Why is everyone so afraid of the word risk? To be honest talking about risk is a risky topic in itself, because whenever people think of risk, it conjures up visions of dangerous risk and is usually associated with money grubbing lawyers, soulless insurance companies and drawn out court cases, all of which should be avoided, like the plague or romantic candle lit dinners with Kim Jong Un.
Unfortunately, people become blinkered to anything else, especially when dating a dictator who desperately needs to find a new hairdresser. Seriously though, regardless whether risk is dangerous or not, it fills people with a sense of fear. Not knowing how to deal with one’s fear, leads to a perception that all risk is bad and therefore all risk must be avoided at all cost.
However, every part of our lives involves some form of risk. Whether it be trying a new dish off a menu for the first time, deciding what to do on the weekend or planning to leave your current job in pursuit of a new career. All these things involve risk. However, most of this risk stems from people’s inbuilt fears rather than serious risk of harm. Consequently, not all risk is dangerous risk, but it does make us feel uncomfortable, or even fearful because the outcome is unknown. Often people will delay making decisions, or avoid them entirely, because they want to avoid the risk of making the ‘wrong’ decision.
Education is all about taking risks, yet due to the misconception that risk is just about dangerous risk, there’s a huge disconnect with schools being proactive with their students and educating them how to take measured and reasonable risks to help them develop and grow. Instead, the focus is on ‘playing it safe’ and being totally and utterly risk averse. Once again, the nanny state and its perverse litigious legal system can justify its own existence.
It’s drilled into many children from a young age, ‘be safe’, ‘take care’, ‘don’t do this’, ‘don’t do that!’ ‘BE CAREFUL!!!’ It’s fair enough that parents don’t want to put their child in danger. However, I’m not talking about dangerous risks, so if they’re so risk-averse that they’re not even willing to let their kids get dirty playing around in the backyard at a friend’s house, it’s going to cause much, much bigger problems later on.
Unfortunately, the current generation of school-aged kids seems to have been brought up by a generation of paranoid, risk averse parents who are desperate to see no ‘harm’ come to their ‘special child!’ Sadly, as a result of this paranoid parenting, it’s actually damaged many a child’s ability to understand what it means to take a risk, and to be able to take measured and informed risks for themselves. The comfort zones of kids are slowly smothering them into inaction and indecision, then often their perception of risk is either totally over the top, or so oblivious they believe they’re impervious to anything.
There are only two approaches you can take when dealing with risk. You can either accept and proactively embrace the inherent risks that life brings, or you can try to avoid them completely. By trying to avoid any sort of risk and avoid the risk of ‘failure,’ this can do more damage to children, than letting them explore and experience risk from within in a positive framework.
If parents have the ultimate goal of ensuring their child can’t possibly fail at anything in school, they’re missing the point about education and personal development. The reality is that this ‘perfect child,’ ‘perfect world’ approach is disastrously counterproductive and can only lead to a much greater failure in the future. By being over-protective, parents are not giving their children the chance to develop coping mechanisms and the resilience needed to deal with life’s setbacks that will most certainly occur.
Instead of wrapping kids in bubble wrap to protect them from everything, it becomes critical to allow them to explore taking risks within a structured framework such as an experiential education program. This allows them to think for themselves, make decisions and risk failure without massive negative consequences.
Through experiencing what taking risks feels like and helping students step outside their comfort zones, we can help students learn about taking chances in life, which is what life’s all about. It’s not about ‘playing it safe,’ to the point that you never progress and grow as a person. It’s about pushing the boundaries to make the most of opportunities and to become the best you can. Next time you’re running a program, set up an activity that involves a good amount of perceived risk that’s suitable for the age and maturity of your students. Through this, encourage them to take a chance, try something completely new and push beyond the boundaries that have been unnaturally put in place for them by others.
Failing that, there’s always that romantic dinner date…
To really understand how incompetent some people are when it comes to reporting incidents, you need only look at my old school. Wait, no… not the one of which you’re thinking! Let’s go back further to when I was in a Government high school myself.
It was the 90s, an almost lost decade when the great fashion styles of the 80s were now dead and replaced with slightly more conservative hair cuts and mobile phones that came in a bag. Yes that’s right, A mobile didn’t fit in your pocket. It came in its own bag. They were enormous! I remember that everyone thought that people who carried their own bag phone around, must have been either super important, or a complete tosser! In reality, it was the latter, but I digress.
Whilst I prefer not to talk about my high school experience, because it could lead to far too many expletives being used in every sentence, the remarkable thing about life is the fact that we can learn some great lessons from complete idiots. Just take a look at the Darwin Awards, which is a great testament to this fact. Sadly, I don’t have another contender for the Darwin Awards on this occasion. However, there’s no shortage of idiots involved, so for those of you involved in risk management, this is what not to do when your school bus gets hit by a semi-trailer.
