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October 12, 2011

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School trips – Journeys’ end?

School visits have been in the news quite a bit recently – mainly because the Government has been trying to persuade teachers to organise more visits by reducing health and safety “bureaucracy”1 but, as Peter Cookson argues, it is not paperwork that stops teachers organising visits – parental attitudes and plans to do away with the Adventure Activities Licensing Authority (AALA)2 are more likely to be the final nails in the coffin of educational trips.

School visits are a good thing but very few are compulsory. They are organised because learning is about more than just being in a classroom, and a school visit can bring weeks of lessons to life. Pupils go to mountains, moorland, rivers, shopping malls, museums, art galleries, castles, historic houses, artificial ski slopes, ponds, farms and theme parks – to list just some. There are overseas visits, exchanges, sports trips and adventure holidays – in other words, there is no such thing as a typical school visit.

The vast majority of school visits take place with no problems. Contrary to popular belief, teachers are not unduly worried about being prosecuted under the Health and Safety at Work, etc. Act 1974, or being subject to corporate manslaughter charges. Bureaucratic paperwork was forced on schools by the government in the 1990s. Since then, sensible schools and local authorities have adapted it and many of the latter only need to provide approval if the visit involves hazardous activities, or an overnight stay. (This approval is now often online, using a secure system called EVOLVE.)

In fact, the guidelines and exemplar paperwork provided by the Department for Children, Schools and Families (now the Department for Education) in 1998 were very thorough and very good. It ensured that hazardous and residential visits had to be planned. School governors had to be happy that all the risks had been considered and dealt with appropriately before they gave their permission for the visit to happen.

Day visits do not need governor approval but they do need the head’s approval and so should go through the school’s management systems. This can be bureaucratic but the best schools recognise that risk is about proportionality and always has been. No – if school visits are less frequent now, it is down to other things.

So sue me
These days, schools are very concerned about parental litigation – so much so that one teaching union, the NASUWT, has advised its members not to undertake school visits for this very reason. Parents challenge schools much more, making accusations about issues that have occurred on school trips, whether they concern minor injuries, or punishment for poor behaviour. Where there has been a serious accident, then schools are seen to be automatically at fault by parents, and judges seem to agree.

In 2000, a case came to court regarding a school skiing trip, on which two older teenage pupils disobeyed explicit instructions about skiing off-piste. They had already been caught and warned against doing it again. They did so anyway, and one was seriously injured. The school was held to be partially liable because the judge said that a reasonable parent would have taken away the boys’ ski passes.3 Although this was overturned on appeal, the damage was done.

In another case, young children went on a farm visit in 2000, during which a four-year-old was exposed to E.coli and was subsequently left permanently brain-damaged. The risk of E.coli from contact with animal faeces is obvious and farm-owners are responsible for ensuring risk assessments are in place. But the farm and the school (through the Local Authority) admitted 95-per-cent liability – although, as the case was settled out of court, the apportioning of liability is unknown.4

Not surprisingly, these types of cases give rise to deep concerns about safety and about costs. Many schools are no longer within local-authority control (foundation, trust or academy schools) and it is the Government’s stated aim that all schools become academies. This will mean that all schools will be directly responsible for all liabilities and costs – and they cannot afford this. Because the HSE says risk, though it cannot be eliminated, can be properly managed so, if they are to avoid litigation, schools and local authorities have to ensure that proper management systems are in place and that parents are kept informed.

Worst behaviour
Probably the biggest concern teachers have is pupil behaviour. The hazards involved in most visits are negligible because places such as museums and art galleries are not inherently dangerous. Where riskier activities are involved, schools will usually make use of companies, or field centres that have the expertise to ensure that pupils are safe. In this way schools are not directly responsible for health and safety and do not have to undertake risk assessments for these activities. But as well as having to fulfil their duties under the HSWA 1974, teachers operate under a specific common-law duty, that of ‘in loco parentis’. There is a duty to take reasonable care of pupils and act as a reasonable parent might act – and this opens the door to the aforementioned litigious parents.

Pupil behaviour is routinely cited as a cause of workplace stress by teachers. If pupils don’t behave in the classroom, they won’t behave when they are on a visit. Individual pupils can be very badly behaved, but groups of pupils do not behave as would be expected, either. It is well known that fire-evacuation planners have to take account of group dynamics and behaviour – the same is true for planning school visits.

At the very least, groups of students – of all age groups – tend be less aware of the hazards around them and less attentive and responsive to warnings. Where the visit entails taking pupils who have a record of misbehaviour, and, often, serious misbehaviour, there is always concern about those pupils and the effect on others.

