Select Committee on Education and Skills Minutes of Evidence

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 200-218)



  Q200 Chairman: Have you received her membership?

  Mr Sinnott: She has paid her membership, Chair; she has done that! The Growing Schools initiative, which I think Valerie was referring to, they identified the range of barriers to schools becoming involved or taking forward that particular initiative, and a range of them were specified, and I do not think it included fee litigation, but they did specify a range of others, including lack of resources, lack of training, lack of confidence amongst teachers, I think also head teachers, in the way in which they were looking at this particular activity. Similar programmes where schools have specified an interest in the past but have seen—and I do not know whether you have looked at this as well—other barriers to schools becoming involved in this type of activity, one of them being the pressures of the national curriculum and national curriculum assessment and testing and, in particular, the way in which it impacts at Key Stage 2 in youngsters being involved in a variety of activities, because schools really do feel the pressure of wanting to have a good place in any published league table locally or nationally. So that is an area where I have not heard it specified as a barrier this afternoon, this evening, but I think we needed to draw your attention to, Chairman.

  Chairman: That is a very good point.

  Q201 Mr Pollard: We have been talking all afternoon about risk. Have we got a duty to prepare children for risk in the world, because, after all, the real word is full of risk each and every day? I give two quick examples. We were in Norway a week or two ago and we were told there children could be sent outside to play as long as the temperature did not go below minus 15 degrees centigrade! There are fairly clear guidelines. There is no way we would allow them out at those temperatures. The other thing that excited me was that this kindergarten that we were in was using very sophisticated tools: hammers and nails, for example, three-year old kids, sharp chisels and proper saws, and I was quite excited by that. I thought, "God almighty", this filled me with dread thinking, "What were these kids going to get up to." But apparently, as long as they are told properly how to use it and are supervised, they turn out some top quality toys. I was very impressed with that. Getting back to where I started from, we have a duty, do we not, to prepare kids for the world outside and to show them that you try and minimise risk, you try and do the very best you can. Is that not the right approach?

  Ms Keates: From our point of view, I think I said very early on, there is no activity really that is without risk. I think the issue is the context in which schools are working, and there has been a lot made in the papers, for example, about schools actually stopping pupils playing conkers, that sort of thing. On the surface of it, that seems ridiculous—we would all say that—but in the context of what we have been saying about the fear that schools have of the solicitor's letter and the litigation, that is the concern that schools have got. So in terms of letting children have a variety of experience, and so on, I think schools would be the first to say, "Yes, that is correct", but from the point of view that we come from as well, which is obviously about the concerns our members have, both head teachers and teachers, then we have to point out that at the moment we have that huge fear of potential litigation. So I think it is a balance there. We would certainly like to be in a position where children running across a playground and tripping up did not become the subject of a solicitor's letter. We certainly would like to be in the position where schools are not having to provide goggles to anybody who is playing conkers, or even banning it altogether. Our members would say that, but the fact is that is the climate that they are working, as you have heard from everybody giving evidence here.

  Q202 Chairman: Is that really the climate, or are you just playing to the tabloid agenda?

  Ms Keates: Not at all.

  Chairman: You keep coming back to these examples that seem to most of us really—

  Mr Pollard: Barmy?

  Q203 Chairman: —only the sort of things that the Daily Express and other tabloids produce.

  Ms Keates: Everyone who has given evidence here today has raised with you the concern of the fear of litigation. You have heard SHA saying—

  Q204 Helen Jones: Give us one example?

  Ms Keates: Fear of litigation is not the same as somebody being sued. It is about the issue—

  Q205 Helen Jones: It should be based on fact?

  Ms Keates: The fact—

  Q206 Chairman: You just talk to the Chairman. I have asked you a question. I will bring Helen in if she wants.

  Ms Keates: The fact is, as all of us have said in one way or another, that for things that we would all in a sensible world simply dismiss as being a genuine accident that has occurred schools are now getting solicitor's letters as a minimum and then finding they are subject to some sort of investigation, and so on, leading up to potential litigation as the end point on that. We have had people who have undergone, and I can give you an example from Wales, which is one we have publicised, raised with the Government and provided the details of, a teacher on an educational visit walking across a room in a residential place, the pupils were eating food, she walked across with some orange juice that spilt on the head of a child. There was a six-month police investigation in Wales for that of assault. Clearly that is the sort of thing that is totally ridiculous that anybody goes through, and there must be a process whereby at a very early stage and very quickly, the fear can be reduced by somebody saying this is clearly a totally frivolous action that has been brought here.