Now it wouldn’t be fair to talk about the day trip to Narrabri without putting it into some sort of context. Why were we travelling two hours from Tamworth in Northern NSW to Narrabri just to have an argument?
For me, this was one of the most exciting days of the year. It was the regional debating championships and for one, it had me out of school for the day, which was always preferable. More importantly, it was one of the best debating competitions around. Sadly, the English staff who were supposedly running debating, didn’t share this view. Since it wasn’t Rugby League, the rest of the school had a dim view of it as well. The only time I’d actually been to Narrabri for the championship was two years before when I was in Year 7 and we did very well, getting into the finals but coming runner up at the end of the day. The next year however, one of the students slept in, and so rather than leaving one student behind, the stupid teacher waited and did nothing for an hour and a half, until the student got on the bus. We arrived massively late and forfeited every single debate. Yet another stellar moment for the English Department.
However, I’ll leave it at the fact that the English Department and I did not get along. There was some unpleasantness. I remember in Year 12, I was excluded from the debating team for apparently being too argumentative… but that’s a much longer story for another time!
Back to the matter at hand. I was thrilled to be heading off to Narrabri for the day of debating. It was a knock out impromptu debating competition, which I loved and given the previous year’s mess, I was eagerly anticipating getting there and at least competing in the first round!
Despite the fact that it had been raining overnight and drizzling that morning, all was going well. I was picked up on time in town, which was a pleasant surprise. Jumping on the bus, I found a seat right in the middle of the mini-bus on the driver’s side. It was on the outskirts of Tamworth when I first noticed the bus seemed to be all over the road. It was raining more heavily and the driver, one of the illustrious English teachers, had managed to slip the bus off the road twice into the soft verge at the side of the bitumen. On the second slip I banged my knee hard into the seat in front of me. “What an idiot,” I thought. (I was thinking worse than idiot… but I’m keeping this PG). This year we were in no hurry, but the teacher seemed hell-bent on racing the whole way there.
Another twenty minutes on and with a few more bumpy shunts all over the road, we were close to Gunnedah and approaching a narrow bridge over the Mooki River. It was raining. We seemed to be speeding in a bus that had already slipped off the road a number of times and now were approaching the narrow wooden Mooki Bridge. I glanced up to see a semi-trailer heading in our direction. It was half way over the bridge. Then everything suddenly slowed down.
I don’t remember hearing the screech of the wheels, but at some point the teacher had slammed on the brakes, the wheels had locked up and the bus spun around in slow motion 90 degrees. We were now sliding sideways straight along the road, completely out of control. Out my window, a massive bull-bar- covered grill was coming straight for me. Nothing profound was going through my mind as I grabbed to push my back hard into my seat and braced myself against the seat in front. There were no seat belts and we were about to be T- boned in the middle of the bus.
It was the quick thinking of the truck driver who saved us that day. As I watched helplessly from my seat, the massive bull-bar came closer and closer. Suddenly the rig of the semi-trailer veered sharply left. It’s wheels shifted and rumbled off the side of the road. The driver was now trying to turn hard left and the bull bar was facing slightly away from me, but with the truck close to us now and with nowhere left to go, I held my breath. The bus was deathly silent.
The most frightful, deafening sound of crunching metal smashed the silence. The semi had clipped the rear of the mini bus. The side windows shattered. Glass sprayed slowly through the air like a thousand diamonds hovering slightly, as the bus spun violently, before arcing to the floor. Glancing back, I saw the semi-trailer roll onto its side and into a ditch next to the road. We came to an abrupt stop. I sat there stunned as everything seemed to return back to normal speed. “I’ve got to get off the bus,” I thought. “What if it explodes?”
With my ears ringing, I could now hear screaming and shouting throughout the bus. All I could think of was what if another truck comes along and hits us? I scrambled off the bus. It sat awkwardly, still halfway across the road. The massive semi-trailer lay motionless.
Despite our teacher being a massive tosser, unfortunately he didn’t have an enormous bag phone, so we had to call emergency services 90s style!!
I ran across the old narrow wooden bridge to the other side. Sure enough, another truck was picking up speed as it headed out of town. Standing in the middle of the road I flagged him down. I can’t remember what I said, or even if it made any sense, but with wreckage strewn all over the road ahead, it was fairly obvious we needed help. The truck driver got on the CB radio and soon we could hear the sounds and see the flashing lights of the ambulance and police racing towards us.
A couple of students were still on the bus. The teacher had run off to the other vehicle and not bothered to check on any of us, despite the common sense rule of check your students! Given the fact he should have owned a bag phone, this wasn’t surprising in any way. As in every movie climax after the life or death conflict has been resolved, the flashing lights and uniforms around us seemed to create a sense of calm. I think I was too stunned and possibly concussed at this point to really be feeling anything. Although, I remember thinking, “We’re going to be late for the debate again!”
