Saturday, November 07, 2009

We Mustn't Be Afraid of Risk

If you were a teacher, would you seriously think about taking pupils on a school trip? With all the 'elf & safety' provisions that now exist you'd have to be either brave or stupid to take kids on the kind of foreign trips and geography field trips I went on in the 1970s. Take this story from the front page of the Daily Telegraph today...

Pupils are ordered not to wade into ankle-deep water unless teachers first carry out a full risk assessment and put “proper measures in place”. Staff are expected to check rivers, ponds and the sea for currents and rocks before allowing children to dip their feet.

Guidance issued to schools warns that any “impromptu water-based activities” could pose dangers to children – including hypothermia. The rules were branded “ridiculous” by parents’ groups. It prompted fresh concerns that children’s development risked being undermined by over-zealous health and safety regulations.

The recommendations were outlined in a document – available to all 21,000 schools in England – to help teachers organise more school trips. Advice from the Department for Children, Schools and Families is intended to cut red tape, debunk health and safety “myths” and give staff practical tips.

But the guidance prompted controversy after teachers were presented with a series of edicts surrounding swimming and the use of minibuses. It said: “Swimming and paddling or otherwise entering the waters of river, canal, sea or lake should never be allowed as an impromptu activity. The pleas of young people to bathe – because it is hot weather, for example, or after a kayaking exercise – should be resisted where bathing has not been prepared for.

“In-water activities should take place only when a proper risk assessment has been completed and proper measures put in place to control the risks”...

Margaret Morrissey, from campaign group Parents Outloud, said: “Wading out into the ocean is one thing but there’s nothing wrong with paddling where the waves break. “Part of children’s learning is to walk along the water’s edge and get your feet wet. There are dangerous currents further out and you stay at the edge.” She added: “I want to see schools and youth groups taking advantage of opportunities that learning outside the classroom can provide.”

But the Department for Children, Schools and Families said teachers had to plan activities carefully. “We are not banning paddling,” said a spokeswoman. “We have seen cases in the past where things have not been planned and assessed for the risk. Unplanned activities around water can be dangerous.”

Surely part of growing up is forming the ability to make your own risk assessment. I know I did that most weeks of my childhood, growing up on a farm. You can never protect children from all danger. The trouble is that whenever there is an isolated incident of a child being hurt, or even killed, the papers go mad and demand immediate action from lawmakers in order to ensure that "it can't happen again". The politicians have to be seen to be doing something and acting quickly. They invariably overreact and go too far in creating new laws, which are then goldplated by overzealous civil servants. That's the ridiculous system we have collectively created and now tolerate.

I feel really strongly about this for this reason. School trips are a fantastic thing. They allow children to broaden their horizons, experience new things and to lear things they could never hope to learn in a classroom.

Allow me to personalise it. In the late 1970s I went on two school exchange trips to Germany. I was crap at German before this, but due to the two trips I came to excell in the subject and went on to do a degree in it. I went to UEA in Norwich to do my degree, where I became involved in active politics. I know I wouldn't be where I am today without having gone on those two school trips. So thank you David Lewis. Thank you for having the courage to take 60 unruly kids on a ferry to the Hook of Holland, then on a train to Cologne, and then on another train to Bad Wildungen.

I know many school exchanges still take place. But I am damn sure there are many that don't. After all, what if the foreign partner parents are paedophiles? No CRB checks in Germany, you know.

I wonder whether Mr Lewis would have taken us to Germany under the current system. Knowing him, he probably would. But I know there are many others who would think the risk of being sued was just not worth the candle.

If I were ever to become an MP I would make it my business to try to start dismantling this system of regulation which has led to us becoming a totally risk averse society. And then maybe thousands of kids can enjoy the same kind of opportunities I had.


PhilC said...

If you become an MP perhaps you might concentrate on reforming real areas of risk.
For instance: on average one worker a week is killed on a construction site.
Guess it's easy to make a noble fight against paperwork - I'd prefer an MP who tries to make sure fewer children lose their dads.

Chris said...

It's not risk people are afraid of, it's the "no win, no fee" legal vultures that can screw up a year of your life that cause the fear. Teachers are under siege from a useless government, a jobsworth monitoring division and a parent body that "knows it's rights" but has no idea of responsibility. You will do well to hold on to your sanity trying to unravel that lot. And then, just when you think you've won, someone will deploy the ECRH on you. Good luck.......!

