Orders of the Day — Safety in Outdoor Pursuits

– in the House of Commons at 12:00 am on 27th November 1972.

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12.23 a.m.

Photo of Mr Ernle Money Mr Ernle Money , Ipswich

Every year an increasing number of children from the schools go on educational visits at home and abroad in accompanied parties organised under the supervision of local education authorities. This is a policy which has shown great benefits both in broadening the horizons and interests of the children and in teaching them a great deal of the world around them. Since of their nature many of the most interesting trips are in mountainous or sea areas, some risks are necessarily involved. As was underlined in the recent publication of the Department of Education and Science "Safety in Outdoor Pursuits", the possibility of accident, particularly in mountain areas, can never be overlooked.

In recent years there have been tragedies in the Cairngorms, Cumberland and, more recently, Snowdonia as a result of the conditions which arise on trips of this kind. Unhappily, one of these tragedies affected two children from my constituency last June. I would like at this point to pay the most sincere tribute to the most immediate way in which my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State, whose presence here we very much appreciate, dealt sympathetically and extremely helpfully not only with all the problems of that tragedy but also with the reissue of the Department's publication "Safety in Outdoor Pursuits", which has been updated and underlines some of the care which can be taken in order to obviate risks of the kind that arise.

Two matters in particular are stressed in the pamphlet which are relevant to the tragedy involving the two children, Robert Faiers and Christopher French. The first is the advantage of first-hand knowledge of the area concerned whereby at least one member of the staff should be familiar with the district and the local conditions; the second involves the choice of equipment.

One accepts immediately that nothing can totally obviate the risk of accidents. What the report stresses is the need for expert knowledge and advice and also the need to alert teachers to the dangers they might otherwise have overlooked and to let them know the sources from which they can obtain expert information and training.

In the case in question, a party of 42 children from Chantry school, in Ipswich, went to Switzerland between 21st May and 3rd June, accompanied by three teachers. On Sunday afternoon, 28th May—I quote from the report on the accident issued by the school itself— …the party took a walk along a pine-clad slope of one of the mountains near the hotel. They found the path easy to traverse and extremely well sign-posted, and completely safe. This walk was so much enjoyed that the party asked if another could be arranged, and this was planned for the following Thursday. The staff studied the large-scale map of 'Wanderweg' exhibited at the railway station, found that a suitable path followed more or less the line of the funicular from the top to the bottom station, went to the funicular station and saw the final stretch of path which ended there, and which seemed in every way suitable. The signpost showed that the upward walk would take only 1½ hours. It appears that on the way down the children, having commenced the descent accompanied on this day by only two teachers, found that the path widened out to a gently sloping grassy area. The children in the middle, having seen what they assumed to be their own winding path reappearing further below, decided to take a short cut to it. But the gently sloping slope quickly became more precipitous and two of the children fell and received fatal injuries.

I want to refer briefly to the report of the Swiss court of inquiry because it stresses two factors which may perhaps serve to avert another fatality of this kind. In that report, it was made clear that the children were wearing shoes which were quite unsuitable and inadequate. One child was wearing ankle boots with zip fasteners and synthetic soles, without profiles, and the other was wearing walking shoes of the casual or slip-on variety with leather soles, and again no profiles.

The other matter which the court of inquiry at Interlaken mentioned was that neither of the teachers concerned was familiar with the dangers of the Harder mountain and the local conditions. Anyone who knows the Swiss Alps knows how suddenly precipitous edges can confront one.

I pay tribute to the total lack of bitterness that the parents have exhibited with regard to this tragic fatality. But I take this opportunity to underline their feeling that the reissue of the pamphlet, suitably updated, the publicity that my right hon. Friend's Department has given it and my right hon. Friend's presence at this debate will give every possible stress to the kind of risks involved in these circumstances and to what can be done to avoid any accident of this sort by taking adequate reconnaissance of the ground and suitable equipment.

Unhappily, the children were told simply to bring one pair of strong shoes, well worn-in, and one pair of physical education slippers. The letter from the school added that parents were not to go to the expense of buying new clothes unnecessarily.

The parents hope that the one good thing which may come out of this tragic event is that it serves to stress the very real need for knowledge and proper equipment which can bring a greater degree of safety to what is a most useful and ideally a most beneficial part of the ordinary school curriculum. I would like to say again how greatly I appreciate on their behalf the presence of my right hon. Friend.

12.32 a.m.

Photo of Mr Keith Stainton Mr Keith Stainton , Sudbury and Woodbridge

I am motivated in making my short intervention by the fact that my constituency surrounds Ipswich, and inevitably the impact of this tragedy has had shock effects in the whole locality. Furthermore, one of the boys was a noted chorister in one of the churches in my constituency.

Having said that, I shall enlarge my comments along the lines of those adduced by my hon. Friend the Member for Ipswich (Mr. Money), but perhaps more pungently. Frankly I regard the pamphlet "Safety in Outdoor Pursuits", even in its updated version, as equivalent to a sixpenny cookery guide. Those are harsh words, but one can flick through the document in 10 or 15 minutes. It consists merely of a series of headlines, and I suggest that it is even less adequate than the Highway Code, which is merely a basis for guidance, whereas here one is covering a wide number of activities.

