Risk - an essential part of growing up

We need to take a cool look at the situation which led to the loss of two Leeds schoolgirls in the Yorkshire Dales

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The loss of two young Leeds schoolgirls in the Yorkshire Dales has led to many questions about the circumstances of their deaths. Some headlines have come close to blaming the teachers in charge of the group of 15 teenagers from Royds School, in Oulton. No doubt there will be calls for a review (ie, a tightening) of the guidelines on outdoor activities and the abolition of certain types of activities.

The loss of two young Leeds schoolgirls in the Yorkshire Dales has led to many questions about the circumstances of their deaths. Some headlines have come close to blaming the teachers in charge of the group of 15 teenagers from Royds School, in Oulton. No doubt there will be calls for a review (ie, a tightening) of the guidelines on outdoor activities and the abolition of certain types of activities.

Before any action is taken, we need to take a cool look at the situation. It is just seven years since the tragedy in Lyme Bay, off the Dorset coast, in which four sixth-formers died in a canoeing accident and many local education authorities produced guidance on safety in outdoor activities. Only two years ago the Government introduced guidelines for schools, with compulsory risk assessment and recommended levels of supervision.

A head's first responsibility is for the health and safety of pupils. Heads take very seriously their responsibility to ensure that activities are conducted in a way that safeguards the children.

These are not easy decisions. Some element of risk cannot be avoided and is often present in the lives of children when they are under the supervision of their parents or on their own, even more than when they are under the head's jurisdiction. The speaker on Radio 4's Today programme who said on Friday that all school outdoor activities should be devoid of risk was stating both the impossible and the undesirable.

The head of Royds has been sending 13-year-olds on outdoor weeks for 13 years. Some 2,500 young people have had the benefit of these weeks in the remote, beautiful Yorkshire Dales. Most will have enjoyed the experience and benefited from it.

Risk is part of all these activities, and exposure to properly assessed and limited risk is an important part of growing up. From the pupils' viewpoint, therefore, outdoor activities must continue, and the reaction to the Stainforth Beck tragedy must be measured.

There is another important reason to pause before jumping to judgement. The number of teachers willing to lead these expeditions is falling. One major teachers' union advises its members not to put their careers in jeopardy by participating in such activities. Parents are much more litigious nowadays, and it is hardly surprising that members of an overworked, under-appreciated profession decide not to offer their services for activities involving risk.

In a teaching career of 30 years, I took hundreds of children on walks in some of the most beautiful places in the north of England, and I have led parties of young people on visits to Russia and Japan. The understanding between teacher and pupil was richer because of the time spent together, encountering new challenges and jointly solving the consequent problems.

There is a fine line to be drawn between adequate protection and overprotection. Schools must always try to ensure that arrangements for outdoor activities have sufficient safeguards, but society should not expect schools to remove every conceivable risk. That would be to no one's benefit, particularly the children themselves.

 

John Dunford is general secretary of the Secondary Heads Association and was formerly head of Durham Johnston Comprehensive School.

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