A return to common sense for educational visits

Running a school trip is a serious responsibility. Michael Evans highlights the importance of keeping safety concerns and risk assessments in perspective when organising off-site activities.

Striking the balance

It has long been accepted that school trips and outdoor learning opportunities enhance the educational experience of pupils, increase self-confidence and bring the curriculum to life.

Although large numbers of successful visits and outdoor learning activities continue to take place each year, the Health and Safety Executive (HSE) acknowledges that misunderstandings with respect to health and safety law — together with what is viewed by many teachers as a burdensome amount of paperwork — has discouraged many staff from organising such trips. Added to this is the continual fear of litigation if anything should go wrong, and of being sued in the event of a child being injured.

The HSE regards many of the concerns about bureaucracy and prosecution as nothing more than myths. It is a clear supporter of out-of-school learning, whether this involves visits to museums, trips to the countryside or participation in challenging or adventurous activities. It is keen to ensure that unfounded concerns about health and safety do not prevent this sort of learning from taking place. While agreeing that well-managed school trips and outdoor activities are beneficial to children, the HSE points out that they will not learn about risk if they are wrapped in cotton wool.

The challenge for schools is that in order for pupils to gain the maximum benefit from school trips, the right balance must be struck between allowing children to develop their knowledge while at the same time protecting them from undue harm.

Focal points

The HSE has drawn up two lists to help schools find the balance, identifying both essential considerations and those areas that are less crucial.

Important issues are:

  • the need to focus on the real risks when planning trips, and for leaders to ensure that these are appropriately managed

  • the need for leaders to fully understand and be competent in their role, and to receive appropriate support

  • the need for learning opportunities to be experienced to the full.

This does not mean that:

  • every aspect of the visit should be set out in copious amounts of paperwork in order to act as a security blanket for those organising the trip

  • lower-risk school trips require the same level of detailed risk assessment and recording procedures that are necessary when planning higher-risk school trips

  • mistakes and accidents will never happen

  • all risks must be eliminated.

The appropriate support given to leaders should include school procedures that are proportionate to the level of risk and that avoid bureaucracy. These should also take into account the assessments and procedures of any other organisations that are involved and should ensure that there is clear communication between any parties.

Any risk assessments should focus on real risks and not those that are trivial and unlikely. The school policy should be proportionate, eg taking account of the fact that although higher-risk activities such as climbing, caving or water-based activities must be properly planned and assessed, trips involving lower-risk activities should be quick and easy to organise.

Appropriate, effective and proportionate preparation for a trip is vital, but completion of paperwork should not be the prime focus of the exercise.

Communication is most important. Group leaders should clearly communicate information about planned activities with colleagues, pupils and parents. This should include any precautions to be taken, with an explanation as to why these might be necessary.

Any precautions that do need to be taken must be seen to work in practice. Contingency plans must be drawn up and leaders should know when and how these should be applied, if the need arises. Leaders must be aware of the value of advice and warnings from those who have specialist local knowledge and expertise, especially with respect to higher-risk activities.

When things go wrong

Sometimes, in spite of careful planning and the taking of all reasonable precautions, things can go badly wrong. The HSE is fully aware of this and will work closely with the police and others to investigate any serious or fatal accident. However, it maintains that the fear of prosecution has been blown out of all proportion.

In the rare cases where it considers that a party leader has been guilty of reckless behaviour, the HSE will not hesitate to prosecute. That said, in cases where things do go wrong on a school trip, provided the staff concerned had taken sensible and proportionate precautions beforehand, it is highly unlikely that there would have been any breach in health and safety law sufficient to warrant a prosecution.

Government guidance

The Government is also very keen to support school trips and emphasises that it wishes to reduce the burdens on schools by removing unnecessary paperwork and reducing teachers’ fears of legal action.

The latest Government advice echoes that of the HSE, in that schools should adopt a common sense and proportionate approach. Regulations under the Health and Safety at Work, etc Act 1974 continue to apply, particularly relating to risk assessments and staff training. Guidance points out that it is not necessary to conduct a new risk assessment for every activity if one has been carried out before, eg for routine activities such as weekly visits to the swimming pool. For other activities that involve higher levels of risk, a review of an existing assessment may be all that is needed.

The guidance texts Health and Safety of Pupils on Educational Visits (HASPEV) and Health and Safety: Responsibilities and Powers have now been replaced by a much slimmed-down advice document. This, in turn, will be reviewed in the summer of 2012 when the Government intends to review health and safety laws and simplify them further.

Schools must have an appropriate written policy in place and must continue to care for all children in a way that a prudent parent would. Regulations with respect to trips abroad remain the same, as do those for the reporting of injuries and accidents.

For activities involving climbing, caving, trekking, skiing or water sports, a school must still check that the provider holds a licence as required by the Adventure Activities Licensing Regulations 2004. However, it has been proposed that the Adventure Activities Licensing Authority should be abolished and a decision has yet to be made as to the nature of its successor.

With respect to parental permissions, because the majority of off-site visits take place in school time, the Government does not consider permission to be necessary every time (except in the case of nursery children), but parents should always be told where their children are. Written consent would only be required for activities involving a higher level of risk or for activities that take place outside school hours.

The Department for Education has prepared a “one-off” consent form for parents to sign at the time of their child’s enrolment, covering participation in all off-site activities during a child’s time at a school. This further reduction of paperwork will hopefully encourage additional opportunities for pupils.