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.