A couple of students and the truck driver, who in his superb efforts to save us had broken his leg, were loaded into ambulances and rushed off to hospital. We were loaded back on the bus which still could be moved and driven to hospital. To say I was reluctant to board the bus was an understatement, especially with that guy at the wheel, who in my opinion was completely responsible for everything that had just happened. However, the police determined the bus could be driven only about 4 km to Gunnedah Hospital.
We sat around and waited to be seen in hospital. One after another, a doctor checked us. My knee was sore and I felt exhausted. Otherwise, I was fine. For us, the ordeal was pretty much over, but for everyone else it had only just begun!
Thanks to modern forms of communication at that time (the CB radio), which could be easily listened into by anyone, the 8.30am local ABC radio news had already broadcast the accident informing all the northwest that “a bus from a Tamworth school had crashed.”
Panic arose for some primary school parents whose children had left that morning for Canberra. The 9am news stated, “The bus was not from Oxley Vale School.”
The phones at our school, those ones that plug into the wall, went into meltdown, as only a tiny bit of information was released on the radio. By 11am, the school was named. It didn’t say that it was the debating team, a significant point by which most parents would have known it didn’t involve their son. Everyone, however, had assumed it was a football team or some other excursion and thus many parents were trying to ring one phone number all at once. The parents with children in the debating team had also found out and couldn’t contact the school due to the phones being engaged.
If there’s one thing you should do in the event of a critical incident, it’s inform the parents of those involved as soon as you can! Release a detailed statement to the rest of the school community based on clear facts and in line with the needs of the community. Failing to do so, creates more problems. It creates panic and uncertainty and parents will fill in all the blanks you’ve left for them with their imagination. Soon parent imagination can turn into pseudo facts and you will have an even bigger mess on your hands. It’s hard to respond to that and much harder from which to recover.
Rather than using another phone line to call the parents of the students who were involved, the school did nothing. Yes, that’s right! Nothing at all! The hopeless response to this major incident is probably one of the reasons why I believe risk and incident management is so important. Seeing people do something so badly, usually prompts me to do the opposite and make sure it’s done properly.
A teacher at the school told my older brothers and gave them the tiny bit of information that was heard on the radio. One brother rang our mother at her work with the words, “The bus has crashed, but David is all right.” She in turn rang our father at his work and he kept dialling the school number to see if he should drive to Gunnedah or where.
The school sent a teacher in another bus to come and pick everyone up from Gunnedah Hospital. There wasn’t anything wrong with this in itself. We were collected at the hospital, driven back to Tamworth and dropped off either at or near home or at a parent’s work with no meet and greet to the parents, nor any sort of handover. I was the only student with immediate parent contact. One boy was set down in town and had to wait about three hours for his regular school bus to take him home to Manilla.
A number of students were dropped off at empty houses. After almost being killed in a horrible collision with a truck, the teacher somehow thought that dropping shaken teenagers off at an empty house was an appropriate thing to do! Even the most useless and incompetent teacher should have known better than that! Perhaps the teacher who picked us up should have been carrying two bag phones. As he was head of welfare for the school, it’s rather ironic that he appeared to know nothing about student welfare, but again that’s my opinion and a much longer story for another time in regards to what I believe was his incompetence and inability to fulfil an important role.
The idea that it was ok to drop students off at home when nobody was there after a traumatic road collision was stupid even for the 1990s. I remember being dropped off at Tamworth West Primary School where my mother was teaching her Year 4 class. I wandered in, still possibly concussed and remember lying down somewhere in the classroom and falling asleep. Mum sensibly refused to take me home in her lunch break.
What should have happened? All students should have been driven back to school. No one should have been left alone. Day boys could have been left under Matron’s watchful eye, until their parents arrived to collect them. Boarders could have been supervised by Matron and/or their dormitory master.
From an incident response and management point of view, the lack of communication was pathetic. It might have been a lack of training, a lack of response planning, or just the fact that I went to a school that appeared to be run ineffectively. The bottom line was that there was no plan in place if something went wrong. It was evident that everyone was simply making things up as they went.
Whilst critical incidents are fluid in nature and you may need to respond in an inter-active way to contain the initial situation, there is absolutely no reason why any school or organisation can’t have clear actionable steps in place to be able to respond quickly and effectively to a major incident. It’s vital that you inform parents and if needed, draw on resources in the wider community, such as local radio.
Over the past 25 years, at no time did anyone from the school contact my parents to let them know what happened! At no point was the incident ever debriefed! At no point did anyone ask about the debating! Two years in a row, we’d forfeited the most awesome competition in the region and to this date, the school still hasn’t officially told anyone that the bus crash actually occurred.
The Principal suddenly left the school and the questions about the crash, that parents asked at the P & C meeting, were unanswered.
Despite all of this, I learnt some very important lessons as to what not to do in a situation like this. One thing it highlights though, is the fact that for all the carry on I’ve seen over the years from people who don’t understand risk management and incident management, the fact remains, being on the road with students is one of the highest risk factors possible.
