As has been discussed in the first three parts of this series of articles, schools need more effective ways to deal with the complexities of excursion management planning.
Standardising the Creation, Planning and Implementation of an Excursion
It was apparent through our review of state and territory Education Department policies, that the procedures for creating, planning and implementing an excursion vary widely and the approval processes vary even more.
This variation at the macro level is reflected within some individual schools where, at a micro level, the creation, planning, implementation and approval processes for excursions can vary between a large school’s sub-schools or even between individual departments.
Teachers who teach across several sub-schools, such as language teachers, are required to deal with differing variables and procedures for each sub-school. This simply adds to the overall complexity of the process and the likelihood of omissions and errors.
The Excursion Policy should outline a set of general principles to be followed in the planning of excursions to minimise the risks, such as the requirement for a management plan of each excursion to be completed beforehand. The management plan should identify the risks posed by the particular excursion and outline the strategies to mitigate each of the risks. Final approval of an excursion should only be granted by the principal if they are satisfied that the risks have been appropriately identified and addressed in the management plan. However, schools still tend to be using a paper-and-pen approach and the documentation can be extremely weighty! If schools really want to standardise their processes, they should be online.
Having a seamless online process where teachers can import vendor due diligence forms, insurance information and student and teacher/volunteer data, specify the macro risks, identify and add in the micro risks, and add in the risk mitigation strategies and transport arrangements can reduce the compliance burden immensely.
Above all, a fully integrated approach to excursion risk management coordinates the response to various types of risk and any interdependence of risks, resulting in a more efficient process, as well as allowing the school to gain a better view of the risks facing the entire school. Where a school is not seeing the whole picture, there is a greater likelihood that its response to a particular risk may be inadequate.
Ensuring that Activities are Properly Documented and Archived
Schools should keep records from each school trip including:
- the management plan
- names and contacts of students, staff, volunteers, and the teacher-in-charge
- contracts entered into with any third-party organisations
- written parent approval forms
- risk assessments
- records of any incidents that may have occurred on an excursion.
Many non-government schools have developed record-keeping practices in response to national privacy legislation but this is not the case across the board. Moreover, there is also no clear directive on how records relating to excursions should be kept.
Current record keeping of excursions in schools varies widely. However, based on anecdotal evidence and from interviews conducted with a number of schools in several jurisdictions, the archiving of excursion planning and approval and documentation of any incidents that took place while on the excursion, is often conducted in an ad hoc manner. Some of the practices that were discovered during these interviews included:
- some teachers keep their own management plans, mistakenly believing that the documents are their own personal property
- some departments keep all planning processes. Sub-schools store some management plans. Generally, if activities involve interstate or international destinations, they are stored by the school administration
- schools debate how to store, and if to store, the innumerable parent approval slips. Some schools throw them out after the excursion is complete. Some store them in bundles for each year and archive them. Some separate them into individual student files. Some schools have electronic formats or have purchased software that allows for permissions to be dealt with and stored electronically
- some schools allow archival excursion documents to be stored within departments or sub-schools.
While there is a logic to storing records within a department which will assist it in running similar excursions in the future, it means that those records – and their risks, control measures, and other relevant information – are not easily available to other departments, or to the school as a whole.
Balance Between Risk and Educational Benefits
Schools today are better versed in their general understanding of risk management than they were ten years ago. With the changes that took place in WHS requirements, schools began to develop risk registers and they also began to develop risk mitigation strategies for the WHS risks that they identified. This was a new language for many principals and certainly a new language for many of the school staff. Thankfully, this led to the development of risk registers and risk mitigation strategies for excursions.
It is clear that schools do not have a duty to eliminate all risk; this would be impossible and attempts to do so would significantly impact on a student’s education. Schools cannot avoid some incidents, but they have a duty to prepare for the risk of those incidents in such a way as to contain or mitigate the harm.
Physical education and outdoor education staff adopted this process quickly and very effectively as it was often their activities that were deemed to carry the highest levels of inherent risk. The identified risks and mitigation strategies were being recorded and acted on.
