Taking learning from inside to outside the classroom has great benefits but will inevitably introduce hazards which are not present in a classroom environment. Risk management is not about eliminating risk – it is about reducing it to as low as reasonably practicable and deciding if this is acceptable in order to gain the potential benefits. This is recognised by both the Health and Safety Executive (HSE) and the Department for Education (DfE)
When planning fieldwork, it is important to consider the hazards and the risk (likelihood) of them occurring, and what can be done to mitigate these risks to an acceptable level in order that we can still gain the benefits. It is sensible to be very clear about why the fieldwork is being carried out and what are the benefits. Tim Gill has written several articles on the importance of a balanced view of benefit and risk in children’s play.
What is an ‘acceptable’ level of risk and what is ‘reasonably practicable’ in mitigation are clearly open to interpretation. It is always important to have your employer’s approval of your plans and to be aware of what is the norm in other similar institutions with students of similar age and experience. Seeking expert advice through subject associations such as the RGS-IBG or an Outdoor Education Adviser is a good step if unsure.
Some links to key sources of information and advice:
The risk management process
All the factors listed below are part of the overall ‘risk management’ for a planned visit. It is important that the written risk assessment is seen just one part of this process and not the whole.
Competence of lead staff member and accompanying staff – their specific experience and any relevant training and qualifications
Planning – choice of location, itinerary and activities and a pre-visit if appropriate
Awareness of best-practice and any Standard Operating Procedures for the planned activities
Written risk assessment produced by the visit leader and approved by a specifically competent person – usually the School EVC and/or Outdoor Adviser and shared with accompanying staff and the content accepted and understood by them.
Preparation of the group and staff – kit lists, codes of conduct, pre-trip meetings with students and parents, briefings for staff, briefings for the group on the key parts of the risk assessment.
Ongoing during the event - monitoring and dynamic risk management – implementation of a plan B if required
Post-event - review and evaluation to inform future planning
Where the risk is likely to be greater, or perceived to be greater, than that of everyday life in the UK then then obtaining parental consent and the use of codes of conduct and participation statements are both sensible. When parental consent is required should be clearly set out in your institutions policy for visits. A participation statement or code of conduct is for the pupil to complete to acknowledge that they have a role in their own safety and that of the group. Codes of conduct are a useful tool for reminders about following instructions, reporting any concerns, looking after others. An example code of conduct.
Read more about involving students with risk sssessment
The written risk assessment
Risk assessment and Standard Operating Procedures
It is useful to have Standard Operating Procedures (SOPs) - often termed ‘generic risk assessments’ - for offsite visits. SOPs ensure consistency and set the standard for your organisation. Standard operating procedures are what you expect staff to do, define good practice, and act as a checklist for staff. They are best written by staff with specific competence and experience and can then be ‘finessed’ over time.
SOPs become a specific risk assessment when edited with content specific to the planned visit.
Without SOPs is it likely that the final risk assessments for two identical trips from the same establishment could look very different depending on the author’s experience and priorities. At worst there could be significant content present in one and not in the other.
An example of editing an SOP to become a specific risk assessment would be identifying the nearest medical facilities to the destination (in the UK) using NHS service search and any specific risks at the destination such as a difficult road crossing or potentially challenging weather conditions. If working with an external provider then links can be added to their safety management system.
Many organisations will have Standard Operating Procedures (SOPs) headed ‘all trips’ ‘all transport’ and ‘all accommodation’ (see downloads for examples). These will have the main issues/hazards and best-practice descriptions of controls and how the controls are checked. For an ‘all trips suggested headings are given in the section below. This aligns with HSE recommendations that risk assessments address the most common/significant risks first.
What to include in the written risk assessment
The headings below are likely to be required in any risk assessment for School visits.
Supervision - direct, indirect or remote
Environment specific - water/weather etc
Activity specific – Adventure Activities/Data Collection
Staff can then edit the content to be specific to their trip. For example, by adding the location of the closest Accident and Emergency facility to their accommodation; links to safety management systems of providers, etc.
It is useful to remember the term ‘Common things occur commonly’ and plan for what is reasonably foreseeable to be a problem if overlooked.
Road traffic, medical emergency, safeguarding and any periods where supervision is difficult should always be present in risk assessments.
The risk assessment for a specific visit should be dated and should include the name of the author.
Identify the hazard > the control measures required to mitigate the risk > how the control measures will be confirmed in place/checked.