Driving to the conditions, avoiding peak periods of traffic and having a fatigue management policy and procedure in place is vital to reduce this transport risk that’s part of every trip away from school.
Let’s put this back in context. We were going to a debating competition!!! Sounds very low risk and not even worth doing a risk assessment on, yet had the truck driver not reacted the way he did, our bus would have been cut in two and a few more sun-bleached crosses would have stood scattered at the side of the road, lovingly surrounded by flowers, tended only, in decreasing frequency, by the broken families who were never told what really happened that day.
Over the past three years, as I've worked on various outdoor ed programs, I’ve seen a pattern repeating itself over and over again. With a new group every few weeks, I've found the same kind of engrained beliefs the students have about themselves presenting again and again at the start of each program.
When the students arrive, I run a session on goal setting. In this, we outline why we set goals, how we go about achieving goals and why we should be setting goals outside our comfort zone! Despite this, it’s not until we actually get out into field and start doing some challenging activities that students get the opportunity to field-test their skill level and resilience.
Often we’ll be running an activity where the students have little previous experience. As a result, they’re hesitant or even fearful of the activity. The feeling of pushing outside one’s comfort zone starts to solidify in the students’ minds. However, I've noticed an increasing number of students shy away from activities that involve any form or risk, or perceived risk of failure.
Some of this feeling of fear is perhaps due to lack of experience. Other fears however, are often inherited from external sources such as parents and family who may have misguidedly told their children to always ‘Be Safe!’ ‘Don't take risks!’ and because their children are so perfect, they can't possibly fail… at anything!
One of the problems this creates is an irrational fear of dangers that don't actually exist and the fear of failure to the point that it's better not to try, than to risk being seen as less than perfect. The number of ‘perfect’ children I now find who have such low self esteem and lack of self belief is astounding!
When setting up activities we run, especially when we’re looking at abseiling, surfing, high ropes courses and even riding a bike, I say to the students beforehand, ‘Don’t always believe everything you think!’
I usually get blank stares, ‘What’s he talking about?’ I leave it at that! I don’t go into any other details before starting the activity.
Whatever the activity may be, I make sure that it's designed to push the comfort zone and boundaries for each and every student.
Because of their pre-existing self-beliefs and low-levels of resilience, more often than not the students will go into an activity thinking, ‘I can’t do it!’ It's really just their first line of defence to avoid their fear of failure.
Whenever they tell me, ‘I can’t do it,’ I generally respond, ‘Why not?’
In return I usually get ‘Because…. Blah, blah, blah!’
By this time, I've tuned out as they’ll throw up every possible excuse to avoid trying. These excuses tend to come out in rapid-fire succession, just in case the first one doesn't sound believable enough, they've got the next one ready to go!
What they're basically saying is, ‘What excuse can I make up to protect myself from possibly failing?’ and it's this fear of failure that's increasingly driving behaviours in students.
However, unless there’s some pre-existing medical condition, or some real reason as to why they can’t participate, I ignore their complaints about not being able to do it and instead encourage them to give it a go!
Whatever the activity, we’ll graduate it throughout the day to increase the level of challenge. For example, in mountain biking, we’d start with simple biking skills, how to set your seat height, how to pedal, how to change gears, how to brake, a very important aspect. We move on to how to go over an obstacle, how to go over an obstacle when moving at speed, how to go over multiple obstacles in succession and how to negotiate around berms, downhill at speed. The activity is therefore getting harder and harder, but it's graduating at a pace with which the students can manage.
Suddenly, without realising it, the students are riding on relatively steep terrain covered with some serious obstacles. A couple of hours ago they were telling me, or more to the point, themselves, that they couldn't do it!
With a ropes course, we start with low ropes, which are literally one step off the ground. They're simple stable challenges. However, after this, we ramp it up to a high ropes course where there's an increased perception of risk.
We often have students who are afraid of heights and this is a great activity to seriously push them outside their comfort zone. It makes them feel fear, it allows them to confront their fears head on and I work closely with these students to pushing them through that fear and enable them to truly challenge themselves and their firmly held beliefs. Once you can get them to punch through those self doubts, then their attitudes change, their confidence growth with it.
The same is true with surfing because a lot of students have never surfed before. Some are afraid of the water. Some are afraid of the surf. Some are afraid of getting eaten by sharks. The reality is though, you’re more likely to get killed by a vending machine falling on top of you than you are getting eaten by a shark. But people are still afraid.
No matter what the activity, the biggest challenge for students always comes down to all of the irrational fears that run through their minds telling them they can't do it.
However, once you get them involved and engaged in an activity, the fears disappear from their mind. They forget about all the excuses they made up as to why they couldn’t do something because their minds are now focused on the here and now and before they know it, they’re actually doing the thing they told you they couldn't.
I love to see this when it happens and I use this to positively reinforce those affirmative risk-taking behaviours that the students have pushed themselves to do.
