Tripping up – Are health & safety concerns and logistical red tape making school trips untenable

School Trips have clear social and educational benefits for pupils. But are health and safety concerns and logistical red tape making them untenable asks Helen Gordon.

Despite the fact that ninety-nine percent of our learning is conducted from behind a desk, some of the most enduring memories of our school days are of the times that we spend outside the classroom.

We remember the competitive excitement of inter-school sports, the muddy wetness of Geography field-trips, the disorientating strangeness of the French Exchange and of course the perennial race for the back seat of the bus.

But for many pupils today, memories such as these will be as unfamiliar as those of blackboards and chalk dust, as schools become more and more reluctant to organise trips outside of the classroom.

Figures show that the average pupil now has far fewer opportunities to access outdoor experiences than they once did, and that fewer schools are offering educational visits to pupils.

The Countryside Alliance has found that only forty six percent of children aged six to fifteen visited the countryside with their school during 2008, and last year a report by MPs on the cross-party Commons schools select committee found that government initiatives to encourage learning outside the classroom had led to no growth in the number of trips and visits offered by schools.

It suggested that schools in less affluent areas offered pupils fewer opportunities to access educational visits, and warned that school trips were in danger of becoming the preserve of a privileged elite.

Barry Sheerman MP, Committee Chair, commented: “The steep decline in the amount of time children are spending outside is shocking. Research has shown that the likelihood of a child visiting any green space has halved in a generation.

“It is vital for the government to make a commitment to a serious funding increase to ensure that all children have opportunities to visit the wealth of museums and galleries, and the natural environment of the English countryside, which are at our disposal.”

But whilst a lack of funding might play a part in preventing schools from organizing more educational trips and recreational visits, it is unwanted bureaucracy and fears over health and safety litigation that seem to be the primary reasons for the decline.

Indeed the report, entitled Transforming Learning Outside the Classroom, states that “fear of litigation remains an important factor in deterring teachers from organising trips and visits” and concludes: “Without a further drive to both ease concerns about litigation and root out the use of health and safety as an excuse for curtailing provision, the effort and funding that has been put into promoting learning outside the classroom will be wasted.”

Undoubtedly, today’s compensation culture has created a great deal of concern amongst school leaders who fear they may face legal action should they run into difficulties whilst supervising groups outside the classroom.

The Countryside Alliance has found that health and safety concerns are still the main barrier to learning outside the classroom for seventy six percent of teachers, whilst nearly half (forty nine percent) of teachers cite “fear of litigation in the unlikely event of an accident” as the primary reason for their reluctance to engage in outdoor activities.

Yet despite these fears, the likelihood of serious problems occurring on school outings is thankfully rare and well managed outdoor learning very rarely results in successful legal claims or compensation payments.

In fact, figures from The Countryside Alliance show that only 364 legal claims were made over a ten year period and fewer than half were successful and resulted in compensation payments. This means that each of the 138 local authorities included in the study paid out an average of just £293 in compensation per year between 1998 and 2008.

Simon Hart, chief executive of the Countryside Alliance, said: “Statistically, the chances of accidents happening are low and we are working to explode the myths that the countryside is any more dangerous than anywhere else. The benefits of practical countryside education far outweigh the concerns.”

Ken Round, Outdoor Education Advisor for Lincolnshire County Council echoed this sentiment: “Children face a far greater risk of injury or fatality on holiday with their parents than they do on a school visit, and in fact the greatest risk probably occurs during the drive to school,” he said.

“In a few instances, fear of health and safety law repercussions may have had a negative impact on school outings, but in Lincolnshire people are aware of how the benefits of an activity far outweigh the risks.”

The benefits of learning outside the classroom are numerous and well documented on both a national and individual scale.

The Council for Learning Outside the Classroom (LOtC) states that non-traditional learning environments are capable of “improving young people’s understanding, skills, values, personal and social development and can act as a vehicle to develop young people’s capacity and motivation to learn.”

It states that learning outside the classroom tackles social mobility, raises aspirations, addresses educational inequality, increases self-esteem, supports improved standards back inside the classroom, reduces truancy and improves discipline.

Lincolnshire’s Outdoor Education Advisor Ken Round agrees that the simple act of re-location can have untold benefits for pupils: “Contrasting locality is a huge benefit in itself,” he commented. “Many pupils get very insular, never leaving their own estates or towns and having no concept of distance.

“The simple process of travelling can have social and educational benefits, and trips can offer pupils a wide variety of experiences that schools simply can’t.

“First hand experiences make learning more memorable and information more easily retained, and residential trips can have huge sociological benefits to pupils who may be unused to interacting with their peer group in a social setting.”

In 2008, Ofsted inspected twenty seven top schools and colleges and concluded that visits to a variety of locations including museums, sports clubs and historical landmarks increased pupils’ involvement, enjoyment and, crucially, achievement in their subjects.

In light of their findings, the government pledged £4.5 million to put the traditional school trip back on the timetable, promising online guidance and training to help teachers plan outings, cash reserves to encourage more residential trips and a new ‘kitemark’ accreditation scheme to reassure staff and cut down on paperwork requirements.

But whilst measures such as the LOtC quality badge may have been introduced to make it easier for teachers to incorporate outdoor activities into the everyday curriculum, health and safety legislation has become more complex in recent years and approval forms, consent letters and risk assessments have increased workloads for teachers.