Example: Transport in a coach
Hazard - collision with another vehicle/object causing injury to coach passenger
Mitigation/Control measure - Seatbelt to be worn at all times
How the control measure is implemented - oral reminder from staff and visual check from rear to front of coach. Given at the start of the journey and repeated after each stop.
Current advice is not to include numerical ‘scores’ for likelihood and severity in risk assessments. The example above shows how difficult it would be to add numbers for likelihood and severity. Likelihood of a coach accident is very low but the likelihood of someone unfastening their seatbelt during a journey is higher. How much lower is this likelihood after a verbal and visual reminder? Severity of accident –could be minor to catastrophic? Overall risk rating is likely to be different for every passenger (due to their likelihood to follow instructions about seatbelt wearing) and an overall ‘score’ is arbitrary and of very little practical use.
Format of the risk assessment
There is no requirement to have a risk assessment in a particular format.
A simple, clear format prioritising the hazards and their controls and how the controls are to be monitored is recommended.
Beware of creating a format which has empty columns and tick boxes which may not be completed as this can then appear to be an oversight or lack of care.
Numbers in risk assessments
There is a common format of risk assessment which involves scoring risk and likelihood/severity of outcome and having the resulting risk rated ‘high, medium or low’ with an outcome below a certain number being seen as ‘acceptable’. Trying to apply such subjective ‘measures’ of risk to a group of young people, all of whom behave differently in different circumstances, may suggest an unreal level of certainty, and cloud the practical issues that need to be managed. The final decision must be that the risk for each participant can be kept within ‘acceptable’ levels. It is important for a risk assessment to be undertaken by a competent person, and for the written record to be dated, and to indicate who completed it.
There is a move nationally towards removing Likelihood/Severity grids from risk assessments as they can be a source of inconsistency and confusion.
Risk categorisation of visits
Categorising trips according to ‘risk’ can be misleading and is therefore not recommended.. Most significant risks are the same for any trip – medical emergency, road traffic, failure of supervision and then any specific environmental or activity related risks – water, weather, periods of indirect or remote supervision and activities which will always have a ‘higher than everyday life’ residual risk – mountain biking and downhill skiing for example.
Staff should be aware that most accidents happen on perceived low risk activities.
For example, a ‘low risk’ – urban geography data collection activity could have a high risk of pupil being lost/separated from a group if managed poorly.
Effective Supervision using SAGE/STAGED
A key aim in managing risk is to ensure the effective supervision of the group and this is a more helpful concept than a set of staffing ratios which takes no account of the specific needs of the group or the competence/experience of the supervising staff.
For Early Years Foundation stage there are mandatory ratios and your employer may have published minimum ratios for trips either as a strict policy or for guidance.
When looking at how to achieve ‘effective supervision’ OEAP National Guidance uses the acronym SAGED and it is also often extended to STAGED:
Staffing – relevant training/qualifications/experience and number required
Transport – complexity added by any specific transport issues – public transport, walking to venue etc
Activities – what are the group doing? Do these require specifically competent qualified staff. Any indirect or remote supervision?
Group – prior experience, behaviour and any specific needs
Environment – easily accessible or more remote? Urban/Rural. The potential impact of the weather
Distance - how far from base and the direct assistance of supporting staff if required – can vary from minutes to many hours. Access to emergency medical help
A reluctance to adapt plans and move to a plan B can be a red flag regarding the likelihood of things going wrong.
Some reasonably foreseeable ‘what-ifs’ should be included in your planning and how you would adapt your plans should one or more of these occur. It is good practice to include a plan B in your risk assessment. Plan B can be to not run the venture on that day with that group.
Environmental conditions – too hot, cold, wet, or windy for the activities to take place as planned.
Medical/illness issue – one member of staff is required to look after a student who is ill during the trip
Road traffic delays mean you are very behind schedule
Water – always be aware of the rapidly changing nature of moving water
Group maturity/behaviour is such that a planned period of indirect supervision would cause you concern
A ‘what-if’ meeting with the group can be a good way of including students in the risk management process. What -if - you get separated from the group -feel unwell - are not happy about an activity etc.
Outdoor and Adventurous Education
It is important that staff leading outdoor activities are suitably qualified and experienced. This may be achieved in three ways
Working with an external provider who provides staff with the technical expertise
The staff from the School holding appropriate qualifications
An ‘statement of competence’ obtained from an Outdoor Adviser who has observed the staff running an activity.