In debriefing the activity, I revisit the issue of facing fears, happily saying to the student, ‘You’ve just achieved something that you told me you couldn’t do. Two hours ago you told me, “I can’t do it,” but what’s happened?’
I encourage all the students to respond individually. Invariably they’ll say, ‘I did it!’ And they’re really excited about it too. You can see it in their faces and in their smiles. They’re excited to have conquered their fear. They’re excited to have done something they’ve never done before.
To conclude the debrief, I’ll do a summation then reinforce my original statement, ‘Don’t always believe everything you think.’
Suddenly, I see lights going on! Some students are having an aha moment! What I said at the start is now making sense. Whilst they mightn’t remember it at the start of the next challenging activity, I’ll remind them of it and consequently they start to further process how to better approach challenging situations.
When students begin to realise their thoughts can shape so much of their lives in both positive and negative ways, this can become a powerful tool to help them master their approach to new challenges and experiences. Instead of telling themselves they can't do something, they've now got a power reference point of how and why they can do something they never thought they could.
Using briefing and debriefing frameworks to provide relatable learning moments, is vital when working with teenagers who might not always feel comfortable nor confident in everything they’re doing, even if they pretend to be.
Whilst life’s not all high ropes, mountain biking and shark dodging, when students can use these more challenging experiences and relate their success in these back to every day life, they start to become more resilient and realise they can push through other challenges they face.
Relating outdoor activities back to a wider context in this way, can be extremely effective in helping teenagers to push themselves outside their comfort zones and grow. It helps them to adopt a better mind-set for the way they should approach the next activity, or the next family matter or the next big decision they need to make in their lives. Chances are if you do the same, it could help you to push through some of your own long-held fears and apprehensions.
So remember, Don’t always believe everything you think!
An operational management plan is essentially the standard operating procedures for your program. Now I hate the term SOP, because it always feels like it's a set of rules that's written down, which ultimately guarantees that nobody ever reads it. So what's the point? Like anything involving people, logistics and risk, it needs to be a living, breathing process that all staff are part of. It has to be clear in the minds of all staff what the process is to run a safe and effective program.
With any experiential education, you need to have some very clear structures in place to both ensure the smooth operation of activities, as well as contingency plans if something goes wrong. Some organisations are obsessed with risk management plans and waivers, thinking this is all the planning they need. They've kept their lawyers happy and there's a document they can produce to prove they at least thought about something before leading the group into the valley of death. Well, there's quite a lot more to it than that and this is where many organisations go wrong.
You’d think it goes without saying that you need a plan, an itinerary, a schedule, risk assessment, student medicals, permission notes, or at the very least a class roll! However, I’ve regularly seen the focus of planning to be on only one or two of these components, rather than properly addressing them all. You must address them all! There's no point in having an itinerary and risk assessment written and not having the logistics and staffing in place to execute your plans.
You always need a functional end-to-end operational plan, that is flexible enough to handle multiple contingencies. Therefore, you need to plan for everything from the perfect operation to various “what ifs” for minor hurdles, emergencies and full crisis response. An effective response though has more to do with the staff’s mental state and ability to respond and adapt to a fluid situation, rather than a rigid written plan that's immediately forgotten when confronted with a complex crisis.
I've seen this done very well, but also extraordinarily poorly, especially when people aren't operating programs all the time and they feel they need to make things up as they go. There's a huge difference between being adaptable and making stuff up on the run. So one massive hint here, Don't Make It Up As You Go! Have a well-structured, executable plan that everyone’s part of that can be quickly enacted if something goes wrong.
What if the weather changes? What if an emergency happens? What if a crisis happens? Are you prepared to switch it up and respond quickly and effectively? I've seen some great written risk assessments where I have mused, ‘wow they've thought of everything!’ but then looking further on, no contingency plans nor any real idea as to how to manage an emergency or crisis.
It's Never Nice Getting Hit By This
I've seen and worked on programs (thankfully not run them) where the organisation had a ‘nothing will ever go wrong’ approach. This is where everything is done on razor thin staffing, based upon the idea that everything will go exactly to plan and I mean exactly to plan! The danger of this, is firstly, it's idiotic in the extreme. When you're dealing with groups of students and staff in different locations and involving vehicles and equipment, something could eventually go wrong. If you have no flexibility and adaptability factored in, then you're asking for a lawsuit and in fact, you deserve the horrendous experience of being dragged through the courts for your stupidity. I never felt safe, nor comfortable on this program. Thankfully, when I brought it to the attention of the organisation and they couldn't see the problem with it, I left and found another place to work that did.
This ‘razor thin’ notion, usually done to ‘save money,’ that works off the basis that everything will go exactly to plan, just increases the pressure, stress and fatigue on staff, which adds to the inevitability of something going wrong. Philip of Macedon (Alexander The Great’s father) put it very nicely. ‘No plan survives contact with the enemy.’
