Public inquiry into school trip deaths rejected: Instructors warned company of canoeing dangers 10 months before tragedy in bay

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The Independent Online
OUTDOOR adventure centres are likely to be subject to new regulations following the deaths of four children during a school canoeing trip.

Parents of three of the victims, who died of hypothermia after their canoes capsized in the freezing waters of Lyme Bay, Dorset, said that John Patten, Secretary of State for Education, had recognised the need for action during an hour-long meeting with them yesterday.

It emerged yesterday that two former staff had warned the adventure company of the potential for tragedy 10 months before the deaths. But despite this, Mr Patten refused to bow to the parents' demand for an immediate public inquiry.

He said he would reconsider if he felt questions were still outstanding once Devon County Council, the police and the coroner had concluded their own separate investigations into the deaths on 22 March.

Claire Langley, Simon Dunne and Rachel Walker, all 16, and Dean Sawyer, 17, all from Plymouth, died when their party of eight pupils, a teacher and two instructors got into difficulties in rough seas while on an activity holiday with the St Alban's centre at Lyme Regis.

The company which runs the centre, Active Learning and Leisure, was told in a letter of the shortcomings of staffing levels, equipment and training by two instructors concerned at the situation. It says: 'We think you should take a very careful look at standards of safety otherwise you will find yourself trying to explain why someone's son or daughter is not coming home. Nobody wishes or wants that to happen, but it will sooner or later.'

The instructors, a woman and her boyfriend, wrote to Peter Kite, the managing director, after becoming alarmed at expansion plans which would put pressure on a system they felt was already stretched. In one incident they said that 20 children and two teachers had been accompanied by only two instructors, though one of these had never sat in a canoe.

'That makes one instructor to 23 beginners for a two-hour session,' the letter says. 'To our reckoning that is three times the specified ratio of one to eight as stated by the British Canoe Union. At present we are walking a very fine line between 'getting away with it' and having a very serious incident.'

Yesterday, the families presented the letter to Mr Patten, who was said to be 'surprised' by the contents. Explaining his reaction, Noel Dunne, father of Simon, said: 'I just found it chilling reading that someone was predicting 10 months ago what was going to happen to our child.'

David Jamieson, the Labour MP for Plymouth Devonport, who accompanied the families, said that the meeting had highlighted shortcomings of some centres. 'Information from the Association of Heads of Outdoor Centres tells us that some are working down to price rather than up to safety. Some are operating like cowboy centres.'

Denis Walker, Rachel's father, said: 'Mr Patten intimated that regulation will take place and we are happy about that.'

Mr Patten said: 'We will look very carefully at the way in which a framework for regulating activity centres could be established once all the inquiries have been completed.'