The coalition for abolition

As you may know, the government are working on a new code of practice for outdoor activities in England, due for publication in December 2011

Here is a copy of our article published in the HMC newsletter in September

The coalition for abolition

The coalition government have committed themselves to changing the culture of risk aversion in schools and reducing the administrative burden surrounding school trips. In addition, a Bill is imminently (Sept ‘11) due to come before Parliament advocating the abolition of the Adventure Activities Licensing Authority, the body which for the last twenty years has maintained an inspectorate of the outdoor industry and has allowed schools to have confidence in external providers who hold a licence. This article examines some of the implications for the independent sector.

On the 22nd March 1993 two unqualified young kayak instructors, Karen Gardner (21) and Anthony Mann (23) led a small group of school pupils and a teacher on a sea paddling trip in Lyme Bay, Dorset. They were due back by midday, but by the time the group were finally retrieved from the sea, by helicopter and lifeboat, between 17.30 and 17.40 hours, four had drowned and several others were severely hypothermic.
In the aftermath of this tragedy the St Albans Centre, from which the group came, was investigated and found to have serious procedural shortcomings. The managing director Peter Kite was eventually jailed for two years for corporate manslaughter.
The furore did not die down quickly, and it led to legislation which resulted in the formation of the AALA, and a legal requirement for all outdoor providers working with under 18‘s to be accredited according to national standards before being awarded a licence to operate. The Lyme Bay disaster has shaped the outdoor industry for a generation, and much good has been achieved in terms of improved standards throughout the sector.

The Department for Education has produced new guidelines for health and safety in schools, published in August 2011, which can be found at in a pdf download called ‘Departmental Advice on Health and Safety for Schools’.
This new guidance supersedes the old HASPEV * document. The content is both brief and radical. It proposes that written parental consent for all school trips, residential and non residential, and including outdoor and adventurous activities, should happen once, when a pupil joins the school. Thereafter the school has a duty to inform parents about the trip (dates, activities, accommodation, travel arrangements etc.) and to give them an opportunity to opt out, if appropriate, but does not need to obtain fresh written permission. They have gone so far as to produce a template form for this one-off parental consent, which schools could use, and this is also available on their website. The question of up to date medical info seems to be left unanswered.
In addition, it strongly advocates that written risk assessment be reserved only for high risk activities, and should not be carried out for all school activities. It specifically names parks, museums and swimming pools as trip destinations which should not require any written risk assessment. Schools are no longer required to have an Educational Visits Coordinator (EVC).
The guidance goes on to state simply what the current situation is with regard to driving school minibuses without a D1 licence endorsement, reinforcing the well established 17 seats and 3500kg weight limit criteria, but not mentioning the normal ban on towing trailers of any kind.
Finally, the guidance makes it clear that currently schools must still ensure that any outside provider of outdoor activities used by the school hold an AALA licence, although it hints that this may change. We now know that the proposal before parliament is to abolish AALA by Nov 2012. The licensing service is now taking no new applications, although reinspections of current licence holders are still taking place.

What do these changes mean for our schools? It could be argued - not much. Schools have always been exempt from licensing, irrespective of the size of their outdoor programme. Some have historically gone through the AALA voluntary self assessment, in order to check their own practice against national standards, but most have not.

What we will lose is some of that assurance about external providers that AALA gave. Schools will perhaps want to find other means of validation, and already in the free market these are beginning to emerge. The sector leader is probably the Adventuremark, a badging scheme for providers which is more expensive than AALA licensing, but covers a much wider range of activities.

We stand to gain less bureaucracy in our schools with regard to trips, which has to be a good thing. True, a significant ‘test case’ will probably need to occur and be handled well by the courts, the government and the HSE, before many teachers fears of being sued are allayed. True also, that as Senior Management Teams scale back written risk assessment, they may want to consider seriously how staff are supported and trained as trip leaders. Is there an ongoing and recorded programme of continuing professional development specific to those leading outdoor activities at your school?
If not, how do we demonstrate that we take our duty of care to pupils seriously, since the largest determining factor by far of any trips success and safety is the experience, training and qualification of the trip leader, and his or her accompanying staff?
For this reason, IndependentOutdoor recommends that all staff with responsibility for leading adventurous activities should have a minimum of two days CPD every two years, specific to their role, and that is why we run annual workshops for CPD of outdoor staff in independent schools, and a national conference for sharing of best practice.

* HASPEV = Health and Safety of Pupils on Educational Visits