On 12 June 2020, CompliSpace held the webinar “What does ‘Best Practice’ Excursion Risk Management Look Like?” (Webinar), presented by Consultant/Client Relationship Manager Ian Hird. The Webinar was the fourth in a four-part series about navigating excursion risk management.
Specifically, the Webinar focused on the three layers of best practice excursion risk management in schools:
- development of an appropriate risk culture
- development of a comprehensive staff training program
- policies and processes that manage and control excursion risks.
A recording of the Webinar is accessible here. This article summarises, and provides the key takeaways from, the Webinar. This article does not contain all the information in the Webinar and does not seek to act as its substitute.
Developing an Appropriate Risk Culture
The first layer of best practice excursion risk management is having appropriate risk culture. To understand how to develop an appropriate school risk culture, it should first be understood what school culture is. Professor Arlene Munroe and Dr Sheila Fisher define school culture as the “culture that is partly created by explicit strategies and messages from senior managers, but is also strongly influenced by the covert messages that run through the organisation and influence individual behaviour”. Schools should reflect on the covert messages that they send about risk, risk management and its importance in the foundational operation of the risk. An important aspect of a school’s risk culture is its policies. Policies are the mechanism by which schools typically manage risk in their daily operations and reveal information about school culture not only through the specific information in them, but through their silences as well. The school itself should create the totality of risk management policies, and should not delegate this responsibility onto staff.
Schools should have clear excursion policies for the following levels:
- level 1 – master excursion policies for excursions that are during the day, overnight, or international
- level 2 – macro excursion policies for risk controls such as informed consent, transport infection control
- level 3 – activity policies for specific activities with a clear articulation of all aspects.
A poll question posed to the attendees of the Webinar found that 61 per cent of schools have policies that relate to levels 1 and 2 only. Having policies for all these levels, and looking at them through the lens that it might be interrogated during a litigation process, would be an excellent way to establish the bar for best practice.
Risk culture is often driven by competing priorities and goals. These may include time constraints, in developing policies and procedures with respect to every aspect of the excursion cycle framework, skill and knowledge in developing high level control strategies, managing and coordinating consistency across the while school and school leaders having enough ‘bandwidth’ to take on some of these challenges. Schools should ensure that risk culture is seen as an overt priority and a core activity where other competing priorities do not minimise its effectiveness.
Setting appropriate risk ratings is also an important aspect of ‘best practice’ risk culture. The goal of removing all risk is unrealistic and unattainable. Activities such as abseiling or taking students with anaphylaxis on excursions will always involve risk – at if anything goes wrong the consequences will be significant. The goal is to ensure that all possible control strategies are put in place and for staff to be alert to this fact. The risk has not been removed – it is being controlled. Staff should never feel that the risk has been removed. Best practice is that risk assessments improve control strategies and ensure staff remain alert to the risks that are being managed on an excursion. Thus, understanding what risk ratings are and how they should be determined is a very important aspect of a school developing an appropriate risk culture.
Another part of good risk management culture is when schools seek out and encourage the reporting of errors and unexpected events. Organisations that achieve a high safety level for children encourage an open culture where people can discuss difficult judgements and report mistakes so that the organisation can learn from them. The area where this can happen in the excursion cycle framework is the post excursion review process. A review process that seeks meaningful feedback from students, excursion organisers, staff, and providers will be comprehensive. This would signal an open risk culture and the capacity and willingness to have conversations about excursion risk in a school.
Developing a Comprehensive Training Program
The second layer of best practice excursion risk management is having a comprehensive staff training program. Excursion staff training is the mechanism by which school policies are strengthened and supported in their implementation by the teachers on the excursion. The type of staff training required include informing staff about:
- excursion management end to end process
- excursion management risk assessment process
- excursion management policies and procedures
- excursion management risk controls.
However, informing staff about these matters is not enough. This is because, according to Professor James Reason, although controls in the form of standard operating procedures, protocols and regulations are essential, they can also be problematic as they are often the source of other risks. The new risks are that these controls do not help staff cope with the unexpected, and fail to develop risk thinking.
There are some additional concerns in relation to staff, including the wide variety of attitudes, experiences, and confidence that staff have, as well as consistency among larger groups of staff. Training programs should address how to empower such a diverse range of staff to operate collectively in a way that is aligned with expectations of the school.
Furthermore, excursions often involve unfamiliar environments, external forces, and dynamic situations. Training programs should build the capacity to ensure safety in such an uncertain environment. This can be achieved by developing risk thinking. Risk thinking can enable staff to apply appropriate risk management principles in a rapidly changing context. It can be developed through hypotheticals, role plays, and real-world situations. It can also use different modes of delivery and different opportunities throughout the year, including online training, external presenters, staff meetings/workshops, and specialist groups/events.
If schools have comprehensive staff training programs, this can feed into a positive risk culture as well, allowing a mutually beneficial process between these two layers of best practice.
Policies and Processes
The third layer of best practice excursion risk management is having policies and processes that are best practice. This can be achieved by having comprehensive:
- risk assessments
Risk assessments form part of the excursion cycle framework and are crucial to addressing excursion risks. A poll question posed to the attendees of the Webinar found that 68 per cent of schools manage excursion risk assessments by having staff complete a blank template. However, this is problematic for several reasons. These blank templates may provide an exemplar of how the form can be filled in, which can encourage staff to fill out their form by copying the exemplar. This could result in a risk assessment that does not identify the full range of risks applicable to the excursion. It may also be an unproductive use of time to require teachers to complete each risk assessment before giving it to the school to review. Rather, schools should change their approach by reconceptualising the risk assessment as well as the process. Schools should detail policies that identify specific control strategies for all aspects of the excursion, thus setting the standard for risk management within the school. Teachers should then select the specific control strategies that are relevant to their excursion.
However, just having risk assessments is not enough because it does not ensure that teachers are doing exactly what is outlined in the policies. For this reason, developing processes such as checklists are useful. A poll question posed to the attendees of the Webinar found that 83 per cent of schools do not have records of students’ and staff briefings and pre-departure procedures as part of their documentation trail for each excursion. Checklists could provide a quick and easy way for staff to ensure that, prior to going on an excursion, they have done everything that the policies require them to do. They could also provide a documentary path showing that schools have processes in place, and that they are undertaken appropriately.
By having best practice policies and procedures, teachers will be able to engage meaningfully in the risk management process, schools will have the capacity to manage the process effectively and the documentation process will be more comprehensive.
Key Takeaways – How Schools Can Develop Best Practice Excursion Risk Management
The Webinar focused on how schools can use the three-layered approach to achieve best practice excursion risk management.
The key takeaways from the Webinar are:
- developing an appropriate risk culture that can sustain legal scrutiny, remain effective despite competing priorities, ensure appropriate risk ratings, and has a review process that meaningfully engages everyone throughout the school
- developing a comprehensive staff training program that not only informs staff about policies and procedures, but empowers staff to intervene when necessary and enables staff to apply appropriate risk management principles in the rapidly changing and dynamic context of excursions
- having policies and processes that manage and control excursion risks, particularly by having appropriate risk assessments and checklists.