In February 2022 Newcastle Magistrates Court heard that in March 2020 a group of 13 year 10 pupils from a school in Gateshead were on an organised school trip to Helvellyn in the Lake District. The group was led by one teacher and a teaching assistant. Despite weather conditions being cold and icy and the Lake District Weatherline Report stressing the dangers of climbing above the snow line, the school decided the trip should go ahead as planned.
Many of the pupils did not have clothing and equipment suitable for climbing a mountain in winter conditions, some were wearing school shoes and school trousers, whilst others were wearing trainers. The teacher and teaching assistant leading the trip had no formal qualifications in mountain leadership nor experience in winter mountain craft. While the group had a map of the area, they relied on a phone app as a compass.
During the ascent of the mountain, at least two members of the public out climbing warned the teaching staff to turn back, but they carried on and reached the 950-metre summit.
During the descent the group ventured off the path by mistake and found themselves on steep terrain which included vertical rock faces with drops of 20 metres. One of the pupils slid on ice and fell several metres sustaining minor cuts. This caused another pupil to panic and run from the group down the mountain. The two adults remained with the rest of the group and by this time, it had begun to get dark, and the temperature was falling.
The group were eventually located and rescued by members of the Keswick Mountain Rescue Team, who had to cut steps into the snow to assist the group in getting back onto the path and down the mountain. The pupil who ran from the group made it back down the mountain on their own and was found by members of the public.
An investigation by the Health and Safety Executive found that neither of the adults taking the group had the appropriate skills, knowledge and experience to lead the trip, and that the school hadn’t sought the advice of a suitably competent person to plan or organise the activity. The school had no arrangements to check the suitability of the clothing and equipment the pupils had with them and had no contingency plan to act upon if conditions became too difficult to proceed.
The school admitted breaching sections 2(1) and 3(1) of the Health and Safety at Work Act for failing to ensure the safety of both employees and those not in its employment and was fined £30,000 and ordered to pay costs of £4,574.
After the hearing the HSE inspector stated: ‘On this occasion, none of the party came to serious harm, however, the school were aware of the weather and ground conditions, but decided to proceed without the appropriate planning, equipment, or suitably trained leaders.
Those taking part in the trek that day were placed in serious danger and there was a clear failing by the school to adopt sensible precautions to ensure their safety.
Excursions into mountains, particularly in winter, need to be led by people with the appropriate skills, knowledge and experience. If a school does not have access to the necessary expertise in house, then licensed Adventure Activities providers are available to manage the technical aspects of this type of trekking activity.
This incident was entirely avoidable. The HSE recognises the benefits of outdoor learning activities, including those involving hiking or trekking in mountain environments, however schools need to take sensible and proportionate measures to control the risks involved. This trip should not have gone ahead without such measures in place.’
This case goes to show the vital importance of the careful planning and risk assessing of school trips, especially those involving higher risk activities. Staff leading trips must be competent to do so (in relation to the activity) and that where necessary they obtain external expert knowledge, where they lack the skills or experience, to determine the appropriate precautions including emergency procedures. The challenge for schools is in achieving balance where the risks arsing from the activity have been appropriately and proportionately managed, but the learning opportunities are experienced to the full.
If you have any questions on any of the issues raised in the above article, please contact Gary Foggo.