Risk management in schools is an interesting and challenging problem. Firstly, there’s nothing in teachers’ training which helps them to understand the role and responsibilities of planning for and managing risk. Secondly, what actually are the risks? What could be considered a hazard or risk in the classroom, is vastly different from what could be considered a risk on the sports field, out on camp, or on an international study tour.
In years gone by, this wasn’t too much of a worry as most teachers weren’t involved with the sheer volume of additional co-curricular programs, excursions, activities and overseas trips which now form part of a normal year at school. Added to this, the focus of risk management in schools has also predominantly been on buildings, grounds, office spaces, classrooms and boarding houses and not on the specific activities which go on outside the school grounds on a daily basis.
The fact is, on-site risk management is quite different from off-site risk management. However, often there’s only training available for on-site risks. This makes no sense, as schools continue to run great education programs inside and outside of the confines of the school grounds. As an experienced outdoor education professional, if I were to do a walk-through of an entire school as part of a risk assessment, then I would most likely miss several things because it’s not my specific area of expertise. The same is true when Workplace Safety Professionals attempt to evaluate risk outside of the school. Unless you’re specifically trained in excursion and activity risk, you’re bound to miss something, which can lead to injuries and incidents which could have been avoided.
The only education that teachers seem to have in risk management is that at some point, they’re involved in a trip somewhere, doing something, and rather than having any actual training to be able to manage and help run the program, they’re entirely reliant on learning something about what they should be doing through osmosis. The expectation that they absorb something at some point in time, which then magically enables them to manage risk in a well-planned and professional way, is ridiculous in the extreme. Yet that’s basically what’s been the industry standard. People reference ISO31000 all the time. (This is the international standard for risk management). However, if you’ve ever had enough coffee to drink and made it all the way through the ISO, you’ll realise that it’s so broad and general that just reading this doesn’t give you any real idea about how to manage school excursion and activity risks. It does however, outline what the paperwork should look like.
Sadly, osmosis and reading ISOs is a rather unreliable means through which people gain even a decent baseline understanding of risk management. It’s like letting your English teachers learn about a text for the first time as they read it in class with their students, or your maths teacher, teach themselves by reading a chapter ahead and asking the other teachers a few questions about ‘this whole algebra thing.’ Schools and teachers have a professional responsibility to manage risk wherever their educational programs take them.
Whilst this is a significant concern, which the recent pandemic has focussed everyone’s minds on, rather than just continuing to say it’s a concern and something should be done about it, we decided to do something about it. From our 20+ years of running school excursions, camps, co-curricular programs, sports and international tours, we decided to create structured, professional development training for teachers in risk management that’s specific to excursions and activities. Risk management is not generic and for school activities, it cannot be covered effectively by workplace health and safety risk training. When you’re dealing with students, staff, transport, activities, airports, medical concerns, mental health issues, activities and a range of educational programs, teachers need to be trained and confident in their planning and management of these specific inherent risks to ensure programs are well run and enjoyable.
Nobody is ‘just a classroom teacher’ anymore. The more our school programs venture out into the real world, the more important it is to have teachers with great risk management skills. Every time teachers leave the school gates with a group, they’re responsible for the safety and well-being of that group and like the English teacher reading the text as they go, teachers regardless of subject expertise, should not be out on a trip, anywhere, doing anything and making it up as they go. This leads to disaster and at the end of the day, as educators, we want to run great programs which have well-planned safety built into them.
We decided to share our experience of risk management, through online and face to face professional development. Over the years, I’ve had the best moments of my teaching career and seen the most impact, when we’ve been out on some sort of excursion or activity. From this, we want to enable all those teachers who want to improve student learning through amazing real world experiences, to be able to gain confidence and strength in their risk management skills so that every trip of which they’re part, is a memorable one for their students for all the right reasons.
Risk management in schools is an interesting and concerning problem. There’s nothing in teachers’ training which helps them to understand the role and responsibilities of running activities outside the school grounds. In years gone by, this wasn’t too much of a worry as most teachers weren’t involved with the sheer volume of additional programs, excursions, activities and overseas trips which now form part of a normal year at school.
The only education that teachers seem to have in this is that at some point, they’re involved in a trip somewhere doing something and rather than having any actual training to be able to manage and help run whatever it is in which they’ve now found themselves involved, they’re entirely reliant on learning something about what they should be doing through osmosis. The expectation that they absorb something at some point in time which then magically enables them to manage risk in a well planned and professional way is ridiculous in the extreme, yet that’s basically the industry standard.
Sadly, osmosis is a rather unreliable means through which people gain even a decent baseline level of any sort of skill, let alone risk management. It’s like letting your English teachers learn about a text for the first time as they read it with (or slightly behind) the class, or your maths teacher, teach themselves by reading a chapter ahead and asking the other teachers a few questions about ‘this whole algebra thing.’
Parents would be horrified and continually write angry emails to the school if they knew their children were being taught by teachers who literally knew nothing about their subject areas. Why is nobody upset when that same lack of skill and understanding is being applied to situations which place students at real risk or harm?
Why is risk management training such an afterthought? Why do schools rely on osmosis for one of the most critical things required to keep their students safe? Is it because they don’t care? Most likely not. Is it because it’s too expensive? Hardly, as most training days are less than $500 a day and the cost to investigate even a minor issue is viciously expensive and can easily run into the thousands of dollars. Could it be something that they think they can contract out and not worry about because it’s now someone else’s problem. Perhaps they think they can do this, yet ultimately, they simply can’t contract this out and absolve themselves of any responsibility.
If only there were an easy answer to this. There is some level of naivety in all of this and what’s commonly known as unconscious incompetence. You don’t know what you don’t know. So if you don’t know it, then how can you be expected to do something about it? Unfortunately, this is not considered a reasonable or acceptable defence when something goes wrong. It just makes you look more idiotic than before and even a mediocre barrister will maul the hell out of a teacher who tries to use this. The ‘I didn’t know’ defence has sadly been used in coronial inquests and no amount of ignorance has ever brought a deceased child back nor mended any shattered lives.
So if training isn’t too expensive and it’s not too hard to do, why is it overlooked? I’ve often had the reply from teachers ‘I’m just a classroom teacher, so I don’t need to do anything like that.’ Yet these same classroom teachers are taking students down town, interstate and overseas on study tours, sports trips and cultural immersion programs. Just because you’re not going white water canoeing in South America, doesn’t mean you, your students and the school are not exposed to a huge range of potential risks from cultural misunderstandings, to political and social risks and poor student behaviour, just to name a few. Every time teachers leave the school gates with a group, they’re responsible for the safety and well-being of that group and like the English teacher reading the text as they go, teachers regardless of subject expertise, should not be out on a trip, anywhere, doing anything and making it up as they go.
In my twenty odd years in education (some more odd than others), the overwhelming trend has however been to allow totally inexperienced and untrained teachers to take groups out and make stuff up as they go. This is wrong and at the end of the day, luck always runs out and situations like this will always end badly. Rather than rely on the magical fairy tale land of risk management through osmosis and relying on making stuff to as you go, it’s time to up the ante on teacher training and enable those keen and enthusiastic teachers who want to improve student learning through amazing real world experiences, to undertake some real risk management training and properly build their skill-set around good risk management practices so that every trip on which they go, is a memorable one for their students for all the right reasons.