Find out more:
Working with external providers
The National Guidance documents explain the use of the LOtC quality badge, AALA licence, and what questions to ask a provider and where the responsibilities lie. The norm is that all technical and activity specific responsibility lies with the provider, and School staff assist with supervision and have pastoral responsibility.
Find out more:
A provider holding a quality badge can be seen as part of the risk management process. This may be financial risk in the case of bonding or safeguarding and safety assurance through the award of other badges.
There are a number of relevant badge schemes.
The AALA licence is required in law in the UK for certain adventure activities
The Learning Outside the Classroom (LOtC) Quality Badge is held by a wide range of providers and venues
Adventuremark is a non-statutory safety scheme devised by the Adventure Activity Industry Advisory Committee (AAIAC) for providers of adventurous activities that are outside the scope of the Adventure Activity Licensing regulations.
There is very little to be gained by asking badge-holding external providers for copies of their risk assessments. This OEAP document explains the reasons for this and gives better questions to ask.
A Pre departure meeting
For residential trips, a face-to-face pre-departure meeting with the EVC and the trip leader and assistant is recommended. The EVC should also meet with any staff prior to leading their first day trip. This can be done for several trips in one meeting.
Meeting agenda – the ‘what-ifs’
Base contact information – when to contact your emergency contact
Parent contact information – when to contact parents
Emergency information and what to do should something go wrong – importance of written record.
A range of scenarios can be covered - What if? questions - medical, missing person
Student use of phones/social media should an incident occur
Importance of implementing the written risk assessment
Insurance contact and claims - info needed
Common things – medical/road traffic/missing person/low periods of supervision/reluctance to go to plan B
Any issues of concern re the students – itinerary/medical/behaviour
Post visit evaluation
Have a system where all staff on a trip can feedback information but the leader is responsible for completion. There have been examples nationally of visit leaders reporting back that all was fine when other staff have had concerns. Occasional sampling of other trip staff and students for feedback is recommended – particularly for trips with a stable staff which have run for several years.
The key parts in an evaluation are:
Any significant pastoral/safeguarding issues?
Any near-misses or accidents
Any medical issues/illness?
Any behavioural issues?
Any significant issues with the itinerary? eg suggested activities/venues not appropriate. Accommodation unsafe etc
Would you run the trip again in its present form?
Why things go wrong and how to avoid the traps
It is important to accept that accidents will be happen and not all accidents are avoidable.
Research has been done in the mountain guiding and outdoor adventure activities communities on the causes of accidents and how some of these can be avoided. Many of these factors also apply to School trips and fieldwork. Two key theories are heuristic traps and lemons – there are many articles on the web – the original sources of this work are linked below.
Heuristics are ‘short-cuts’ taken, often based on prior experience and/or learned behaviour. They can become excuses used to avoid a full assessment of risk and if this is the case they become ‘heuristic traps’
Over-commitment to a goal – staying with the plan A even though there are signals that this is the wrong plan.
Familiarity – have been there and done the activity several times before and it has always been OK in the past. Perhaps this is the first time the SAGED variables (see above) are significantly different!
Scarcity – the one chance to do it! Perhaps coursework depends on that data? An exam case-study is based around that location.
Social proof – others have done it so it must be OK. Perhaps they got away with it or had a greater skill-set!
Always be cautious of justifying a decision based on any of the points above.
Lemons are any factor that combined with the presence of another, can lead to an accident. An anlage similar to the lemons on a slot machine.
There are three types of lemons – unavoidable, avoidable, and rare/unusual.
Unavoidable – late arrival at start of walking route due to a traffic delay
Avoidable - to save time an oral group kit check is done by the leader rather than seeing key items of kit.
Rare and unusual – close to the summit a team member sprains ankle on an awkward step. Group call for help and Mountain Rescue on their way.
Unavoidable – colder weather and rain was forecast late in the day but the leader thought they would be finished well in advance of this.
Avoidable - Several of the group have no waterproof clothing with them but this wasn’t spotted by kit check.
Avoidable – a number of the group now cold and wet
Leaders and groups can be trained to ‘spot lemons’ and prevent them adding up into a significant problem or incident.
The use of Checklists is a powerful way to prevent being caught by heuristic traps and lemons. Much work has been done studying the use of checklists in aviation and how this approach can be helpful in other stressful environments where there is the temptation to attempt to multi-task.
See ‘The checklist manifesto’ by Atul Gawande and the recent work based on Crew Resource Management in aviation by James Thacker IFMGA Mountain Guide.