The obvious solution – the control measure – is to not take those unruly pupils, but that is not always possible. Firstly, there may be an issue of discrimination: if the poor behaviour is the result of an identified underlying medical condition, then removing the pupil from the visit is a clear case of discrimination. Secondly, not to take a pupil on a visit is something many schools are loath to do because of the effect on that pupil – especially if the rest of the class or year group are going. All of the above has to be considered for what might be termed ‘ordinary’ school visits to places like museums, where the number and severity of hazards are very low. If the school has significant poor behaviour, then it is often easier not to plan a visit.

Now put that into the context of more hazardous visits, such as residential and overseas trips, and adventure activities and holidays. These are the visits that tend to be the most memorable for pupils, and from which they can get the most. But from a teacher’s point of view they are the most difficult.

For example, residential visits are always a problem. Older pupils try to get out of their rooms, either to go to other pupils’ bedrooms, to find a bar, or just for fun. Instances have been recorded of supervised pupils using window ledges to move from room to room because their teachers are checking corridors! Rooms could be checked but this wakes pupils, and constantly going into pupils’ bedrooms to check invites the possibility of complaint from pupils and their parents. Nevertheless, 24-hour supervision is required and staff can’t go to bed until the last student has gone to sleep and they have to be up before the first student is awake.

The cost of control
The control method for behaviour is supervision and there are clear guidelines as to how many adults are required to supervise students of different ages. Obviously, where there is a greater hazard then there have to be greater control measures, so if a pupil is a known behaviour risk then he or she will need greater supervision, i.e. an adult specifically allocated to look after them.

Providing supervision for pupils would seem to be easy for schools, as there are lots of people who can undertake this role. That is true to an extent but it is not as easy as it sounds. Schools have to ensure that all safeguarding issues have been addressed, as any school that allowed an adult on a school visit without a Criminal Records Bureau check would be seen to be taking a risk. Therefore most supervisors are school staff, especially in secondary schools.

School visits can be very costly – not only in terms of supervision but also transport (for anything other than a very local visit, some form of transport will be necessary) and there will often be entrance and other costs. Parents have to pay for most visits but the school, too, bears significant costs. First of all, the normal running of a school is disrupted by a visit; having support staff supervise a visit could mean that phones may not be manned, or the library might be closed. If teachers go, then the school will have to employ supply teachers to ensure other pupils not on the trip are taught. One supply teacher can cost a school up to £300 per day (in 2009/10 schools spent some £293 million on supply teachers). Understandably, school managers want to reduce their costs and one way is to charge all or part of the costs of supply to the visit – and to parents.

The pupil behaviour issue raises its head again here as, in many schools, it deteriorates when the pupils have a supply teacher in front of them. In addition, school visits take up a lot of time. If every subject had one visit per year group, per year that could amount to an annual total of 100 curriculum visits. That is very expensive for parents and means pupils would miss a lot of teaching time, which, in turn would affect results and league tables. No school can afford to see its ranking slump and anything that reduces time away from their pupils by teachers is looked at very carefully by managers.

Consequently, schools have to ration the number of visits that are undertaken – firstly, because they or the parents can’t afford them and secondly, because of the potential impact on the learning of all those who do not go on the visit. That is why many schools pack visits into the end of the summer term. In secondary schools, teachers have more time at this point, because exam classes have left school and both the primary and secondary sectors see the end of the summer term as being less important in terms of classroom learning. The alternative is to organise them during holidays and half-term breaks, especially residential trips. However, teachers have become increasingly averse to this, as visits then disrupt their own family life.

Risk assessment
Government advice is now to do away with risk assessments for typical visits, not have an educational visits coordinator (EVC), and to obtain parental permission for all visits at the start of the child’s school career.5 But this sits badly with both the law and HSE advice about managing risk. The former is quite clear that any activity that is hazardous needs to be risk-assessed and the findings recorded in some way. The latter states that “precautions should be proportionate to the risks involved” and that “risk assessment focuses attention on real risks – not risks that are trivial and fanciful”.

A risk assessment is a good way of ensuring that proper organisation is in place and that all adults involved know what the arrangements are. Having an educational visits coordinator, in particular, can help schools ensure that risk is managed and that organisational learning can take place, something the HSE is very keen on. An EVC also allows schools to demonstrate that they are acting reasonably and that they have management systems for overseeing visits – necessary to successfully fight litigation. EVCs also provide support for visit leaders, something which the HSE says is imperative. The person appointed is usually a senior member of staff and someone who has experience of school visits in their different forms. Abandoning them would therefore seem quite foolish.

Increasingly, however, EVCs are likely to be business managers, who usually have little direct experience of visits and thus are often unable to tell the difference between a real risk and a fanciful risk. This has the inevitable consequence of making risk assessments long and bureaucratic because no one knows any better. Their role also makes them risk-averse because they understand the financial consequences of litigation – especially if the school is no longer within local-authority control.

It is also unlikely that schools will cease to ask for parental permission. The DfE is clear that parents have to be informed as to where their children are during the school day, if there is a school visit. As visits have to be paid for, schools are asking permission anyway because payment implies acceptance. Payment also means that parents should be kept fully informed about any risks or hazards, as this reduces the possibility of litigation.