Bill Quango MP said...

The elf and safety bod once told me to ensure tippex was locked away as a child could drink it.
When I said that the same child could take a biro and shove it up their nose into their brains, so should pens be locked away too?

The bod actually begun to perspire in fear as he suddenly noticed the elastic bands, staplers, erasers,pencils etc that he was surrounded by. He clearly felt he would be lucky to escape this deathtrap of an office with his life.

JuliaM said...

"I'd prefer an MP who tries to make sure fewer children lose their dads."

Not entirely convinced this is the work we want MPs doing, frankly.

And how many of those deaths are in spite of the existing regulations, or just down to human error or incompetence?

Here's an idea: perhaps we shouldn't build anything, ever again?

Dick Puddlecote said...

Very good article, Iain. But do you think the Tories will do that when they come into office? Because I don't.

Paul Halsall said...

I have taken groups of students to Israel, Cyprus, Greece, France, Spain, The Netherlands, Belgium, and Portugal.

I almost died when I found a group of my students, while I was asleep, got drunk and went skinny-dipping in Sea of Galilee! None was harmed, thank God , but I was haunted for a few weeks afterwards.

You are right: we need to take risks, but the school trip leaders suffer nightmares you can hardly comprehend.

Twig said...

A ship in harbour is safe, but that is not what ships are built for.

Alan Douglas said...

Elf & Safety - determined to eliminate risk from life.

Succees, everybody dead, whether still walking around, or deceased.

Alan Douglas

Westerly21 said...

I very much doubt today's kids even know where the Hook of Holland, Cologne, or Bad Wildungen are. Few, after all, can even manage to travel to the next county without the aid of a Satnav.
The irony is, that lots of the Health and Safety stupidity is from EU directives. Add that to the fear of litigation against schools from claim savvy parents and we are lucky they are even allowed to be in education at all.
We should make sure all future children are born in bubble wrap and lock them in a cupboard until they are 18!!

PhilC said...

JuliaM: so public safety isn't an issue for the Commons to address? I would have thought keeping people safe was pretty fundamental.
Since you admit you don't know anything about deaths in the workplace have a look at
Perhaps then you might have something more constructive to say than your fatuous final statement (pun intended).

Nicki UK (Trans Authoress) said...

If I lived in the area where you stood, I would likely vote for you iain (And I am one disillusioned voter).

What would be a much better idea, including this, is to look at the Health and Safety system and tear it up and re-write it. I work as a event steward (I am qualified with a NVQ level 2 in stewarding) and I know all about H&S and all the risk assessments. It would be a help if the general public understood H&S as well and how to help in preventing accidents.

Another thing stop this oh you hurt me so I am going to sue culture. A couple of years ago I was walking through a park in london, on the thames, during the London Pride celebrations, a manhole had been left semi uncovered and I put my foot and leg right into the hole and i hurt my leg on the cover. I at the time took photos of the accident and the location, but did I sue, no, why because it is not my way. We only sue because people want money, because to them money = fun. NO IT DOES NOT. Enjoying life = FUN.

Adrian said...

Iain, organisers and leaders of school trips do need to do risk assessments. Every year children die in river, lake and sea accidents and there is nothing wrong with ensuring that teachers are ultra-vigilant when the children are in or near water.

And, yes, of course I am happy to take children on trips.

neil craig said...

The purpose of any government programme is to pay government workers & their friends. Safety for children or anybody else doesn't enter into it though children are easier to victimise because it is possible to demonise anybody who questions handing over billions if "its for the children".

We have 200,000 elfin spectors in Britain. By normal economic calculations that inspecting cost society 20 times as much as it costs to actually do the inspecting that is the equivalent of 4 million people whose work is entirely wasted. No wonder our economy is collapsing as the BRICK ones grow.

I wonder if "the children" will be grateful we turned this country into a 3rd world dump or would they rather we Guy Fawkes'd the entire political establishment.

Rebel Saint said...

There is a ridiculous phrase that keeps being brandished around all the time at the moment ... "if it saves the life of just one child it's worth it".

It kept being trotted out all the time during the uproar about the new ISA checks that will be required by 25% of the adult population.

