In many schools, the teacher who organises an excursion is responsible for planning it and preparing the required paperwork including the necessary risk assessment. Many excursions are a regular feature on the school calendar for a particular year group and are therefore a repeat of an excursion of the previous year.
Many teachers, if asked to prepare a risk assessment from scratch for an upcoming excursion, would say “Can’t I just copy the risk assessment from last year’s excursion? The excursion is the same as last year”.
Those teachers would also no doubt be surprised to learn that the answer should be a definite “no”.
The Way a Staff Member Usually Prepares a Risk Assessment
It can be standard and accepted practice in many schools for teachers who are required to prepare a risk assessment for a school excursion to, in essence, copy and paste the previous year’s risk assessment. With schools using a mixture of paper-based systems and some online systems for excursion planning, the way a teacher may prepare a risk assessment is generally as follows. The teacher:
- locates the previous year’s risk assessment on the school’s shared network drive or pulls it out of a paper-based archive box
- casts their eye over it to check that it looks about right (perhaps by looking at one or two sections or just the headings)
- saves a copy of it and updates the date and perhaps the time to match the planned new date and time of this year’s excursion
- prints it out
- if an external provider is involved (such as a transport provider or a venue provider), contacts the transport provider or venue provider as the case may be, asks for a copy of their risk assessment and once that has been received, attaches a copy of the external provider’s risk assessment (or in some cases does not adequately do provider due diligence)
- considers it to be ready to submit to the deputy principal for sign off.
Even this ‘copying and pasting’ process is reasonably time-consuming and is just one example of the administrative work that teachers must carry out regularly in addition to their main focus-which is teaching and caring for students.
Why Do Teachers Use the Risk Assessment from the Previous Year’s Excursion?
If a teacher did not follow the above process and instead was asked to prepare a risk assessment for an excursion ‘from scratch’, they would probably give most, if not all, of the following reasons for saying that they could not, or did not want to, do so:
- they don’t have sufficient knowledge to know which risks to select or to know all of the relevant risks because they haven’t been trained on how to prepare a risk assessment
- someone else has thought about this excursion before and they may have had more knowledge about the excursion so the risks that they have considered are probably right
- the school has been doing it this way for years and as far as they know it’s worked out
- the process would take far too long.
While all of these objections are perhaps understandable because preparing a risk assessment ‘from scratch’ without training and the tools to do so is an overwhelming task, ‘copying and pasting’ last year’s risk assessment indicates what seems to be an ingrained approach to risk assessments for excursions that is both risky and therefore potentially dangerous.
Time has been spent ‘doing the paperwork’ and the paperwork has been done but it’s effectively meaningless as a proper risk assessment of the particular excursion because the risks of that particular excursion have not been properly considered.
Why ‘Copying and Pasting’ Last Year’s Risk Assessment is Problematic
There are two key reasons why ‘copying and pasting’ last year’s risk assessment is problematic.
This Year’s Excursion is Not In Fact “the Same”
The teacher may argue that they are going on “the same excursion as last year” but this is almost never going to be the case. Each year there will of course be changes to the student cohort attending the excursion and most likely to the particular teachers attending too. From year to year there will always be changes to what is known as the ‘risk profile’ of an excursion relating to all of the other aspects of an excursion as well. A ‘risk profile’ is basically the sum of all factors in relation to each risk category (including the activity, venue and transport) that determines how risky an event is overall, and therefore the controls that need to be put in place to manage the risks.
From year to year in relation to any excursion that the school may repeat, whether it is the annual swimming carnival at the local pool, a trip to a museum in the city to illuminate what is being studied in history lessons or a visit to a farm or the zoo, in addition to the fact that the total student cohort and parent helper situation has changed, there will undoubtedly be changes in relation to the venue, transport or the activity from the previous year that increase (or perhaps decrease) the risks. Some examples are:
- the venue has a different owner
- there are building works being carried out at the venue this year
- the venue’s insurance policy has expired
- the excursion may be happening at a different time of year (which means different expected weather conditions)
- students are going to be allowed to buy food at the shops on the excursion whereas the previous year they were not allowed to do so
- the school is hiring a bus for transport this year as the school-owned bus that was used last year is out of service.
If the teacher’s mindset is that the excursion is “the same as last year” they will not be considering potential differences such as those listed above in a structured way and therefore not considering potential new risks that require considered risk management.
The School’s Policies, Protocols and Systems May Have Changed Since the Previous Excursion
There should be continuous improvement of the excursion process management process. The school’s policies, protocols and systems may have changed since the previous excursion, requiring there to be an updated risk assessment.
Policies and protocols need to be updated as a result of any changes in registration or Education Department guidelines, process improvement practices or, significantly, any incidents that have occurred in the past or since the previous excursion.
By way of example, the school’s policy in relation to the teacher to student ratio for bushwalking day trips may have changed from 1:20 to 1:10 since the previous year’s excursion. This change may be as a result of a change to the recommended guidelines for bushwalking published by the relevant state or territory body. ‘Copying and pasting’ last year’s risk assessment will mean that this change has not been taken into account and could mean that the school is also breaching the recommended ratio guidelines. If there is an incident or injury and the school is taken to court as a result, the fact that the school has not followed the recommended and published updated guidelines applicable on the date of the excursion would not be viewed favourably by the court.
Another example is that, at last year’s swimming carnival held at a saltwater pool, the school did not require the students to wear swimming goggles when swimming and many children experienced irritated eyes especially the children with sensitive eyes. Many parents complained to the school and the relevant teachers spent a total of 10 hours addressing complaints. Since that excursion the school’s swimming policy has been updated to state that, when attending swimming carnivals at off-site pools, all students must wear swimming goggles or they won’t be permitted to swim. If last year’s risk assessment is ‘copied and pasted’, this update to the policy will not be reflected in the risk assessment and the issue will be repeated. This will cause not only preventable discomfort to the students, but also further complaints and time spent dealing with them and reputational damage.
Teachers should not assume that the policies, procedures and systems that are relevant to the excursion have not changed. All changes in policy during the previous year need to be reviewed, understood and incorporated into the risk assessment for this year’s excursion.
Managing General Risks on an Excursion
Teachers are very good at managing risk-they do it every day at school. A lot of risk management comes very naturally to them. They are also good at managing general risks and introducing controls as required when they take students on an excursion e.g. counting children when they get on and off the bus, ensuring that children have a designated partner for an excursion, checking public toilet facilities before allowing children to use them etc. This type of risk management would be common to almost every excursion. A properly-considered risk assessment (even if a teacher would argue that the excursion is “the same as last year’s”) allows for specific controls to be put in place for that particular excursion.
What Should Schools Be Doing?
As mentioned above, a proper risk assessment that doesn’t involve a direct ‘copy and paste’ is definitely more time-consuming than ‘copying and pasting’ the previous year’s excursion risk assessment and potentially daunting. Not carrying out a proper risk assessment for the specific excursion however is risky and could potentially result in incidents or injuries to students to whom the school owes a duty of care. Like any process, the first time it is done is inevitably slower than subsequent times.
For each excursion there needs to be a new risk assessment carried out specific to the risk categories that make up the particular risk profile of the excursion. Each and all of the risk factors (activity, venue, transport, etc) need to be properly thought about and investigated.
A properly-considered risk assessment decreases the risk of harm to students which will lead to safer outcomes for students attending excursions. With this, an efficient risk management process could also mean schools offer more excursions which, in line with educational requirements, would help students on their learning journey with better learning outcomes.