So with that in mind, here's an outline of how I develop an operational management plan:
If you plan around these 10 steps, then you're well on the way to having a safe, enjoyable and rewarding experience for everyone involved.
This is something everyone seems to hate doing, which I understand, because it can be quite an involved and time consuming task. As a teacher, you're always under a lot of competing time pressures. Whilst effective risk management needs to be a culture within your organisation, for the moment I'm just going to focus on the paperwork.
There's also often confusion between the development of risk assessments and their practical application. Risk assessments and management systems (RAMS) are living documents, not something that you write just to make the principal happy and then file it away until something goes wrong, at which point everyone scrambles for the dusty document.
RAMS embody what dangerous risks there are for an activity or location and how those risks are managed or mitigated to reduce or remove the dangerous elements of that risk. Consequently, when you put it into practice, they result in well-planned activities in which the participants come back essentially the same way they left, but having experienced something new, unique and awesome.
There are three key areas of risk that you're always looking to effectively address:
As each of these elements can be extremely fluid and dynamic, generic risk assessments that are not tailored and considerate of the specific location, group involved, time of year, potential weather conditions, equipment being used and type of activity is a recipe for disaster. So don't do this. It's really bad practice and potentially exposes you and your organisation to a massive legal minefield.
One time, I was auditing the risk management systems for a school and it quickly became apparent that all their risk assessments had simply been blindly copied and pasted from one activity to another with absolutely no regard for the content.
I'd read only two paragraphs of the first document and it was obvious that the title and activity listed had absolutely nothing to do with what was written below. They were two completely different things.
I had a whole pile of documents to work through. Each one had a different title and date at the top. Each one was signed and dated at the bottom, but the exact same risks were listed for hiking, as they were for canoeing, as they were for rugby, as they were for tennis, as they were for every sport and activity the school did. They not only didn't make any sense, they jumped around here, there and everywhere so much so that if they were subpoenaed by a court, the school would have been found completely negligent and laughed out the door.
Not only had someone written a far too general and poor risk assessment to begin with, everyone else had just blindly copied and pasted it word for word. Nobody had checked it at all and some of them dated back over three years, which I suspect was the point of origin.
Thankfully, most schools I've assessed haven't been like this, but it highlights the danger of the copy and paste approach to risk assessments. The reality is that if you sign off on that document, then you are responsible and potentially liable for what's in that document.
This doesn't mean you need to start from scratch every time. What it does mean though is that you need to develop a specific risk assessment for each individual activity. There may be similar elements from one to another, but be careful that only the similar elements get written in and not just massive slabs of pointless nonsense, so you can make it look as if you've covered every risk possible in the world!
Rather than trying to think of every risk and throwing it for the sake of it, ensure you cover the three key elements that relate to your specific activity:
What are the potential risks and hazards that each of these elements bring to the activity? What strategies are you then going to use to reduce or remove these risks?
Bush fires are for example, a considerable risk in the hotter months, so controls to consider and manage where to hike need to be in place. Controls over campfires need to be in there and active monitoring of information from the rural fire service is a must.
In the colder months, bushfires aren't as much of a concern, whereas exposure of staff and students to cold is. Therefore, a compulsory piece of clothing would be thermals. As each risk is considered, you connect it with a way in which you're going to manage that risk.
The more you write into the document however, doesn't always mean the safer your activity will be, because each risk and control must relate to the specific activity or location. The risk of drowning for example playing tennis would just be stupid and also render the document in the laughable and unreliable category (Yes, that was in one of the documents).
At the end of the day a good risk assessment comes down to your ability to understand the activity you're running and the document you've written and how you and the other staff implement this when running the activity. It's this direct correlation between proactive planning and good practice that will make your risk assessments stand up against rigorous tests and challenges if they were ever called into question. Ultimately though, it's not about the paperwork itself. It's about helping you make every one of your activities safer and easier to manage.
Not getting staff to student ratios right is a big concern for experiential education. This comes to the fore when you’re looking at how many instructors you need per activity depending on what sort of activity it is.
For example, with canoeing, you currently need one instructor for every six boats. For kayaking, you also need one instructor for every six boats. The difference being the one instructor for six in canoeing lets you take twelve students, while the one instructor for kayaking lets you take six students. These are very, very rigid ratios. Unlike a former boss of mine who said ‘Oh no! They’re just rough guidelines,’ you should never take them to be rough guidelines because if something goes wrong and you end up in court, you’re going to have to justify why you decided to go against industry standards.
When an industry body sets down guidelines for you to use for the safe operation of activities, you should always use them as a baseline. If you do this, you’re not going to get caught out in a legal sense if you’re operating with a group and something goes wrong.
However, if it were as simple as reading standard ratios from a chart for each activity, then how could you possibly go wrong with this? It all makes sense and is ok from a legal point of view! Or is it?
