Of course taking students outside the classroom carries its own risks – but that just makes for even richer learning opportunities, says Victoria Wilcher
‘‘Elf ‘n’ Safety’ is often perceived to be the nemesis of those working in learning outside the classroom (LOtC). Health and safety concerns, risk management and red tape are frequently cited as barriers to taking young people out into the real world. But is it time to reassess the perceived barrier of risk assessment, and embrace opportunities to develop young people who are savvy risk-managers, ready for the challenges of life beyond the classroom?
When we think about safety in the context of educational visits, most people’s first reaction is to think with dismay of a mountain of risk-assessment forms and excessive beaurocracy. In the past, ‘health and safety’ has been cited as the reason to dismiss many learning outside the classroom opportunities. Today, however, most schools recognise that the benefits of LOtC far outweigh the risks, and empowering young people to perceive and manage risks appropriately can be a significant benefit of stepping outside the classroom. Students do not just develop as risk managers; LOtC activities give real world context to SMSC education, offering young people the opportunity to engage with cultural traditions different from their own, develop critical thinking and debating skills, increase self-knowledge, self-confidence and self-esteem, and understand fundamental British values. This can all happen at the same time as developing subject knowledge and achieving those core, curriculum-linked learning outcomes.
Judith Hackitt, chair of the Health and Safety Executive, is very supportive of schools taking lessons outside the classroom. In 2012, she wrote an article outlining her belief in the importance of giving young people practical experience of managing risk for themselves. As she explains: “You can’t teach young people about risk from a text book – they need some practical experience. That’s why cosseting children and seeking to remove all risk from their experiences ultimately leaves them ill equipped for adult and working life.”
The 2008 Ofsted report into learning outside the classroom, How Far Should You Go? noted that: “Learning outside the classroom also contributed to…being healthy, staying safe and making a positive contribution. This happened, for example, when the children and young people took on different and additional requirements to promote their own and each other’s safety when out of the classroom; by undertaking extra physical exercise; or by joining in events within the local community or with other schools and colleges.”
Learning outside the classroom activities are the ideal opportunity to encourage students to think about the risks involved in an activity, and learn how to conduct themselves appropriately in order to manage that risk. Every aspect of an educational visit offers an opportunity for thinking about risk: the journey to and from the venue, and encountering unfamiliar people and new environments, as well as any risks that might be part of the activity itself. When you are planning for LOtC, involve your students in writing the risk assessment; make it part of the learning, rather than an extra burden on your time. In doing so, you will be making them risk aware, which, ultimately, will make them safer.
As well as involving young people in assessing the risks, schools are advised to implement the Risk Benefit model of risk assessment. This approach takes into account the benefits of challenging experiences for young people’s development. In a risk benefit assessment, the benefits of an activity, such as increased resilience, developing confidence or building relationships, are identified alongside any risks, putting the outcomes for students at the heart of the planning. Guidance on using the risk-benefit model can be found in the useful document Nothing Ventured, written by Tim Gill and published by the English Outdoor Council. It can be accessed for free at englishoutdoorcouncil.org.
Another important aspect of safety for schools now is protecting young people from extremism. Learning outside the classroom can have an instrumental role in promoting British values by giving young people the opportunity to engage directly with the world beyond the classroom walls. Ofsted guidance on the promotion of British values states that SMSC activities should: “enable students to develop their self-knowledge, self-esteem and self-confidence.” These attributes are all key benefits of LOtC.
SMSC provision should also give pupils an understanding and appreciation of their own and other cultures, encourage respect for other people and for democracy, and show young people how they can contribute positively to wider society. Taking pupils into the world beyond the classroom, giving them a range of cultural experiences, introducing them to people from outside their own culture and experience, and encouraging them to contribute to society as part of LOtC activities, all help give them practical experience of British values which will have far more meaning than introducing these concepts in a classroom.
Through educational visits, pupils can visit a mosque or synagogue and talk to the people who use these spaces. They can also encounter art, music and drama, visit a law court to see the justice system in action, or explore a natural environment space to think about ecological issues. LOtC can also provide stimuli for debate which helps build young people’s communication skills and confidence to develop their own viewpoint, rather than be swayed by others.
Learning outside the classroom offers a wealth of benefits for young people’s development as learners and valuable members of society. It would be a shame if we let the spectre of health and safety prevent us from getting out and experiencing deep and memorable learning.
Checklist: 6 tips for safeguarding outside the classroom
Look for accreditations
Seek out venues which have the LOtC Quality Badge. This is the nationally recognised indicator of good quality educational provision. It combines the essential elements of provision - learning and safety. You know that by using a provider which has the LOtC Quality Badge accreditation, they will have an LOtC experience that offers a good educational activity in a safe environment.
Think about sleeping arrangements
Residential visits offer a fantastic opportunity to develop pupils’ independence and life-skills but it is important to give careful consideration to sleeping arrangements, taking into account issues of privacy and child protection. Plans should be made prior to the visit and communicated to students, staff and parents in advance. Visit organisers should also consider safe staff/participant ratios and the gender mix of staff.
Prepare students for new experiences
A key benefit of off-site visits is that children and young people have the opportunity to explore new places and meet new people. This may leave them vulnerable, so it is important to give them adequate preparation for dealing with new situations, such as talking about the challenges of a rural environment, if they are used to the conveniences of a city.
Relationships outside the classroom are often more relaxed than in school. But it is important for adults to remember that they are in a position of trust and need to ensure that their behaviour remains professional at all times and stays within clearly defined professional boundaries.
Have a plan for social media
Social media can also present a challenge – using Twitter, Facebook or other services to send messages to parents and peers back in school can be useful, but staff should also be aware of the issues of sharing personal information (such as the location of the visit), photos and other information. Smartphones can also give access to unsuitable web content. It is important that a school establish in advance some guidelines for social media usage during a visit.
Use the guidance available
The Outdoor Education Advisers’ Panel has a wealth of information on appropriate risk management on its National Guidance website: oeapng.info.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Victoria Wilcher is development manager for The Council for Learning Outside the Classroom (LotC), which offers advice and guidance on planning LOtC through its website: www.lotc.org.uk. Specific advice and information on planning brilliant residentials is available from www.learningaway.org.uk.