Select Committee on Education and Skills Minutes of Evidence

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 100-119)



  Q100 Chairman: Who came up with the notion of calling it a manifesto?

  Ms Williams: The music manifesto? I suspect David Miliband may have been the author of the term "manifesto".

  Jonathan Shaw: He does write them, you know.

  Chairman: It is a very interesting use of the word "manifesto". I thought manifestos led to mandates and were used in a rather different context. We will come back to that. Let us carry on and look at the litigation and bureaucracy that allegedly dogs this whole subject.

  Q101 Paul Holmes: There is a well known phenomenon now in terms of European legislation whereby Europe passes some regulations and then the relevant body in Britain gold-plates it, makes it belt and braces, makes it really complicated and poor old Europe gets the blame. It seems, looking at this, that there is a similar process going on in that for example the DfES issue Health and Safety of Pupils on Educational Visits guidelines and then the LEAs add their bit to it, except that each LEA adds a different slant so you are not getting any consistency, and then the school governors add their slant and the poor old classroom teacher looks at all this stuff and says, "I don't think I'll bother organising that trip after all". Do you think that is a fair assessment?

  Mr Crowne: There is always a risk that we will end up with more complicated arrangements than we need as a result of that kind of process. What we are concerned to do, as in the other areas we have been talking about, is to build confidence at school level so that they know the best way to approach in particular the risk assessment side of this which drives a lot of the bureaucracy. What we have been doing is focusing the guidance that is prepared at national level on practical steps that can be taken. In fact, it has had pretty good feedback from the users. We have to recognise that at the end of the day it is the employers of the teachers and those with responsibility for the children who bear most of the legal responsibilities here, so there is always a risk that, with that responsibility and the onerous legal burden that places on you, you will want perhaps to go a little further than you might in protecting against risk. What we have to do is work with local authorities to ensure that that is not happening. We can use Ofsted, which will comment on these things in inspecting LEAs, and we need to ensure that where there is evidence local authorities may be going a little too far we can encourage them to look at best practice elsewhere. We have to have sympathy for those at the front line here because in the end it is the risk assessment that you do locally that is key to this. That determines how much effort, what kinds of resources, what kind of expertise you need to apply and everything that we do at local authority government level needs to support that. I am confident, as I say, that our guidance has been helpful but we are not complacent about this and I recognise that it is a big issue for schools and we need to continue to work to build that sense of confidence in how to approach the issues sensibly. [2]

  Q102 Paul Holmes: You said though that you needed to try to work with local education authorities, for example, and heads and governors on this issue. Since you issue the initial advice through the Health and Safety of Pupils on Educational Visits guidance could you not also take a more proactive role in issuing the standard assessment forms to use? We heard from the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds an example where they had prepared material to fill in these risk assessment forms but different schools coming from different LEAs had to have the information in all sorts of different formats because there was no standard process and that just creates more work for everybody. Why not produce with your initial guidance some standard forms as well?

  Mr Crowne: That is an idea we could well follow up. If the committee felt that was a fruitful avenue to go down we would be very happy to do that. I would be the first to recognise that there are almost inevitably going to be some inconsistencies of practice here across local authorities and we do need to make sure we are focused on what the best practice is, and if there is anything we can do to help that process I am sure we would be willing to consider it.

  Q103 Paul Holmes: We also had the suggestion from previous evidence that where you have adventure activity licensing authority licences issued to certain centres why then would schools which are using those already accredited and licensed centres have to go through the same hoops of risk assessment when those centres have already gone through a very rigorous process?

  Mr Crowne: The process of risk assessment is all about making a judgment from the point of view of the people who are actually responsible for the safety of the children as to what they should do. Obviously, if you are working with a licensed centre that will change the nature of your risk assessment because you know you have a quality assurance there in place. If you are working in some other context you will perhaps come to a different conclusion. I think you still have to go through the process of risk assessment. What I do not think you need to assume is that it is at the same level of detail in every case. I would hope that if you are working with a licensed adventure provider you will not have to go through the same degree of risk assessment as if you are working with a different kind of provider who does not have that kind of background. [3]

  Q104 Paul Holmes: You said you would hope that and that would be the commonsense approach, but again are you aware whether that hope is realised?

