The trip of a lifetime?

After a number of tragic accidents, parents and teachers are anxious about children taking part in out-of-school activities. Steve McCormack investigates how serious the risks really are
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With less than a fortnight to go before the end of term, the school trip season is at its peak. Many schools have activity weeks where almost every pupil goes on a day trip somewhere or other. And longer holidays, to activity centres and abroad, which go on all year round, are particularly common in July.

For some, though, recent events have called into question the safety of such ventures. In June, a 17-year-old sixth former from Blackburn fell to his death while on a school walk along the cliffs at Lizard Point in Cornwall. Last week, a London girls' school was heavily criticised after 39 unprepared pupils were caught with just one teacher atop a mountain in the Cairngorms. And the recent murder conviction of the man who killed the Cornish schoolgirl Caroline Dickinson in France eight years ago has again raised concerns about security in youth hostels and similar residential establishments.

Understandably, these incidents have heightened awareness among teachers running such trips of the risks of taking children into the outside world. And they've led some teaching unions to revise their guidance for members, the thrust of which now almost verges on: "Don't get involved!"

Advice put out by the National Association of Schoolmasters and Union of Women Teachers (Nasuwt) bears the unmistakable fingerprints of lawyers. It says: "The union advises members to consider carefully whether they should be involved in educational visits at all." Cases are highlighted where teachers have been heavily penalised or lost their jobs as a result of accidents during school outings. "We believe teachers are taking considerable risks on educational visits," says Chris Keates, the acting general secretary of the Nasuwt.

The National Union of Teachers' (NUT's) guidance, on its website, is in the same vein: "Recent tragic incidents have shown that health and safety must be a prime concern and that, without proper concern for safety at every stage, these trips are unacceptably risky."

Fortunately for children, teachers at the majority of schools seem to maintain the belief that, on balance, the benefits of extracurricular trips far outweigh the risks. Most schools still arrange a variety of outings for pupils and value the educational benefits they bring.

Fullbrook School, a large mixed comprehensive near Woking, in Surrey, has an extensive and varied year-round programme of activities. There are annual holidays to skiing resorts, water sports and adventure centres, and language trips to Germany, France and Spain. In addition, the school emphasises the educational merit of first-hand experience by taking large groups on geography field trips and to First World War sites at Ypres in Belgium.

The head teacher, Richard Elms, says the benefits to students are immeasurable: "We have always placed great emphasis on the educational value of taking students out of the classroom to see the world at first hand," he says. "These experiences compliment the learning done at school, and contribute to the transformation of our students into rounded, balanced individuals who'll be a credit to themselves and the school."

Fullbrook's head of Spanish, Angela McOwan, is in the final stages of organising the annual week-long visit to Calafell, near Barcelona, for about 40 14-year-olds. It's the fourth time she's organised the visit. "Many students have told me that the Spanish language has become real to them for the first time on this trip," she explains. "And relationships between kids and teachers formed during the time away from school can be taken back into the classroom and have a positive, ongoing effect on learning and the whole school experience."

In a non-stop week, the group visit historical and cultural sites in Catalonia, including climbing up the soaring towers of Gaudi's famous Sagrada Familia cathedral, and walking down the teeming Ramblas boulevard in Barcelona. There are also games on the beach and visits to water and theme parks. In total, five staff accompany the trip.

"Safety is always paramount," insists McOwan. "Risk assessments are carried out for each day's activities. Several teachers are present when the kids are on the beach, for example, and the students have to check in with staff at fixed, regular intervals."

At local education authority (LEA) level, Surrey is beefing up the support structure to help schools keep organising such activities. In response to Government guidelines, nearly all the county's 415 schools now have an educational visits coordinator, a nominated teacher experienced in the areas of organisation, avoidance of risk and keeping in touch with expertise available at the LEA.

However, Surrey's outdoor education advisor, Alan Cottle, warns against the assumption that anything is totally risk free. "There's no such thing as zero risk, and we would be wrong to pretend that there is. However, compared with the number of young people these days who are hurt, or killed, in road accidents every day of the year, the numbers of serious accidents on school trips is minuscule."

Cornwall Education Authority, which had to endure the anguish and scrutiny associated with the Caroline Dickinson case, has continued to champion the benefits of taking pupils away, and there has been no drop-off in school outings. In fact the Dickinson case led the county LEA, and Caroline's school, Launceston College, to work together with the DfES to compile new national guidelines for all types of trip (they can be seen at wholeschool/healthandsafety/visits).

Typically, organisers of residential trips abroad are advised to take the following precautions: to book sole occupancy of a hostel or a separate section of it; to ensure there are coded door-locks for dormitories, allowing for security and escape in the event of fire; to insist that a teacher or adult acts as a "night watchman"; and to liaise with the local police.

A statement from the Department for Education and Skills this week underlined its backing for teachers taking pupils out of school. "Safely conducted and well supervised visits are an important part of any child's education. We value, and are committed to supporting, the professional competence of teachers who supervise educational visits, many of whom do so in their own spare time," it says.

Many school holidays abroad are of the activity centre variety. The adventure company PGL runs 27 such centres in the UK and France, accommodating nearly 100,000 children every year. The centres lay on activities such as abseiling, surfing, canoeing, quad biking and archery, as well as less strenuous pursuits in the forest walk/ecology trail vein.

PGL's director of corporate affairs, Martin Hudson, is aware of parents' concerns. "Safety considerations are paramount. We take our responsibilities for other people's children very seriously. But life does involve risk, and our aim is to make children aware of the risks in a secure environment and to understand that precautions have to be taken to avoid injuries. We have procedures, equipment and staff training to fulfil what might appear to be hazardous activities in a safe way, to give children tremendous enjoyment at facing challenging endeavours."

But, for young children, just going into a city centre or using public transport can be a new, daunting, and valuable experience.

Debbie Finch, the deputy dead at St Paul's Church of England Primary School in north London, recently took 29 six- and seven-year-olds to central London for the day. The outing entailed many of the pupils travelling on the Underground for the first time. "The weekend before the trip, I did the exact journey myself on the tube, and walked the route from Westminster station to the London Aquarium at County Hall and then along the South Bank," she says. "I made sure we used the Underground exits that avoided having to cross any roads with the children at all."

Finch had already spent time in lessons at school preparing the children for the journey, discussing what they might see and where they might have to be extra careful. Five additional adults went with her. They stayed out nearly all day, and the trip was a resounding success.

"One of the unplanned high points was when we came across a band playing salsa music on the South Bank. The kids just started dancing in front of the band and had a whale of a time. But what was most touching was one girl who lives halfway up a tower block saying to me at the end of the day that she'd had the best day of her life. That alone made it all worthwhile."

The head teacher at St Paul's, John Wilkinson, is in no doubt of the benefits of such trips, and has little time for those who say teachers are running unacceptable risks. "Of course safety is a prime concern. But it would be a shame if fears of litigation over a twisted ankle or a bumped head made teachers decide it wasn't worth it.

"Children need first-hand experiences, adventure and fun, and school trips deliver just that, especially to those kids kept prisoner in their blocks of flats. Good teachers know this. They'll just take an even deeper breath and continue to lead that excited crocodile out of the school gates for a day to remember."