However, schools seem to have been managing their risks, including their excursion risks, on a divisional basis with each department or sub-school identifying, overseeing and mitigating their own risks. In the business world, this method of managing risks was found to be ineffective against many types of risk because they were often highly interdependent.
The result was that when some risks crossed inter-departmental lines, they were being managed in different ways by different people as each area developed their own response to the risk. More alarmingly, other risks were found to be slipping through the cracks altogether. Developing a holistic, online, risk management framework allows a school to see and understand the types and level of risk inherent in its business - all of its business; and this includes excursions.
A holistic framework outlines the school’s approach to risk, as well as outlining the risks themselves. It also helps to establish and develop a risk management culture within the school that is applied to excursions as well. It is not possible to mitigate all risks, but a school should have visibility of the risks it faces and its approach to managing them where this is possible or appropriate.
Adopting a Due Diligence Approach to Vendor Selection
It is commonplace for schools to hire or lease outside venues in order to provide facilities for specific student learning activities that may not necessarily be conducted on the school campus for a variety of reasons.
If schools conduct a formal due diligence process for every vendor that they use, it would ensure that the school has a consistent and documented approach to vetting its vendor relationships. This is especially important if the vendor is providing a regular service or if the vendor takes on a component of duty of care regarding the students.
To conduct due diligence for every vendor, it is essential to have a standard set of due diligence questions as a starting point, that the school uses in order to ensure key standard dimensions are addressed. Schools should conduct due diligence processes that are proportionate to the vendor's perceived risk. Basically, the greater the risk, the more due diligence that should be conducted. The standard due diligence questions should be supplemented with additional specific questions on a case-by-case basis to ensure that the school has enough information from each due diligence process to feel assured that the vendor that they select can provide the expected service to meet:
- legislative standards, Codes of Practice, Australian Standards and licensing requirements
- accepted good practice (if it is of a higher level) in the education sector
- any standards determined by the school
- relevant insurances.
Some vendors may wish to provide their own form of due diligence - and this can often be seen on many ‘excursion provider’ websites. However, schools should not accept this as a fait accompli. Ultimately, schools need to know that they owe a duty of care to students even if they have entered into vendor or contract arrangements.
If a vendor or contractor behaves in a negligent manner, a school may be liable in two ways. Firstly, because it has a non-delegable duty of care towards students and secondly, because it has failed to ensure the vendor has the appropriate qualifications and experience to run the activity safely and is familiar with and agrees to abide by the school’s child protection policies and procedures.
A major concern for schools is that they often do not have the expertise to determine whether a particular vendor does have the appropriate licenses, experience, training or that they will comply with whatever the relevant industry Codes or Standards require. This is where the relevant WHS laws can assist – in all states and territories the rule of thumb is that where there is shared responsibility, each party is required to fulfil its duty of care to the extent that it can influence or control. When dealing with specialist vendors where the school lacks that expertise, it should use contractual undertakings with a due diligence questionnaire, coupled with reference checking where practicable, to satisfy itself that the vendor is compliant.
If a school has conducted a documented, formal due diligence process then it will be in a better position to argue that it has met its duty of care and was acting in a way that any reasonable school would act in similar circumstances.
Integrating a Governance, Risk, Compliance & Policy Management (GRC&P) Framework
Many schools have recognised the complexity of governance, risk and compliance (GRC) data management and have invested in GRC&P software systems. These systems streamline many aspects of the risk, task and incident management process and allow data to be collated, analysed, and reported without additional effort. This is crucial in improving a school’s decision-making processes, and that leads to improved injury and legal outcomes.
A school wide GRC&P system that can integrate with the excursion planning procedures will allow a school to more effectively manage the requirements of regulators and the legislative frameworks associated with excursions. In addition, it would also allow schools to better manage their record keeping obligations. Having one online portal where:
- risks across a variety of different departments and areas can be identified and assessed
- planning and approval can take place
- consistent due diligence processes with all external providers can be accessed and stored
- parent approvals can be digitally recorded and stored
- policy and procedure documents can be accessed
- past excursion documentation can be archived for use at a later stage
seems to be a no-brainer, but even with the available technology and the knowledge that it is invaluable, it is still rarely done.