  Mr Crowne: I am only saying "hope" because if we accept that there is a variation in practice there are bound to be some examples of where that is not the case and our job is to work with local authorities to make sure there is consistency based on best practice.

  Q105 Paul Holmes: In general terms do you think we need to step back and look at this whole area anyway, not just the specific examples I have been giving? We keep reading these examples of schools that ban playing conkers because it is dangerous, which sounds ludicrous. I can think back to four years ago almost exactly to this week when I was still teaching and I was taking my year seven form down to the local library to familiarise them with the library in case they had not been. These kids every morning walked up from the town centre to the school on their own and every night walked back and yet we had to fill in pages and pages of risk assessments to walk these kids eight minutes down the road from the school to the library. We have got stopping conkers, stopping playing contact sports, rugby, whatever, and doing risk assessments to walk down to the local library. Is it not all going a bit far?

  Mr Crowne: I am certainly not complacent about the need to continue to work on this because I think there are pressures in the system which tend to encourage people to err on the side of ultra caution, and you can understand that, given that we are talking about safety. We have to continue to work to get common sense applied at every level in this and we recognise that we have a role in doing that as well. The first thing we should do is make sure our guidance is clear and based on best practice and is encouraging straightforward common sense approaches and then we have to try and work with local authorities to make sure we are not overlaying that with more complexity than we need. It is just working away at the common sense approaches in partnership on a continuing basis. It is not a job that has been done fully yet. [4]

  Q106 Paul Holmes: You keep saying this will be the logical thing to do and then you say it has not been done fully yet, so how proactively is the department doing this or planning to do it in the near future?

  Mr Crowne: We have worked on our guidance, we have produced updates, we work with local authority folk in their efforts to work with local schools co-ordinators' activities. We are encouraging professional development in areas like risk assessment. I would want to avoid us taking an overly prescriptive approach here. What we are interested in doing is making sure the best practice is identified and that we are working with our partners to ensure that that is fed down through the system, but when you have 24,000-odd schools that is a lot of partners to work with. We have to be sensitive to local circumstances and avoid being overly prescriptive where that might not fit the bill. At the same time we need, as I say, to drive through the common sense approach to make sure that people locally feel confident about the processes. It is not just about the schools, of course. The parents have to feel confident in these processes as well. Often I suspect we get these extreme cases because the school is bending over backwards to show to parents that they have taken this very seriously, that they are doing everything in the best interests of the child, so I think it is building confidence throughout: parents, pupils and the staff, that the approaches we want are the right ones.

  Q107 Paul Holmes: I have two final questions, both relating to the fact that you are at the centre of the whole process. You initiate it by issuing the regulations to start with; other people then respond to it and build on it. Are you aware from your central position of any hard facts about how far litigation arising out of activities of this kind are rising or falling or not? Again, we hear that schools ban conkers because they do not want to be sued because a kid gets injured playing with conkers. We hear of local authorities chopping down horse-chestnut trees so that kids are not putting sticks up to knock the conkers down. We hear of one of the major teachers' unions saying to teachers, "Do not get involved in this at all because of the dangers of litigation". From your central position does anybody collate figures on this? Is there really an increase in litigation or is it an urban myth?

  Mr Crowne: It is rather hard to answer those questions. We do not have detailed information covering all those different examples. [5]

  Q108 Jonathan Shaw: Not every conker?

  Mr Crowne: Not every conker, no. What you can say is the amount of civil litigation in this general area does not seem to be going up. That tends to cover more serious cases though, so I would not like to speculate on whether the number of examples of conker banning, for example, is going up or down. I think we tend to see those as one-off reports in the press and it is difficult to get a sense of scale there. Again, I come back to the key point which is that for us it is about making sure that at every level of the system people are feeling confident that they know what is the right thing to do. If there was evidence that suggested there were particular areas of problem we would certainly be prepared to respond to those but I am not aware of evidence that shows that any particular area is becoming more of a problem than it has been.

