Education: A tragedy waiting to happen again: Michael Helby highlights the lack of official safeguards for activity holidays

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The Independent Online
ON 22 MARCH this year, eight pupils, a teacher and two instructors set off to canoe across the bay at Lyme Regis in Dorset. Only four of the teenagers came back.

Back in June 1992, two experienced instructors felt sufficiently worried about safety standards at the outdoor centre in question to write to its chief executive, voicing their concerns. 'We think you should have a very careful look at your standards of safety. Otherwise you might find yourselves trying to explain why someone's son or daughter will not be coming home.' They resigned the following week, and nine months later their prophecy came true.

Subsequently, a researcher working for BBC2's On the Line applied to 20 commercial outdoor centres for a job. None of them bothered to check his qualifications, which were bogus, and six offered him a job without an interview.

But the Government still holds back from introducing compulsory registration and inspection of outdoor and adventure holiday centres to enforce safety standards. It has only responded by promising to look into the matter once the results of investigations by the police, the coroner and Devon County Council are made public.

Approaches to individual Government departments have been met with vague promises and a shuffling of responsibility. The Department for Education did say that the problem with imposing a legal framework on such centres would be that, if an accident did occur, the parents would have no right of redress through the courts because the centre, if it had complied with the legal framework, would not have broken the law. That is like saying revenge is better than prevention.

Every year up to three million school children take part in a huge range of such activities. The aim is to give young people challenging experiences that will teach them about problem-solving, group co-operation, negotiation, creative thinking and decision making.

For many young people, particularly those who do not shine academically, such centres provide an opportunity to succeed and to increase self-confidence. For others, they provide the first experience of staying away from home without their families.

So much importance is placed on this type of training that outdoor education now forms an integral part of the national curriculum. It was described in a Commons' debate recently by the Conservative MP Michael Jopling as encouraging 'good citizenship' and playing 'a very significant part in the fight against rising youth crime'.

So it is ironic that education policy encourages adventurous outdoor activities on the one hand, while putting the squeeze on the traditional providers of such activities - the local education authority-run centres.

Even without the back-up of statutory safety standards, local authority centres are inherently safe places. Their staff are all fully qualified to instruct in the activities on offer, and most of them are qualified teachers as well. But staff of this calibre are also relatively expensive to employ.

The devolution of budgets to schools means that money previously held centrally by the authority and used to subsidise its outdoor education centres is no longer available. Seven centres are closing this year, and a further 50 are either under threat or facing staff reductions. The remainder have had to review their charges to pupils, often increasing them to the full break-even point. Ironically, the local authority centre in Lyme Regis will close in August.

It is a brave head teacher who, faced with increasing demands on available resources, will use a more expensive local authority-run centre when a nearby commercial centre is charging half the price. The head teacher also has to consider what parents can afford if everyone is to have a chance to benefit. Not surprisingly, many schools are turning to the private sector to supply their needs, which means that the lives of our children will continue to be put at risk by some operators who provide activities with minimum standards, qualifications and safety equipment.

The preliminary findings of a study of the activity and adventure holiday market in Scotland by KMPG Peat Marwick suggests that most operators also recognise that safety needs to be addressed. 'They seem keen to see a co-ordinated approach,' said Lesley McKie, manager of the study, 'possibly some form of accreditation and inspection scheme.'

The solution need not be long-winded nor costly. The Wales Tourist Board (WTB) already operates a voluntary registration and inspection scheme of activity centres that could be used as a blueprint for a national scheme.

Phil Bibby, who is contracted by the WTB to inspect centres in its scheme, has been working on the costs of a similar scheme for the English Tourist Board. He estimates the initial cost of setting up a central administration to inspect centres, using freelance inspectors, to be around pounds 160,000. The cost of the inspections themselves would be covered by the charge to each centre, which he calculates to be 50p for every person using a centre.

'It would not cost the Government big money,' says Mr Bibby. 'If it gave me pounds 300,000, I would be delighted to do it, and within a three-to five-year period it would be entirely self- financing. But it must be backed up with statutory pressure to make the scheme obligatory.'

Will the Government continue to risk lives for the sake of 50p a child?

(Photograph omitted)