  Q207 Chairman: Whilst the Committee is learning from these anecdotes and illustrations, we do get the feeling that you have a rather different attitude to what is going on than some of your colleagues here today. It seems to me some of your colleagues know that that goes on in some schools, but seem to put it in a better sense of proportion than you do. I get the feeling from listening to Fiona and Kathryn and Steve that, yes, they know that is going on but they do not really put it to such a high level of prominence in terms of the way that you see the changes.

  Ms Keates: I can only speak for my union's experience and my union's view. Other people will express it as they feel from the point of view of their union. Perhaps if you examine details of casework, the level of casework that is involved with teachers and that perhaps we have been involved, in these issues may vary. I do not know. I cannot speak for others on that. The point that has been made about head teachers, our experience is even having head teachers in membership, they are not the ones that conduct the trips, take the trips away and so are not the ones who are the subject to these investigations, so there may be different perspective from that. I can only tell you as we find and why we have found the need to give the advice; and all I can say is that fortunately the Government recognises there is some validity, having talked to teachers themselves, having got reports from NUT, and they are working with us to address our concerns; and I am hopeful we can move forward in a way that produces much better procedures and gets rid of some of the nonsense that schools are having to face and the time and effort that goes in from a head teacher having to deal with a solicitor's letter that comes in. That is not a simple issue; it involves time and effort and liaison with the local authority, liaison with solicitors, investigations at the school. These are huge issues. The Government is actually looking now at something that at a very early stage might be able to identify something that could be dismissed as a frivolous claim without everybody having to go through that difficulty.

  Q208 Mr Chaytor: I am surprised any NASUWT members turn up for work: they are either frightened about being poked in the eye with a conker or having a glass of orange juice poured over their head! I really wanted to ask about the three-day Christmas shopping trip to Germany to see if there are any places left on this year's trip! What are the specific learning objects behind that?

  Dr Hammans: Students taking GSCE German are invited in Year 9—so they have already made their option selection for Key Stage 4—are invited in Year 9 to do it and it is sold to the children. The parents want them to go, but they do not want to go to Germany, they do not want to talk in German because it might be embarrassing, but when you say, "Actually, you are going to the Christmas markets. It will be great. You will be staying with your friends and then you will learn German as well. You will be able to practice and improve your German"—and that is how we sell it to the students.

  Q209 Mr Chaytor: Can I link that with the point that Steve Sinnott made earlier, and this relates to the NUT's submission, because there is this paragraph—all the unions continuously refer to this—about the pressures of meeting the demands of the national curriculum and the pressures of assessment and testing, and so on, but the NUT's submission then goes on to spell out the benefits of outdoor education. It seems to me that none of the associations are linking these two together. Surely if you are convinced of the benefits in terms of the motivation of pupils and the development of confidence, maturity, team work and leadership, this will have a spill over in the class room which will reduce the pressure that you say your members are under because it will make teaching an easy job to do. No-one seems to be making that connection because you are so defensive or paranoid about being hit over the head with a conker. Am I missing something or is there not an obvious point to be made there, that if you can get the benefits of more outdoor learning, then this will reduce the pressures in the class room by producing better motivated pupils?

  Mr Sinnott: David, I thought we were making exactly the same points as yours. If we have not expressed it in that way—the point you are making—then we should do. Do you know what would happen? If the Government issued guidance which said, "We advise all schools not to undertake outdoor visits and outdoor activities", if the Government issued that advice, schools would still do them. They would still do them. The reason why is because the teachers make a professional judgment that it is worthwhile. It is a worthwhile activity for the youngsters in their care. That is the professional judgment of teachers, and it is hard-pressed teachers who are still organising these activities because they believe that they are valuable, but we know that there would be more and there would be better activities taking place if we did more to reduce the work load on teachers and, if we freed up curriculum time to do it and if we had a less prescriptive national curriculum and we addressed issues to do with assessment and testing, we would have much better organised and more valuable activities taking place.

  Dr Hammans: I was just going to say, that is essentially what the Secondary Heads Association submission said, that it is valuable and therefore we continue do it despite fears or worries or concerns.

  Q210 Mr Turner: I was going to ask a similar question actually, because someone implied that schools, I think it was Chris, should be doing things which have curricular value as compared presumably with things which do not, and Kathryn said that the learning objectives have to be defined before anything goes forward. It is pretty sad, is it not, that schools are limited to those things?

