The Department for Education and Skills has issued new guidelines for staff organising school trips. But some unions fear it will do little to change the blame culture that leaves teachers open to accusations when trips go wrong.
Four new documents have been produced to supplement the Health and Safety of Pupils on Educational Visits (HASPEV) guide first published in 1998.
Three are still in draft form, including a new handbook for teachers and advice on running adventure activities with an introduction by Tony Blair. After consultation, they should be finalised by the end of February.
The new guidance makes it clear that although the local education authority, as the employer of teachers in most maintained schools, has the ultimate legal responsibility for the safety of pupils, the task will usually be delegated to an "educational visits co-ordinator" in each school.
This has done little to soften the hard line the National Association of Schoolmasters Union of Women Teachers took after a spate of high profile accidents last summer - including the death of London schoolgirl Bunmi Shagaya, 11, who drowned in a lake during a school trip to France.
General secretary Nigel de Gruchy said: "It doesn't matter what guidance the department puts out. If an accident happens, then the initial suspicion of blame falls on the teacher, no matter what the circumstances are.
"The onus will fall on a particular teacher to make a risk assessment before organising a visit, which makes that teacher even more liable to finger pointing and blame if something goes wrong. There seems no longer to be the idea of a genuine accident.
"It can ruin teachers' careers and family lives, even if they are found to be completely blameless. We now advise our members not to take children on these trips."
Gale Waller is senior project manager in the Local Government Association's education and social policy team. She sympathises with the union but welcomes the new guidelines: "I can see why some unions take the view that they do. You cannot always be certain what a child is going to do, they will dive off when you least expect it. The last thing the unions want is to have to defend one of their members through a court case. But provided a proper risk assessment has been done, any trip will be as safe as it can be.
"I'm not into the blame culture. But if teachers are organising a trip and don't follow the guidelines, they are culpable. That's why training is so important."
Under the new guidelines, LEAs are responsible for offering teachers and heads training in risk assessment, first aid, minibus driving, life saving and, where necessary, medical support for pupils with specific needs.
To this end the guidance states that the LEA must "ensure that the local funding scheme allows it to insist on release of school staff for training". But Ms Waller is sceptical that authorities have the resources to pay for extensive training. She says: "Council staffing has been reduced so much that there are often not enough people working in health and safety who can run courses."
Her fears are shared by Julie Grant, president of the Association of Teachers and Lecturers. She said: "Anything to do with funding always is an issue."
But Ms Grant is impressed by the new emphasis in the guidance on getting pupils involved in assessing the risks of their activities. "Involving pupils in the management of risk will help to develop their reasoning and communications skills and teach them that they, as well as adults, are responsible for their actions," she said.
"We will never eliminate accidents altogether. But with the right guidance and training we can move a long way towards a near perfect system."
For further information on the new guidelines, call 0870 000 2288 or visit the websites www.dfes.gov.uk or www. teachernet.gov.uk