  Q109 Paul Holmes: If you were aware of a particular problem then it would be your role to do something about it. Some of the evidence we have heard so far suggests that it is now becoming very difficult to get insurance policies in this area. Would you agree with that from your central position and should the government do something about that since they are issuing the requirements that are leading to the lack of insurance companies willing to do this? Should you do something about providing the insurance cover?

  Mr Crowne: I agree: I think there is an issue there. It is frankly part of a wider issue to do with school insurance where we have a current position which is of concern, that it is difficult and expensive to get insurance cover for a wide range of school activities and so we are working across government and also commissioning some studies on possible options for the future. As I say, it goes wider than this area because it is about the overall cost to schools of insurance which is becoming higher for a number of different reasons and it is about the availability of alternatives in the market places which again, for various reasons, has been rather restricted. We are looking actively at that. We have a study in progress now which we hope by the end of this year will illuminate some of the options that might be available. [6]

  Q110 Paul Holmes: What possible options are you considering?

  Mr Crowne: There is a range of things, is there not? There are market development options using private sector employers, but there are also options around developing local authorities' capacity to insure for themselves. There are examples in larger authorities where these things happen. Of course, in some of the areas we are talking about, third party liability and so on, you would expect a market solution, so we want to look very carefully at the possibilities there.

  Q111 Valerie Davey: We seem to have come full circle. It seems to me that the insurance is based on the risk assessment; the risk assessment ought to be based on some factors which apparently we do not know. In other words, how many accidents on overseas, local, regional trips are there? What is the risk of taking a child on different types of trip? If we have not got that how on earth do we do a general risk assessment and does that not affect the insurance? [7]

  Mr Crowne: The kinds of cases I suspect you are thinking about are the more serious ones where you are expecting a civil case or whatever to flow. We do have evidence in the sense that we do not see the overall numbers of those cases rising. What we have seen, of course, is a rising cost of the awards that are made where the cases have been successful and that tends to follow from the cost of medical treatment going up faster than inflation and some other factors. I do not think we should assume that the cost of premiums is necessarily only affected by the assessment of risk in the particular cases. There are other factors that tend to influence what the private sector charges for insurance. There is no doubt that, for a number of reasons, the private sector has not seen this market as a particularly attractive one, which tends to be why you get the higher premiums. I do not think that is driven only by an assessment of the particular risks and the costs to insurance.

  Q112 Chairman: Is it not the fact that it is a kind of fashion thing? Evidence to this committee is that the most dangerous place for your child to be is home with the parents, the stats show that, or being driven by the parents on the roads and all that, and children's likelihood of having an accident at home is far higher than at school. Though they are tragic when they happen these are very unusual accidents that happen when a school is in charge. Does the department not have a responsibility both to parents and to the public and to trade unions to come out with the statistics, to say, "Look: this is a very rare occurrence", and the nonsense you get in the tabloids you very rarely have in these sorts of committees because we use long words, so we do not get them here; we do not ever have a dialogue with those sorts of journalists. There is no counterbalance to the nonsense they publish when there is a tragic accident, as though this was something that was likely to happen every other weekend.

  Mr Crowne: I do agree. I think the Department has got an important role to play in explaining what the situation is, what the facts are where we have them. The fact is that any serious incident involving children's safety is a serious matter and one should never denigrate that but there is no sign that there are increasing problems here. In fact, for the most serious incidents there are encouraging signs that the numbers of cases are going down. The various steps that have been taken, certainly working with trips co-ordinators and the rest, show that the system as a whole is taking this area very seriously and there are very few cases which reveal serious failures in the system. I do not want to sound complacent but I am responding to your point about the need to get the balance right. Of course, we will strive to ensure that we get a balanced view here in the interests of balance but also in the interests of encouraging the practice in the system that we want to see because it is often fear of repercussions and the way cases are  treated that is deterring some of the schools and  teachers from undertaking these important activities.

  Q113 Helen Jones: Can I ask you to clarify something for the committee please? You referred to having no evidence of the number of cases going up. Are you referring to cases that actually proceed to court, not to cases that are settled before they get to that stage and is there a fear amongst schools of what are often very minor claims which are often settled very early on, because, frankly, people do not want the bother of the litigation; it costs more than settling the thing?