These remarks must be seen also in the light of the fact that inevitably this kind of pursuit is advancing rapidly and is likely to increase with the extension of the school curriculum.

There is a bibliography in the pamphlet. I asked my hon. Friend whether the books were listed in the Ipswich public library. We do not know. Perhaps my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State will be able to tell us whether they are available in the local library or in the school library, or whether the local education authority has had the good sense to equip itself with the type of bibliography specified in the pamphlet.

Given the background of great escalation in this activity, I should not be content were my right hon. Friend not to supplement the pamphlet with a circular to local education authorities stipulating specific requirements of leaders of teams in terms of competence, training and background and the ratio of those leaders to the personnel in the party vis-à-vis the aims and objects of the visit.

I have been privileged to intervene briefly in this debate. Like my hon. Friend, I warmly acknowledge the presence of my right hon. Friend herself to deal with this vexed and tragic kind of problem.

12.35 a.m.

Photo of Mrs Margaret Thatcher Mrs Margaret Thatcher Secretary of State for Education and Science, Shadow Secretary of State for Education and Science

Before replying to my hon. Friends the Members for Ipswich (Mr. Money) and for Sudbury and Woodbridge (Mr. Stain-ton) I want to express my very great concern at another accident which occurred over the weekend and which resulted in the death of a schoolboy while mountain-walking in Snowdonia. I express my sympathy with John Wilke's parents and his teachers. I am told by the local education authority that John was one of a party of six boys and girls, aged 15 and 16, who were led by two experienced instructors, one of whom holds the mountain leadership certificate. We shall learn more of the circumstances surrounding this accident within the next few days.

I am grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for Ipswich for choosing to raise this subject on the Adjournment. In dealing with hazardous pursuits where the lives of children may be in danger we cannot draw attention too often to the risks that may be involved and to the precautions which must be taken and which can, with the right training, help and advice, be provided for in advance.

This tragic case concerns the constituencies of my hon. Friends the Members for Ipswich and for Sudbury and Woodbridge. I have met the parents of one of the boys involved. One could not wish to meet a more delightful family. They have shown great personal courage in their distress and are concerned to see that the same thing does not happen to others if it can be prevented.

Like my hon. Friend the Member for Ipswich, I would rather look forward and see what can be done to help from the lessons we have learned than look back. However, I must recall that it is almost exactly a year since the fatal accident to six Scottish schoolchildren in the Cairngorms and only a few months less than that since three English schoolboys met with an accident on Snowdon. I know of five fatal accidents since that time involving school parties. Although such accidents are not automatically reported to my Department, we have heard of more this year than in previous years, I think for the reason that my hon. Friend has given. The increase is due partly to the increased numbers of schools and pupils who are taking part in such outdoor pursuits.

It is always a terrible tragedy when young people are hurt or killed in this way. However, I do not think the answer lies in preventing all of them from engaging in all hazardous activities; and I think I sensed agreement from my hon. Friends on this point. If young people are prevented from vigorous activity under proper leadership they may find an outlet for their natural energy, perhaps without proper guidance. It is our duty to see that the leadership provided is as good as it can be made.

In the pamphlet "Safety in Outdoor Pursuits" published a few days ago the Department has given guidance on the general planning of expeditions, the conditions which should be satisfied and the sources from which further expert advice can be sought. We are not competent as a Department to set up expert advice on every outdoor pursuit. That is what one of my hon. Friends would have liked, but it is well to know our limitations. We set out general guidance. My hon. Friend was perhaps a little over-critical of what the pamphlet does. He will also find that most public libraries would recognise that it is their duty to get the books referred to in the bibliography.

Four fundamental requirements are emphasised in the pamphlet—the quality of the leadership; the acquisition of skills and knowledge by the pupils; the quality of personal and group equipment; and the correct procedure and conduct for the party. On the first of these the pamphlet says this: The quality of leadership is vital. Experience and sound judgment are the most important constituents; whenever possible they should be reinforced by a nationally recognised training qualification. It is right that the quality of leadership should be put first because anyone who undertakes to lead an expedition of this sort is assuming a tremendous responsibility. It is not just a matter of his own training and experience. Such people need to plan well ahead, to consider what kind of activities will be involved, and in what sort of country, so that the pupils themselves can be adequately prepared and trained. There is moreover the need for the leader to be capable of recognising hazards, of seeing changes which may lead to danger and taking decisions on the spot—sometimes split-second decisions—in order to safeguard his party. The need for such decisions can arise even on expeditions which may seem at first sight to be fairly harmless, as did the one to which my hon. Friend referred.

I was struck when I looked at the details of the accidents over the past year to see how many had happened on expeditions described as mountain-walking. Clearly there is a question of terminology here. What is to some people a mountain walk would be to others a pretty stiff climb. The important point is that such walks will follow paths which, although they may be safe if followed strictly, often run through much more hazardous terrain; and although the paths themselves may be safe in good weather they can become dangerous in snow, ice or fog. This is the sort of situation for which a leader needs to be prepared.