One mistake that’s often made is underestimating the impact that an individual’s behaviour will have on the group. In your staff to student ratio assessment, you must consider who the participants are. Time and time again I’ve seen situations where schools or organisations are happy to go with the set baseline ratios, possibly to save on costs. However, they don’t consider the actual individuals who make up the group.
Behaviour, especially student behaviour, or more accurately poor student behaviour, adds a significant risk factor that’s often totally underestimated. The reality is that the majority of dangerous situations you can find yourself in when running experiential education programs, is due to poor student behaviour. When this is combined with another risk factor, such as poor environmental conditions, or failing equipment, you have a recipe for disaster on your hands. Consequently, failing to properly assess the impact of student behaviour on your staff to student ratios can set a group up for failure before you even begin.
Some groups I’ve had in the past have included some challenging students. Most of the time, you’re able to manage this quite easily. However, when you have an activity such as abseiling in which you have so many pieces of equipment to setup and things to actively monitor, you need to be laser-focused on one student at a time. You don’t have the leeway to be monitoring other students as you run the activity. Therefore, you have to consider different supervision ratios and regimes when you’re doing specific activities like this.
For a canoe expedition I once ran, on paper the staff to student ratios were fine. We had the right number of instructors, the right number of boats and in fact, our ratios were well within the standard operating guidelines. However, the behaviour of the group of students was so poor that it massively impacted on the entire risk profile of the activity. Forget the weather, forget broken equipment, forget poor judgment. The biggest risk was the students we had with us.
When this was brought to the organisation’s attention, it was dismissed and I was told we had enough staff. However, the practical reality was that due to behavioural issues, we didn’t! We therefore needed another one or two instructors with us to safely run the trip. Despite outlining a ‘hypothetical’ situation of what could happen with the then director, prior to the trip leaving, we were told to deal with it and we’d be fine.
We departed on the expedition as instructed and within fifteen minutes of leaving, it all started to go pear-shaped very quickly. What the other instructor and I had predicted, was happening before our eyes. The student behaviour was horrendous. More akin to a youth at risk program, than anything else. We needed at least another two instructors to safely manage the risk and help manage the behaviour of the group.
What was the point of taking them out all? The organisation didn’t understand the risk they had put everyone in by not providing sufficient staff to student ratios. At twenty minutes in, we pulled the pin on the trip and returned to where we’d started. The group wasn’t going to learn anything and were on the verge of causing a major incident to themselves or those around them. Consequently, they were treated as if they were a youth at risk group, for which we weren’t sufficiently resourced to manage with only two staff. Therefore, despite everything on paper saying we had the right number of staff, the reality was, we were on the verge of a major incident only averted because we pulled the pin on it.
Sometimes groups will press on regardless of these sorts of behaviours with the misguided belief that their students may learn something along the way. However, it’s rare for students such as this to have amazing epiphanies and turn things around. Therefore, you’re only increasing the chance that something’s going to go horribly wrong, if you continue without the right staff to student ratios.
When you’re doing your assessment of risks, avoid this mistake. It’s not always just a simple matter of reading a number from a chart. Even if it’s exactly the same activity, exactly the same location and you’re using exactly the same equipment, the biggest variable factor will always be the behaviour of the participants.
If you are aware that poor behaviour from a specific group could be a factor and you still want to take them out, then make sure you have enough staff allocated to effectively manage this additional risk factor.
I’m not saying don’t give kids the opportunity for a fresh start, because that’s an extremely important part of experiential education. However, you must be realistic about the impact it might have on your activities. If you’re aware of poor behaviour and the potential that this behaviour will negatively impact on the program, then you need to ensure that you have a higher staff to student ratio than what would be considered a baseline. By doing so you’ll be able to effectively manage any behavioural or other concerns arising, deal with the situation and continue without further disruption. This ensures you’re always running safe and engaging programs in which staff and students are not placed at risk of harm due to insufficient supervision and support.
As teachers, there's always the desire to go out of your way to help students with their learning. However, what if this is harming their ability in the whole learning process? The increasing lack of ability for kids to problem solve is concerning on many levels. The standard solution of google, it has helped reduce people's ability to think and respond! ‘eLearning’ has a lot to answer for in terms of building incompetence into kids, where they're encouraged to seek solutions to their problems from the Internet. Instant access to the answer to almost everything has created new problems in that kids who are reliant on instant results, can't cope in situations that require a more complex and challenging approach.
Recently, I had a group of students out on a hike into the Budawang Wilderness. This pristine and amazingly rugged part of Morton National Park is a challenging, yet invigorating experience. Prior to the trip, we set the scene for the students. It was their expedition and they were in charge. We would only intervene if there were a safety issue that arose, otherwise every decision was up to them. They were briefed on directions, leadership and group management and given a map and compass.
Moments after the end of the brief, the questions started flying “How far is it?”
“What time are we going to get there?”
We both gave the same response. “You've been given all the information you need. Work it out yourself!”