  Mr Crowne: That is a good question. I was referring to the number of cases that proceed. I do not think we could estimate the numbers that are settled before but that is a good point. [8]

  Q114 Mr Turner: Could I come back to a question that you answered earlier? You said something about the need to convince heads and staff of the value of outdoor education but you do not seem able to express it yourself.

  Ms Williams: There is a lot of material that the Department has put out which defines the value that outdoor education can add in a number of subject areas generally.

  Q115 Mr Turner: As the Chairman said, it is very waffly. I do not argue with the idea that it might be a good thing but there does not seem to be any evidence that it is a good thing.

  Ms Williams: I think there is a lot of evidence. Maybe we have not done justice to the evidence in the memorandum that we gave the Committee. We can certainly have a go at distilling some of the key facts from the evidence about what outdoor education can provide. I am quite confident that we have got that evidence base. If we could pull it out and present it in a summary perhaps the committee would find that helpful.

  Q116 Mr Turner: You rejected the Chairman's proposal for a guaranteed number of hours because it did not offer any assurance about quality or relevance. Do you have evidence that what is offered is of good quality or poor quality, and relevant to what?

  Ms Williams: We rely on Ofsted's report on the quality of the provision made in schools, including provision made for outdoor education where that is part of the curriculum. Ofsted, under the current inspection arrangements, does look at outdoor learning when it goes to schools. Under the new inspection arrangements, which are going to be based more on school self-evaluation, the self-evaluation form which schools have to complete includes questions which invite the head to consider the contribution that outdoor education is making to the whole school offer. We should be able to rely on Ofsted to monitor this aspect of schools' provision. It would also be open to us to ask Ofsted at some point to do a special survey of outdoor education in schools.

  Q117 Mr Turner: But the fact is that you have not asked them and you are spending £35 million as far as I can judge from your report—maybe there is more—and most of that is coming from DCMS. It does not sound as if you regard this as a very high priority.

  Ms Williams: Outdoor education is one of a large number of priorities for the department. We do accord it a reasonable measure of priority and we have been extremely active with partners over the last two or three years in commissioning research, commissioning surveys, identifying what works. We have commissioned, for example, the Association for Science Education and the Geographical Association to produce CPD modules for field work for geography teachers, science teachers. We are supporting bringing money into Growing Schools which also enables them to have this much-visited website. I can point to quite a long catalogue of things that we are doing to promote outdoor education.

  Q118 Mr Turner: Mr Crowne, if you were in the position where, for example, one of those advocates of abolishing the DfES and giving the money to the schools was saying to you, "Look: you are allowed to keep a small amount of money", how would you justify spending that money on outdoor education rather than one of the other myriad of priorities which the department appears to have?

  Mr Crowne: Do you mean if I was able to retain it in the budget centrally?

  Q119 Mr Turner: A small budget for one aspect.

  Mr Crowne: Our basic strategy is, as I was describing earlier, to provide a maximum amount of flexibility to schools to apply their overall budget in support of their priorities. The key thing for the Department in areas like this where we are trying to signal a degree of priority is to provide some incentive and some encouragement for schools to prioritise locally and we are trying to move away from doing that by ring-fencing sums of money or defining the inputs, as Helen was saying. If I had a small central budget to do this, the way we would do it is the way we are doing it, which is to identify, working with partners, what activities are beneficial, how we can promote the capacity of the system to make best use of them and how we encourage those responsible for defining school level priorities to make this a priority. The way you do that for schools is to point out the benefits, to draw attention to other schools who are getting the most out of them. That is the way we try to approach these things. I am the first to admit that it is the more indirect way than some of the approaches we have used in the past, which tended to involve identifying a sum of money for a particular purpose and limiting it to that purpose.

2   Also see Ev 61. Back

3   Also see Ev 61. Back

4   Also see Ev 61. Back

5   Ev 62. Back

6   Also see Ev 62. Back

7   See Ev 62. Back

8   Ev 62. Back

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