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Council for Learning Outside the Classroom Conference

Judith Hackitt CBE, HSE Chair, 3 December 2009

I am delighted to have the opportunity to speak to you today and to provide some perspective on this important subject from the Health and Safety Executive's perception. If you read much which is printed about Health and Safety in the National press, you will be expecting this to be a very brief presentation which could be summed up in a very few words as "No, don't do it, keep them in the classroom, keep them safe, fun is dangerous". So is that the message I am here today to deliver? Absolutely not! I am here today to encourage you in your endeavours to enable young people to have learning experiences outside of the classroom and hopefully to build your confidence in how to do that without excessive bureaucracy and paperwork, and to reduce the fear and concerns about litigation and prosecution if things go wrong.

I'd like to start by making the role and remit of the Health and Safety Executive clear. Our mission is to prevent death, injury and ill health to those at work and those affected by work activities. We do that by:

But let us also be clear that we do not actually manage the risk in any workplace. That is for the dutyholders, those who create the risk, to do.

I have mentioned enforcement and I want to be clear about our approach to this in all sectors - including education. Investigation of incidents enables us and others to identify causes and to learn lessons so that these can be shared widely, with the intention of avoiding the same mistake being made again elsewhere. Sometimes those investigations will identify the basis for enforcement action to secure justice for those who have been hurt or harmed and against those who have put others at risk through negligent behaviour or by deliberate flouting of the law. Decisions to take enforcement action in any sector are governed by the same overarching enforcement policy statement which enshrines principles of:

I would be the first to recognise that enforcement action, when taken, has a big impact on behaviour but let's be clear that this is the intention. We want people to modify their behaviour and learn from mistakes, finding an improved way of working for the future but we in no way want them to retreat into a mode of risk aversion and doing nothing in the future. This is about getting the right balance and perspective. There can be no guarantees of absolute safety on the one hand or of no enforcement action on the other, but we can build a very different picture of what is wanted - which is all about common sense and doing what is reasonable. And I hope that this is a picture we can build together and share.

Against the background of a very few, but very high profile, cases where things have gone wrong on school trips let's just remind ourselves of the many thousands of activities which take place every year up and down this country in schools and other youth organisations. Young people take part in ski trips, foreign exchange visits, outward bound activities as well as curriculum based field activities and they gain a huge amount from the experiences. In the vast majority of cases these events take place without incident, the learning is immense and the young people are left with memories of an enjoyable experience, which means that both the enjoyment and the learning will stay with them for a long time. There is no evidence at all that the number and type of trips has diminished - in fact they have broadened. Part of the problem we all face is that isolated incidents get a huge amount of coverage, the many events which take place without incident and the enormous benefit which young people derive from them gets little or no coverage.

I believe that there is a great deal that we can all do to share good practice - given that so many events do take place without incident cannot be down simply to good luck - they happen because many organisations understand what is required, they adopt a common sense and proportionate approach. The very best examples will also involve the young people themselves - and their parents - in understanding the risks that can be controlled and those that simply and realistically cannot. On one of the many platforms I have shared over the last 2 years where I have been involved in discussing this subject, one of the people I shared the platform with suggested that part of the process of preparation for any trip should involve students in a risk assessment process in the classroom - discussing the risks they might encounter and how they might be handled. I think this is an excellent idea and could become part of that best practice - but I do want you to note that I said discussing possible risks not filling out pages of paperwork and ticking boxes on a form where most of the questions are irrelevant! This is not about paperwork and bureaucracy.

Part of the process can and should be about setting realistic expectations and making those who want to take part in the activities aware that in doing so they are exposing themselves to risk - and that's a good thing! Why? Because life itself is full of risks we cannot avoid. We all survive by learning how to deal with risk; and helping young people to experience risk and learn how to handle it is part of preparing them for adult life and the world of work.

I have been asked many times why we regard learning outside of the classroom as such an important issue. The reason is very clear. The next generation who will become the workforce of tomorrow need to be prepared for the workplace. If young people grow up in an artificial cotton wool environment they will enter the world of work risk naïve and, in short, a liability to their future employers.

I have also mentioned that in some cases it may be sensible to involve parent a in these discussions about what precautions and risk management measures can reasonably be taken and what cannot. It is a fact that in our increasingly risk averse society, there can be a strong tendency to look for someone else to blame on those rare occasions when things do go wrong.

My own daughters are now in university, but when they were at school they went on numerous visits as part of their courses - geography field trips to remote parts of Britain and World Challenge expeditions to Mexico and Tanzania - and on every occasion their school held meetings for parents. It was explained to us what risks the girls were likely to encounter and the extent of the measures which could be taken to mitigate the risks. We were made part of the process of deciding whether the level of risk was acceptable to us - before the trip took place. It sometimes made for difficult decisions for us as parents and on more than one occasion I saw one or two parents choose not to send their children on trips but they were by far the minority and the process we all went through made sense and made us part of the decision.

So what is sensible risk management and what does it look like when applied to learning outside of the classroom?

This requires leaders who are competent and who set the right tone. Competence in outdoor activities will mean experience and knowledge to lead the activity. That experience may have been gained through training and/or qualifications in some cases. Competence also means getting that balance right between awareness of risks and managing them but also making the activities challenging and exciting.

The new guidance which is being prepared by DCSF and is currently out for consultation is intended to help teachers, youth leaders, local authorities and providers of learning outside the classroom to prepare properly and well for events but without going over the top. It aims to cut red tape and to build confidence as well as prudently reminding people of what to do if things do go wrong.

We will be contributing to the guidance as part of the consultation process, but they will be points of detail to improve what is already a good document. Our comments will be consistent with our new Strategy for Health and Safety in Great Britain which is founded on a common sense, practical and proportionate approach.

As I said earlier, our mission is to prevent death, injury and ill health to those at work and those affected by work activities. We need many other stakeholders to work with us to be part of the solution in delivering this mission. We have stated explicitly in the new strategy that it is important for the education system to embed a basic understanding of risk as a life skill so that young people mature and join the workforce more risk aware. We do not need them to be taught Health and Safety as a subject in a classroom we need them to learn how to deal with risk properly and sensibly as and when they encounter it. That will be achieved through real experiences and learning both inside and outside the classroom.

This is how we will ensure that children and young people become prepared for the world of work and adult life in general. I hope I have gone some way to demonstrating how important your work is - not just for Health and Safety but also to shape the risk culture of the next generation. Please continue to create these important experiences for the next generation and do it with confidence and sensible measures in place to deal with the real risks.

Thank you for listening.
Updated 2009-08-12