It quickly became obvious that none of them had ever experienced this before. They were expecting to be taken on a trip, rather than being challenged by the experience. The temptation of teachers (often born out of frustration) is to take over and do it for them, or show them, as it's an easy way out. Yet if you do that, you never put the kids outside their comfort zone. You never push them to take any initiative or responsibility and they never actually learn anything.
So we waited for them to work it out, which took some time, then we were off and along the track. The questions about how far we'd gone, how long left and can I eat this muesli bar, continued and were met every time with the same response, “It's your trip. Work it out yourself.”
Whilst the questions are annoying, once they realise you're not going to provide them with any answers, they eventually stop asking, until they want reassurance that they're on the right path, or they're tired and then like flies to a dead horse, they ask again and again and again, which I refuse to answer unless there is a safety issue.
We eventually made it to camp, probably two hours later than if one of us had been ‘running’ the trip, but what educational value would that have provided? If we just ‘ran’ trips, we would just reinforce the notion that everything can and will be answered and done instantly with no effort on the part of the student. From an educational point of view, this is a complete waste of time and allows for no development of resilience nor initiative in kids, which ultimately will cost them dearly when faced with any sort of challenge later in life.
When leading trips, this has always been my guiding principle. Set the group up once and let them work the rest out for themselves. They must do everything out there in the field for themselves. What time we start, what time we break, pace of the group, setting up camp, dinner time, wake up, pack up, departure and navigation. Everything about the trip needs to be put on the students to think about and take appropriate action to complete.
At the end of the day, you never learn to drive sitting in the passenger seat, so set the group up, then put the responsibility on the group to take ownership and run the trip themselves. It might be tough. They might winged and complain about it, but it lets them develop real problem solving skills and teaches them some valuable lessons that they will never learn anywhere else.
Next time you're out with a group, don't take charge and do everything for them. Brief the group, then sit back, relax and enjoy the ride.
As soon as people hear risk assessment, most people switch off! I could say whatever I liked from now on and nobody would be any wiser. Once, I kidnapped a dolphin from Sea World and kept him in my swimming pool for weeks. We had several massive pool parties and it was awesome! So many people came and just swam around in the pool with him. We named him flipper! (Ok, so not very original for the name, but between him, Skippy in the back yard and Caramello living up the tree, once you start kidnapping animals as a hobby, you just go with the names everyone knows!)
See what I mean! If you actually made it to here, then you would understand my pain, or you think I'm mental or both! The fact is that most people would've stopped reading after the first line. It’s like when someone tells you they’re an accountant… The conversation usually ends there. However, risk assessment and risk management is a real issue that’s not just making sure you have your paper work done. It has to be an active process that’s taken seriously by everyone and not just something which makes people switch off and start looking for Pokémons with their phones.
The reason for adding in my wild dolphin parties was actually something I did as an exercise once with the program staff. It wasn’t a dolphin party, but how cool would that be! Anyway, I digress. I'd reviewed and updated the entire risk manage framework and needed to get everyone up to speed with the changes. This required everyone to do some reading. I was suspicious to begin with that nothing would be read, so I handed out the documents and unbeknown to them, this version of the risk assessments contained a bunch of massive errors. Some of the risks for a canoe expedition were: Attack by Hobbits, running into Cerberus (the demonic multi-headed dog that guards the gates Hades), being overrun by fluffy bunnies and drowning in chocolate syrup! To my disbelief, three people signed off on this risk assessment!!! I asked them again if they had any concerns or anything to add, ‘No, all good!’ was the standard response. “Really…,” I said, before asking each of them if they were happy to rely upon everyone being saved by Eagles when attacked by hordes of orcs? Stunned expressions turned to embarrassment when I provided a highlighted copy with all the glaringly obvious fake bits.
So does anybody read this rubbish? Basically, the answer is No! They don’t read it and it’s often a massive task to get anyone to write a risk assessment. Most are inappropriately copied and pasted from someone else’s work and don’t even match the real risk profile of the activity. Who would’ve thought that teaching is a hot bed of plagiarism!
Whilst I’m not saying don’t do it, I am saying there’s a massive problem that needs fixing here. What’s the point of wasting time with the creation of something that has very little value and nobody is actually using. What needs to happen is far different from what is actually happening in many schools when preparing for an excursion. The danger is that you’ve copied something that doesn’t make sense and submitted that as part of your official documentation. If this is the case and something goes wrong, this is just as bad, if not worse, than having nothing at all, because it demonstrates a complete disconnection from the awareness implementation of effective risk management strategies.
Ultimately no single person should be responsible for the risk assessment and management. It’s up to everybody on the team to contribute and turn those mindless pointless risk assessment forms that may contain attacks by mythical creatures, into functional living documents based upon industry best practices and a culture that proactively takes risk management off the page and continues to put it into action. Whilst I’ll revisit this later in some more detail, I must go and catch a plane, as my house has just been raided by National Parks and Wildlife. I might need to find a new hobby!
Write something about yourself. No need to be fancy, just an overview.