NO IT DAMN WELL ISN'T WORTH IT. The life of one child is not worth making the life of 20 million others a sanitised prison cell. It's not worth destroying the trust between EVERY child and EVERY adult in order to prevent one child from becoming a victim of a pervert - nor is it even possible.

Bad things happen. But the worst thing of all is to live in a world without trust, fun, adventure or risk.

Newmania said...

One of the reasons that we have been unable to stop the decline in educational standards has been the power of the teaching unions
An important reason for this is that they arrange insurance against malicious actions. One the things an incoming Conservative administration must do is to break that link

In construction my own company sells a free kit for opting out of Criminal prosecution under health and safety . It sounds sinister but what it consist if his this ..
All workers have to complete modules and sign at each stage declaring that they are properly equipped and trained. The soft ware keeps traceable records of each virtual confirmation and if the employee does not actually take anything in it then becomes his problem . This will not save you from Employment law but it will save your from criminal prosecution

So why not something like that ,all parents sign a waiver of all rights of recourse for any alleged negligence for the duration of the trip. That would make it insurable ( which is the real problem). Problem solved


Barkingside 21 said...

Blimey Iain, a Top 10 Green Blog agreeing with you.
I must have a lie down and a cup of tea.

The King of Wrong said...

PhilC: The UK construction industry is about 2m people in a quarter of a million firms.

50 deaths a year, from 2m people, while tragic, is incredibly safe. The odds of a particular construction worker dying on a given day are of similar magnitudes to him being struck by lightning or winning the lottery: negligible. I'd bet that many get killed in office accidents, to be honest.

The problem is that construction and other large engineering projects involve things big enough to squish a puny human body. If you fall off, or through, the shell of a 12-storey tower, you will die. If a JCB backs over you, dead. If you stick your head under a piledriver to see why it's not driving piles, dead. Ton of bricks, call the next of kin.

These risks are managed and mitigated well but, in the end, if you have N redundant chains supporting a load under a crane, all N can randomly break at the same time, and that's likely to kill someone when the load hits the floor. N+1 chains will reduce the odds a bit, but it's still possible and therefore it'll still happen occasionally, and it'll still kill anyone the falling load lands on. (If the load is too heavy, that's a different matter, of course)

Long story short - too late! - you cannot eliminate risk.

Optimistic Cynic said...

The trouble is that you've got a leader of the Conservatives who doesn't reflect these values. He's afraid to take any risks at all.

It's going to take politicians who are prepared to point out that a few deaths (out of 61,000,000 people) is an acceptable price for certain pleasures in life for millions. People actually know this themselves - we don't force people to drive at 2mph despite the fact that it would save hundreds of lives. We accept that being able to travel at reasonable speeds gives us benefits.

I blame the fact that MPs have been professionalised and will do anything to keep their jobs.

Gary said...

Why do they always quote Parents Outloud? Its one person typing in her bedroom not a pressure group.

tory boys never grow up said...

"Fear of Getting Things Wrong Inspires Me More Than the Wonder of Getting Things Right"

You know who

Anonymous said...

Risk assessment is certainly necessary. However, at the moment it's driven by the need to avoid litigation, so it becomes ever more cumbersome and restrictive.

A committee could be created to rule on what counts as reasonable, and then it could be legislated that when the reasonable measures had been taken care of, litigation would be impossible.

Keir said...

I am a teacher; fortunately not in the United Kingdom. Britain's glory was built on risk, and yet today we have thrown away any chance of greatness by allowing others to explore space (as one example) because the Government is creating a nation of cowards.

jbw said...

Some time ago my daughter arranged a work experience week with an equine vet. The teacher responsible for work experience would only approve it if she promised to stay 6 feet away from the horses.

She, of course, had a fantastic time, getting stuck in with everything that the vet was doing, and took no notice of the restriction. She learnt a fantastic amount and repeated the exercise the following year.

Paul said...

No sane teacher is going to run any sort of trip nowadays in virtually all schools.

There are no effective sanctions to control children, but if something goes wrong the teacher will get the blame whatever.

Banning no risk compo solicitors would help but the real problem is the lack of any workable controls on child behaviour.

Incidentally, look up "Anne Jago" to see how it works in practice.

neil craig said...

It is a good thing the 'elfin spectors are cowards who l;ie their home comforts. If any of them ever went out on a fishing boat they would find reasons to close the whole industry, which has a far higher death rate than building, down.