying how much the authority values the LOtC agenda. Yep, I hadn't a clue, either. It's the acronym for "Learning Outside the Classroom". The local authority has even set up an online notification system called EVOLVE, to ensure that visits are planned in a methodical way for a "safe experience".

It wouldn't be sensible, you see, to charge parents for an Isle of Wight trip unless you'd actually organised somewhere on the Isle of Wight for the party to stay. And it would be sensible if the place wasn't on the edge of a cliff, because that could be hazardous.

The document has 42 packed pages. Page 4 offers a helpful acronym guide, so if you aren't quite sure what an ESRA is, all is explained. It's an Event Specific Risk Assessment. And just in case you thought ALF was the name of the bloke leading the expedition, it isn't. It's an Activity Leader Form.

Then we're given a list of important rules for the EVC (Educational Visits Co-ordinator) because, like the Gifted and Talented Co-ordinator, every school is supposed to appoint one.

The rules offer many surprises: the person must be competent to organise and lead a visit. That comes as quite a revelation, doesn't it? As well as the other 21 things they have to be good at, they'll also be required to keep lots of records, so they'd better be good at form-filling. But then, since teachers spend so much time filling in forms anyway, I suppose that's a given.

No document of this type is complete without a flow chart, and this is no exception. You start at the box that says, "Are you planning an Off Site Visit?" Yes, you say, I am. That's why I'm reading this form.

So you go to Box 2, asking if an external provider will be used. And so on through a dozen boxes of the bleedin' obvious. Answer them correctly, and you're told, "The Visit May Proceed". By now, I bet you're thinking I'm making this up.

And that's before you get to the risk assessment itself. Incredibly, there are multiple types of risk assessment, all with silly names. You've got generic, event specific and on-going dynamic.

Naturally, there's much additional guidance for all this on the Department for Education's website, but it would take you so long to read through it all that you'd never actually get to the Isle of Wight.

I'd love to climb into the minds of the people who write this stuff and see what makes them tick. On the other hand, perhaps not. I'd need a comprehensive risk assessment before going there.

Mike Kent is headteacher at Comber Grove Primary, Camberwell, south London. Email:

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