Demystifying Risk Assessments

In a recent survey of over 2,000 teachers and head teachers, when asked ‘what factors would simplify teacher workloads and encourage them to take school trips?’, nearly 40 per cent of the comments received contained the exact phrase ‘risk assessments’.  
At the same time, travel companies frequently report teachers asking for unnecessary and excessive paperwork, making the process harder, more complicated and unfortunately less effective. This extra work and confusion is despite educational visits being statistically one of the safest environments for children to be in.
First written in 2008 and updated in 2015 this guide illustrates, in non-technical terms, common basic principles and how they can be effectively used to benefit group management plans (my alternative form of words for a school trip risk assessment) and is suitable for all schools.  

What Is Expected?
Employers need to provide clear instruction and training for their employees and likewise teachers should follow that guidance, but the process need not be complex.
Essentially, group leaders need to be duly diligent in preparing a management plan for their visit, but they do not have to demonstrate superhuman powers of pre-cognition. They simply have to deal with what is reasonably foreseeable and respond within a reasonable range of measures.  
A risk assessment for an off-site activity could almost be thought of as the recorded minutes of a staff meeting, where the challenges that are reasonably foreseeable in a particular activity are discussed, and the actions identified to address those challenges are decided upon and recorded.
There is no expectation for insignificant risks to be included in a written risk assessment; professional judgement, particularly when backed by experience, is sufficient to deal with dynamic situations within schools and it is no different when off-site.  
It’s recommended that two or more group leaders participate in the planning process. This shares knowledge and skills, allowing others to be involved and take ownership of the solutions. Likewise, there is every reason to involve pupils in the process, as a good code of conduct will inevitably feature in any group management plan.

What Is a Risk Assessment?
In day to day life the process is quite simple. It usually follows the formula of somebody identifying a hazard, recognising somebody is at risk from the hazard, putting some judgement on the potential likelihood and severity of the harm that might befall them, and then critically putting in place the necessary control measures to rectify the problem.
An important consideration is that the action  is usually dependent on the person not the hazard. For example, if a pupil was unlikely or unable to follow the simple instruction, ‘sit straight’, the teacher may have felt another control measure, such as physically moving the chair back to ‘four on the floor’ was necessary.

Identifying Relevant Risks
The risks to consider are those associated with your own group management, which is different to thinking about the whole safety management of any location. Many leaders have made the mistake of asking for reams of risk assessment material from suppliers, which in fact hinders a good process. Thinking about what is likely to happen and considering ‘what if?’ is a useful way of approaching this.
When deciding on how to control a group in any situation then leaders should consider a range of measures that work together, which can be grouped under three headings: Supervision, Protection and Training.
Individual circumstances will dictate the control measures needed, but using the three headings when deciding ensures a full range of measures is considered.

Generic Risk Assessments
There is a commonality of hazards affecting groups in similar situations. Many situations on visits can be assessed in this way and this approach is useful to keep in mind, as it starts an effective and relevant assessment procedure. These can be usefully recorded as Generic Risk Assessments.  Once established Generic Risk Assessments can be used again and again or shared. They may come from elsewhere within the school or the local authority. Employers should provide these and it is recommended that employees use them.
However, it is important to recognise that a Generic Risk Assessment is not in itself sufficient. Even if you return to the same place on a regular basis, the plan needs to be considered further, because the make up of the group – leaders and pupils – will be different every time and it’s essential to consider this.

Adding Essential Detail
This step builds on the Generic Risk Assessment by recognising the individual nature of each group is unique and needs will vary from one group to the next.
In addition, it is likely that the individual makeup of a group will vary year on year, which should also be taken into account; inclusion issues are a good example of this. The unique dynamics of the group, and the individuals within it, dictate reasonable and appropriate control measures. Therefore, it is inappropriate to consider Generic Risk Assessment to be sufficient or for anybody without intimate knowledge of the group to attempt to complete this phase of the group management plan.
Where there is no existing experience of a location, a site visit is useful. There is no substitute for first-hand knowledge. Think of a pre-visit as ‘walking the course’ – such pre-visits add the fine detail to the group management plan. Site visits are also useful when developing the educational outcomes for the visit.
Where site visits are not possible, or to obtain updated information, tour companies will normally be very happy to pass on their local knowledge, which can be used to inform (not substitute for) the leaders own plan.  