These stringent new measures are perhaps understandable. For despite the fact that serious incidents rarely occur on school visits (just sixty schoolchildren and adults died on school trips between 1985 and 2007 in the UK according to the Adventure Activities Licensing Authority), the high-profile and tragic nature of such incidents mean that they remain deeply imprinted in our nation’s psyche, driving policy makers to work harder to prevent them from ever re-occurring.

Incidents such as the Glenridding Beck tragedy in which 10-year-old schoolboy Max Palmer was swept away in a flooded river, for instance, caused the Health and Safety Executive (HSE) to review its recommendations to schools and issue a raft of new guidance to prevent similar tragedies from occurring.

The HSE stated: “HSE believes very strongly in the educational value of well-planned visits and is a firm supporter of outdoor education. However, activities must be properly planned and managed.

“The investigation [into the Glenridding tragedy] has helped to clarify thinking in a number of areas. It has also identified areas of good practice which are known to specialists, but deserve wider circulation…Leaders and managers of visits should update their arrangements accordingly.”

Of course, the health and safety of pupils is of paramount importance and it’s clear that a system of checks and measures should exist to prevent negligence or inexperience from causing unnecessary problems.

But the series of checks and counter-checks that are now required for school trips to take place has led some to see it as a minefield that prevents teachers from organising them in the first place.

Risk assessments, for instance, are widely begrudged by educationalists, who often see them as unnecessary, difficult and time-consuming.

Ken Round commented: “The risk assessment notion has often been unpopular but it’s something that teachers are competent to do as they’re already doing it on a daily basis in the classroom.

“We ask teachers for a ‘management plan’ as the term ‘risk assessment’ scares people off. The truth is you don’t have to risk assess the London Eye – the operators have already done that – you just have to write a plan detailing how you will look after pupils in a busy urban location.”

In truth, teachers do not need to devise risk assessments for all out-of-school activities, as most schools have a generic risk assessment in place that covers non-adventurous and non-residential activities.

Outdoor Education Advisor Ken Round, who approves trips for maintained schools in Lincolnshire explained: “We only ask to see risk assessments for self-led, hazardous or residential visits. If it’s a trip to an approved centre that has its own risk assessments in place or if the risks are normal to everyday life, I just need basic information about the trip submitted to me through Evolve.”

Evolve is an online educational visits approval database that has been widely adopted across the UK by local authorities wishing to simplify the approval and planning process involved with school visits.

It allows teachers to upload the details of their visits online and send them remotely to the correct people for approval. About 100 Local Authorities are now using the system, which equates to around 15,000 schools.

Director of Evolve Clive Atkins said: “Evolve is a robust and un-bureaucratic system for managing visits. Teachers like it because it simplifies the application process and Ofsted like it because it builds up lasting records.”

Ken Round added: “By using Evolve we try to remove as much of the red tape as possible, asking for a minimum amount of paperwork. Paper regulations can inhibit rather than encourage and we want to encourage more participation, not prevent it.”

But whilst those working in an advisory capacity may see the new systems as un-bureaucratic, those working at a grass roots level still feel as though there are too many hoops to jump through before they are able to take pupils outside the classroom.

Certainly, the process is far from straight-forward and there are a number of stages that teachers must go through before they are given the go-ahead to engage in outdoor learning.
Firstly, teachers must get approval for their proposed trip from the school leadership team by explaining the educational benefits for the pupils, describing how it links to the curriculum, and detailing how staffing will be covered (a major stumbling-block, as supply cover has a negative financial impact on the school.)

Next, forms detailing the particulars of the trip must be filled out, either on Evolve or in paper form, and risk assessments must be written for any trips that are not covered by the school’s generic risk assessment.

These forms are then submitted for approval to the school’s Educational Visits Coordinator, the Headteacher and (for self-led, adventurous and residential trips) the county’s Outdoor Education Advisor.

As teachers await approval from these various sources, they must get on with the practicalities of organising the trip; writing letters to parents, collecting consent forms, booking busses, briefing supply staff and preparing lesson plans to be used in their absence.

Finally, once the Educational Visits Coordinator and Outdoor Education Advisor have checked the forms, agreed that staff are appropriately qualified to lead the trip, approved the risk assessments, and signed-off the paperwork, the trip is able to go ahead.

Science teacher and Duke of Edinburgh’s Award Coordinator at Ruabon High School James Gordon said: “The system is definitely prohibitive. I’ve been offered funding for trips on two separate occasions that I’ve been unable to make use of because it was offered with two weeks’ notice and there was no way that approval could be granted in that timeframe. So yes; the kids definitely miss out on opportunities.”

“It’s frustrating because lots of people end up checking the same thing. For example, to take a group up Snowdon I need an assessment from the Mountain Leader Training Board and a log book of current experience, I then need to be checked by the county and approved by them, and also approved as a leader by the School Leadership Team (SLT).

“The trip itself then has to be checked by the SLT, the Educational Visits Coordinator, the Headteacher and the Local Authority before I can take the group out.”

He added: “It’s important to check that leaders are competent and well-trained but once the Local Authority have done this leaders should be trusted to do the job without negotiating a minefield of paperwork.”

Ultimately, schools do need to comply with a series of sensible measures to control and monitor the running of school trips, but if the process becomes too labour intensive and bureaucratic they simply won’t bother; and it’s the pupils that will miss out.

As James Gordon concluded: “Teachers are under no obligation to organise trips; we do it because we know the benefits they bring. But we don’t give up our time for free because we enjoy filling out paperwork, and if the system isn’t simplified, many of the trips will simply cease to run.”

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