  Ms James: Can I take that one. Actually I do not agree with you. I do not think it is sad at all, because I think you are actually enabling people to plan and to put in place an holistic view of education by building those activities within the whole teaching and the whole education system. Picking up David's point before about seeing the benefits of outdoor activities, actually I would pick up your point about not supporting outdoor activities as seeing the spill over into the classroom. I think we do. That is why we are so—we would wish to see them continue, we would wish to see them grow and to see those benefits actually underlined.

  Q211 Mr Turner: Steve was nodding when you said that, but when I made my initial remark I got the faintest glimmer of a nod from Dr Hammans. Did you agree with me or do you agree with Kathryn?

  Dr Hammans: Tricky. I would be really nervous about setting up additional bureaucracy for any trips or anything which is not classroom based that said, "Tick off your learning objectives first", because we lose some of the creativity, some of the by-chance, the what-ifs that happen in class but also would happen outside class that we then say, "Sorry, that was not in the objective. We cannot follow that." It might be really naive but we are not able to pursue it because we planned it to meet these objectives. So I think too much prescription is entirely wrong, but being aware of what the students may benefit from that trip at the outset I think is very important, but please do not put tick boxes in and say, "You must do this. What is the personal development target for this trip? What is the curriculum link for this trip?"

  Q212 Mr Turner: Is there some additional value in Dr Hammans opinion, because of all the teachers in this room, as far as I know, she is the only one who is teaching?

  Ms Keates: I would be happy to answer that. I do not think that is the case at all. Who SHA chose to send to represent them is up to SHA, and I think that is absolutely fine, but the fact is we are accountable, elected people to our members and we do not make assertions or give evidence or develop policies without our members actually being included in that process. I think we are entirely representative and have hands-on experience from people right across the country in schools throughout the country.

  Q213 Chairman: Before we finish, one last thing. We have had a very good session and we have gone on a little longer, and thank you for your perseverance, but much of what we have said has been couched today, the second session particularly, in terms of the 11-16 age group. Our inquiry covers really the early years as well, early years, pre-school and through. Would anybody like to mention how important this sort of activity is at the earlier stages of education.

  Ms James: What I would say is that everything we have said this afternoon applies across the board as to how vital outdoor activities are. You only need to experience it from Key Stage 1 visiting, I do not know, a museum, or a farm, or whatever, and it is the most incredible experience both for those who are accompanying and for the children themselves, and it is a vital and valuable piece of education.

  Q214 Chairman: Thank you for that.

  Ms Keates: Quite often in the early years, of course, they are less dubious and less exotic than some of the things they do with older pupils, and so the concerns we have apply right across the board in terms of where teachers are taking these, but some of the issues around the primary sector is often that context, that curriculum context, because of the more flexibility within the primary curriculum than there is with some of the secondary more special list based issues.

  Q215 Chairman: It is interesting, Chris, you have again used the vocabulary "dubious and exotic", whereas Fiona Hammans and Steve and Kathryn all said to your original assertion that they do not know any dubious or exotic out of school activities from 11-16.

  Ms Keates: Just because my colleagues and I differ on an issue does not mean to say that NASUWT will change its views, and I am not sure you would not want us to; you would want us to come here and be as honest as possible.

  Q216 Chairman: We are still worrying about your "dubious" and "exotic" and trying to find out whether it exists!

  Mr Sinnott: I have been scrupulous in not criticising colleagues in NASUWT. I do not want to do that. I have got a good relationship with the colleagues in NASUWT. The way you introduced this particular question, Chair, was to talk about 11-16, and an important point I want the National Union of Teachers to make is that some of the real benefits from Tomlinson and 14-19 education may be put at risk if we do not deal with some of the barriers that are clearly there that are part of your particular study. I think that is extremely important. At Key Stage 2, and this relates to David's earlier question, I know primary schools who, early in the school year of Year 6, undertake a residential activity, and they do it deliberately because they know that at that particular age youngsters will benefit from being on a residence activity with the youngsters, the youngsters are interacting together in a residential activity, because the relationship between the teachers and the support staff but also the relationship between the teacher and the youngsters really does benefit from that residential activity and that they believe that is the best way of setting them up for Key Stage 3 is to have that type of residential—

  Q217 Jonathan Shaw: Early on?

  Mr Sinnott: Early on in Year 6. So the benefits are clearly there.

  Q218 Chairman: Steve, as you said that, memories of St Margaret's Bay and the Romney Hythe and Dymchurch Railway came flooding back! We finish on that note. Thank you.

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