On a more mundane level, if there is an accident that involves some form of medical intervention, then contacting parents is a necessity. Many parents do not update schools about contact details, or changes in children’s medical conditions, so informing them and asking for their permission is a sensible precaution. In the case of residential visits, or hazardous activities, teachers will always hold a meeting so that parents can be informed about arrangements and raise any concerns.

Don’t know what you’ve got til it’s gone
Where activities are of a more adventurous nature, part of the reassurance is often the fact that the HSE regulates these activities and companies – but not for much longer.2 Adventure holidays in all forms are undertaken by a lot of schools. They promote the kind of soft skills that industry says schools should be developing, including team work, decision-making, leadership and communication skills. They are organised for younger pupils as a means of promoting friendship and social cohesion, and they provide all pupils with challenges that are exciting and outside their normal experience.

Poor behaviour is usually rare on this type of visit because discipline is enforced not by teachers but by expert adults who can explain the consequences of poor behaviour when doing potentially dangerous activities. In addition, the physical exercise tires pupils out!

But there is concern in schools about these types of school visits. Before the mid-1990s, there was no real regulation. Unfortunately, it took the death of four teenagers on a canoeing trip in Lyme Bay before the government decided to act. The Activity Centres (Young Persons’ Safety) Act 1995 requires providers of certain adventure activities to be licensed. The related Adventure Activities Licensing Regulations 2004 state that an ‘adventure activity’ means caving, climbing, trekking and water sports. Knowing that providers are inspected by the HSE in order to obtain and maintain their licences allows more schools to offer these visits because they do not have to worry about their inability to judge whether a company was actually capable of delivering high standards of safety.

Therefore, abolishing the AALA is not, from a school’s point of view, a good idea. Adventure holidays are a lucrative market and part of the rationale for the abolition of the AALA is to reduce costs for companies and allow easier entry to the market for new firms. But staff turnover in this industry can be very high, especially as many firms contract staff for a season, or a few weeks, depending on the level of demand.

Currently, there are statutory regulations regarding qualifications in specific areas, and staff training has to be of a minimum standard. Schools know that qualifications have to be obtained and that these qualifications ensure that instructors are actually qualified to lead the activities they are hosting, even if schools do not actually know what those qualifications are, or what they mean in practice. The abolition of the AALA ends these assurances.

Schools do not want to go back to pre-AALA days and the Government recognises this, in that it is proposing that self-regulation replace the Authority. But let’s face it – self-regulation has not had a good press recently, and schools will not find the prospect of an industry that adheres to voluntary rather than statutory standards and licences appealing. In the short term, however, having no AALA will probably not make much difference, as schools will likely continue to use the firms they know and trust.

But time and competition erode the best self-regulated industries. A voluntary scheme is already in existence to reassure schools that risk assessments are in place – the Quality Badge Scheme includes museums and outdoor centres. However, museums have to be safe for all members of the public and schools do not need to do risk assessments for them. Also, the risk assessments required for membership of the Quality Badge Scheme do not include the areas the AALA currently covers, so membership by outdoor centres, etc. could be positively misleading for schools. It is not clear how this will mesh, if at all, with the self-regulation of adventurous activities, so the scene is already set for confusion – and it will not get better.

Teachers want to undertake visits with their pupils because they want to offer the best educational experience possible. But it is not health and safety bureaucracy that is stopping them. Better training in risk assessment is needed and the paperwork can be further streamlined, but what is really required is a sea-change in parental attitudes. Too many do not believe that their child is capable of misbehaving and thus confront schools aggressively when informed that their child is being punished. As visits are entirely voluntary, teachers do not want to be confronted – either because a child is not going, or because a child behaved badly. Schools do not want to risk litigation, especially when many are no longer backed by the local authority. The structures around visits in schools are there for a reason and the Government has not addressed that. 


  1. SHP (2011): ‘School-trip guidance distilled in the name of common sense,’ in SHP August 2011, Vol.29, No.8 – school-trips-digest-to-ease-bureaucracy-burden
  2. In his 2010 review of health and safety, ‘Common sense, common safety’, Tory peer Lord Young stated that the adventure activities licensing regime is seen as a cost and a burden on business that adds little to the health and safety of young people undertaking adventure activities. He recommended instead introducing a code of practice that the HSE would oversee and monitor. The consultation on the abolition of the AALA ended on 21 September 2011
  3. and

Peter Cookson has been an educational visits coordinator and has led numerous school visits during his time as a teacher.

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10 years ago

Peter is incorrect to suggest that the Quality Badge scheme’s requirements are less than AALA’s. The QB is divided into sectors, each of which has appropriate safety management processes in place for the sector they are covering. Outdoor Centres are required to apply through the Adventurous Activities Industry Advisory Council (AAIAC) sector, ensuring rigorous standards.