Having an Alternative
It is important to think of the obvious ‘what ifs?’ Again, leaders are not required to consider all the many, minor details that could possibly change, but certain common problems should certainly be thought about, for example:  What if a venue is weather dependent and can’t be used? What if there is a sick child, how will the sick child be looked after and what’s the effect on the rest of the group? What if one of the members of staff falls sick?   
One of the hardest decisions for a leader to make is to stop an activity at short notice with a group of excited, expectant pupils without a pre‑prepared alternative. The ultimate Plan B is an emergency procedure for worst-case scenarios. These should be already established by the employer and must be understood. It is prudent to ask about a tour operator’s emergency procedure and check how it fits into the school’s.

Making the Plan Work
Armed with the group management plan (including Plan Bs), leaders will have a well-considered approach to the visit. However, the world is a dynamic place and management of safety ‘on the ground’ is key and appropriate skills and experience in leaders are called for.
For many situations, the group management skills exercised within schools are suitable, particularly if the process is backed by a good planning process. If the activity or circumstance is very ‘technical’ or outside a leader’s experience, consideration should be given to recruiting expert help; this might be in the form of a local guide or instructor.
It’s recommended that group leaders discuss the coming day’s plans and possible variations before setting out. Again, after they return, they should review the day and look forward to the next. These meetings can be short and informal and jotting down any changes on the management plan forms a useful and easy record of the decisions made. Additionally, as the majority of educational visits follow similar patterns, it is very good practice when the tour is finished to get together with colleagues, reflect and review the planning process and risk assessments used. The daily notes from the visit will inform this review. The results can be used to inform next year’s or other visits.

Reducing Work and Liabilities
Use of a properly selected tour operator can substantially reduce liabilities and work load. By contracting out visit organising, schools can better allocate their employees’ time to develop their own management plan and the delivery of the educational content of the visit.  
Any school undertaking the self-organisation of a school trip is required to exercise the same duty of care including the same level of supplier verification as a reputable tour operator would do. This will include accommodation, transport, visits and activities.
In addition, any redress for shortcomings will have to be pursued locally, significantly adding to the difficulties of doing so. However the UK’s Package Travel Regulations (PTR) cut through consumers’ difficulties; if you purchase travel as a package the tour operator is completely responsible for the actions of any third party supplier. No chasing overseas settlements, the school’s first and last call for redress is the travel company. In addition, the PTR ensures tour operators have to offer financial protection, but travel booked as separate elements doesn’t enjoy that protection. With a school trip costing in the thousands of pounds and the potential for minor or major disruption of plans, protection of the funds entrusted by the parents to the school and meeting the expectations of all are essential considerations. That doesn’t mean schools have to get something that doesn’t suit their needs; packages can be completely tailor-made from scratch, the main stipulation is for the elements to be purchased together.

Choosing a good provider
The Council for Learning Outside the Classroom (LOtC) Quality Badge encourages providers to have their safety and quality standards verified by independent, inspection regimes. The Quality Badge provides a quick and easy means for party leaders to ascertain that a provider has been inspected and accredited to a level that meets all the usual assurance requirements of a well-informed and competent party leader. Where the provider holds a LOtC Quality Badge, the OEAP considers no further assurances are necessary.
The School Travel Forum is a not-for-profit organisation dedicated to promoting good practice in school travel. In late 2008 the STF were appointed by the Learning Outside the Council Interim Council (an independent charity set up by the UK government in 2008) to act as the Awarding Body for the Study & Sports Tours Sector of the LOtC Quality Badge and our standards adopted as the benchmark for all companies operating in that sector.
Membership includes the greater majority of specialist study, sports and ski tour operators in the UK selling into the UK schools market and they carry over 16,255 school groups annually.

Further information