The fact that children are missing out on adventurous school trips because of teachers' fears of being sued if students are injured is a sad indictment of our society. A report by the education watchdog Ofsted this week warned that too many schools were failing to take pupils on trips despite the obvious social and physical benefits to young people. Activities such as caving, rock climbing and canoeing are ideal ways to teach children teamwork and leadership as well as getting them to test their physical skills in new and challenging situations. But fear of litigation is making teachers extremely reluctant to take children on such excursions. The result is a "marked narrowing" of the curriculum and the creation of a generation that is forced to spend school days doing "safe" activities in the classroom.
David Bell, the chief inspector of schools in England, says that teachers have nothing to fear so long as they obey government safety guidelines. In his defence he cites figures from a government taskforce showing that compensation claims have fallen over the past school year. But the second biggest teaching union disagrees. The National Association of Schoolmasters Union of Women Teachers is advising all its members never to take children on trips, claiming that it deals with many cases every year where teachers face terrifying legal claims because of accidents. The reason may be that a number of high-profile cases have struck fear into the hearts of school staff.
There is no question that safety guidelines are vital and must always be followed. But, however carefully a trip is organised, accidents can always happen. Perhaps in a world in which people are much more aware of their rights we should not be surprised that more and more staff are reluctant to take the risk.
But if we as a nation we want our children to have the kind of "memorable journeys" described in Bell's report, then we need to readdress the balance between safety and adventure. The number of compensation claims may have dropped over the past year, but fear among teachers of being sued has not. More must be down to allay teachers' fears. But parents must trust teachers, and all must accept that sometimes accidents do happen. Sometimes nobody is to blame.