Health & Safety on school trips

Out of school activities are important both educationally and in terms of wider personal development. They add to the curriculum, build confidence and increase skills.

Encouragingly, government is committed to expanding the range of school trips. Controlled risk taking is seen as an important skill to teach children.

However, there’s a lack of understanding as to what the real risk might be on trips.

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Myth of the month

One of the myths surrounding Health & Safety is that accidents and the threat of prosecution stops teachers from taking part in trips. A few years ago, the Health & Safety Executive (HSE) even made this issue its ‘myth of the month’ when hysteria was at its peak.

The myth comes from a small number of highly publicised cases in which children have been killed or seriously injured on school trips – and an even smaller number of prosecutions of teachers leading those trips.


The Royal Society for the Prevention of Accidents (RoSPA) encourages teachers to embrace outdoor activities. Research shows more accidents take place in schools than on trips. Children are far more likely to get hurt playing football or rugby at school than going on a school hiking trip.

Statistics also show accidental deaths are very rare on school trips. The most conservative estimates suggest Britain’s ten million school age children spend at least 2 days out of school each year. An average of 3 deaths a year gives a fatality rate of 1 in 8 million. Children are slightly less likely to be struck by lightning.

Indeed, education has been seen as a low risk area and prosecutions rarely follow fatalities on school trips. When HSE inspectors do get involved, they tend to focus on local authorities. However, educational reforms have resulted in powers being delegated to schools. In many schools the employer is now the headteacher working alongside the governing body.

The HSE might therefore seek to address individual tragedies at school rather than local authority level – especially if it’s felt necessary to encourage heads and governing bodies to take safety more seriously.

So it’s vital all schools have the confidence to offer trips and that everyone involved is aware of their rights and responsibilities.

Unfortunately, schools face a huge amount of trip information – all of which can be quite daunting.

But what’s fundamental?

Duty of care   

Schools owe the same duty of care as owed by a reasonably careful parent.

In the case of Van Oppen v Clerk to the Bedford Charity Trustees (1988) it was stated:

‘There are risks of injury inherent in many human activities, even of serious injury in some. Because of this, the school having the pupils in its care is under a duty to exercise reasonable care for their Health & Safety. Schools are under a duty to protect their pupils from harm. This involves taking reasonable care to ensure that the schools’ activities are reasonably safe and well organised.’

This approach was confirmed by the Court of Appeal in Chittock v Woodbridge School (2003). In relation to a skiing trip, the appeal court held staff had to show the same level of care as taken by a reasonably careful parent – with experience of skiing and its hazards.

Under the Management of Health & Safety at Work Regulations 1999, school employers must assess the Health & Safety risks to staff and others. ‘Others’ includes pupils.

Interestingly, in deciding what reasonable care is the courts consider the social value of the activity (see Tomlinson v Congleton Borough Council 2003). This is reflected in the Compensation Act 2006 which provides:

A court considering a claim in negligence or breach of statutory duty may in determining whether the defendant should have taken particular steps to meet a standard of care (whether by taking precautions against a risk or otherwise) have regard to whether a requirement to take those steps might:

  • prevent a desirable activity from being undertaken at all to a particular extent or in a particular way or
  • discourage persons from undertaking functions in connection with a desirable activity

What does this mean?

Schools must take care of pupils in the same way a sensible parent would.

The duty of care exists to ensure trips are safe – but should not be used to stop them altogether.

The key is to assess the risks. Risk assessment should:

  • identify the hazards and who would be affected by them
  • assess the safety measures needed
  • identify any action to be taken in an emergency

Teachers understandably complain about regulation and bureaucracy. But risk assessment and management are simply tools to allow children to take part in activities safely. And a properly thought through risk assessment helps everyone take part in a controlled and enjoyable way.

Much depends on the activity being considered. Cases that make the news are typically those where children are injured or killed on or near water or up mountains. But many school trips are to local zoos, museums and parks – where risks are lower.

A common sense and proportionate approach is therefore needed.


In deciding whether there’s been a breach of duty the courts will consider relevant guidance.

Schools and teachers who stick to official guidance and act reasonably should have little to fear if things go wrong on trips.

While there’s a mountain of guidance material – some main information sources are:

Trips without tragedy checklist

Ten important points to remember when planning a safe trip:

1  Policy statements and guidelines should be in writing.

2  Have clear lines of responsibility. Appoint qualified people to act as Health & Safety focal points such as an:

  • outdoor education advisor
  • educational visits co-ordinator

Before the trip:

3  Consider its objectives.

4  Make sure risk assessments are carried out by trained people with experience of the planned activities. Risks are:

  • generic – likely to apply wherever and whenever the activity takes place
  • site specific – differ depending on place and people
  • ongoing

Specific matters to consider include:

  • Appointment of group leaders with overall responsibility – their role is well described in the Department for Education’s handbook for group leaders. Importantly, group leaders are responsible for ongoing risk assessment and should be familiar with relevant guidelines
  • Competencies, qualifications and experience of leaders and supervisors
  • Categorising activity risks
  • The need for an exploratory visit
  • Age, fitness, character and experience of pupils
  • staff/pupil ratios
  • Where water based activities are involved – careful survey of proposed location, knowledge of pupil abilities and close observation
  • Equipment and transport needs
  • If visiting an activity centre, checking of the safety standards, licensing scheme and staff details including age, qualification and experience
  • Medical and first aid needs
  • Is there a plan B? If so what is it?
  • Planning emergency procedures well in advance – and include in the assessment

5  Keep records – especially of the risk assessment. Distribute where necessary.

6  Have adequate insurance arrangements. Address any policy exclusions such as those for hazardous activities.

7  Obtain informed consent by making sure parents and guardians are given full information.

8  Have supervisors meet beforehand to discuss how the activity is to be run and supervised. Brief everyone – level of detail will depend on activity and age/experience of pupils.

During the trip:

9  Remember role of group leader and supervisors is ongoing.

After the trip:

10  Learn from the experience. What went well and what can be improved in future?