That brings me to the second fundamental requirement: There is no short cut to the acquisition of skill and knowledge in the selection and use of equipment and in coping with the natural elements. This applies both to the leader and to the members of a party. The leader should have sufficient knowledge and experience—if possible at first hand in the countryside to be visited—to arrange a suitable training and preparation programme for the pupils. He will, of course, be responsible for the group equipment for the party.

As the pamphlet points out, the quality of the personal equipment must also be beyond question and should conform to the standards recommended by responsible agencies. This is a subject on which pupils and their families need and look for guidance. The pamphlet offers a check list of items, including the clothing and personal equipment. This is designed for the use of the leaders and will need to be interpreted according to their judgment of the requirements of a particular expedition.

One point which the leaders and the schools will need to get across to parents is that for some purposes specially-designed clothing is essential, and substitutes will not suffice. One item which caught my eye in the list of clothing is that which my hon. Friend has mentioned. It is simply "boots". An experienced leader knows that this means a particular sort of boot which will give a good grip and will, I hope, in future make this clear to his party when telling them what kit they will need. This interpretation is vitally necessary.

Another point is that equipment should be inspected by the leader of the expedition while there is still time to change unsuitable items. I say both of these things having prepared both of my young children to go off on expeditions.

The fourth requirement is: The correct procedure and conduct for any expedition party should be well known by all participants. Progressive and continuous training is a vital feature of any programme. I do not think I need enlarge on that. The good leader will prepare his party and will try to cover all foreseeable situations. He will also try to instil enough discipline into the party so that if something unexpected happens they will continue to act on his instructions.

I should not want anyone to think that the pamphlet is the final answer to the problems or, indeed, that it sets out to be a final answer. The purpose is to alert people to the risks which exist and to help them in planning their expeditions so as to minimise the effect of the risks. The paramount need is to avoid accidents by improving as much as possible the preparation which goes into any expedition. The pamphlet may well need frequent revision to take account of changes if it is to continue to be of use to leaders. Given the rate at which participation of schools in outdoor activities is growing, we shall clearly need to look again at the advice in much less than five years.

My hon. Friend did not mention it, but may I add a word on the question of insurance before coming to training. In spite of care taken in advance, there will still be occasions when something goes wrong and pupils are injured. The pamphlet does not try to give specific advice about taking out insurance policies since conditions will vary from one expedition to another. Sometimes questions of negligence and liability will arise, and the party leaders and the authority will need to ensure that their liabilities are covered. But this is not what normally worries parents at the time of an accident.

The urgent need is to see that proper treatment is available and can be provided without undue distress or worry. The accident may be no one's fault, but medical treatment and extra travelling costs may still be expensive. In this debate I can only commend the practice of the Central Bureau for Educational Visits and Exchanges, which advises taking personal insurance cover for any visits overseas with which it is concerned.

Now a word about training, which is very important. The mountain leadership certificate has long been recognised as a desirable qualification for all those who take responsibility for leading parties on mountains and in the hills. As yet, as my hon. Friend said, there are just not enough teachers who hold this qualification to meet the demand. The British Mountaineering Council made a public declaration earlier this year that it considered it essential for all leaders of parties of young people in mountain areas to hold the minimum qualifications offered by the mountain leadership certificate. The council is prepared to offer the services of its national officer as adviser to local education authorities, for which it is also ready to organise training courses.

The Central Council of Physical Recreation runs one-term courses in outdoor education, with a strong emphasis on technical expertise in mountain craft, canoeing and ski-ing, and it provides similar courses for teachers engaged in sea-based activities.

The primary responsibility for provision of shorter courses of training must necessarily rest with individual local education authorities and many of them use outdoor pursuit centres for this purpose. The number of courses which can be offered in the Department's annual programme of short courses is limited, but in recent years Her Majesty's inspectors have provided regular courses in a number of outdoor activities such as gliding and sailing, and more particularly in expedition planning.

These courses are intended especially for teachers who may be in a position to share their expertise with colleagues in their area and are provided annually, normally in the Snowdonia area and the Cairngorms; 224 teachers have attended them in the years 1967–73. We must acknowledge, however, that many more teachers would benefit from training in how to engage safely in outdoor pursuits.

Some of this may sound discouraging or even frightening to teachers who may be thinking of organising a party of young people. I should not want them to be too discouraged but only to be aware of the responsibilities and the advance preparation which must take place. There are dangers in outdoor pursuits, but they can be kept to a minimum if the advice of the pamphlet and the expert bodies is followed.

To quote one of the sections in the pamphlet which would have been closely relevant here, Once the aim of an expedition is clear, there is no substitute for first-hand knowledge of the area. At least one member of staff, preferably the leader, should be familiar with the district and the local conditions likely to be encountered in bad weather. A great deal of help can be obtained from local sources of information.

In this country the national parks authorities have information services which are always prepared to help schools which are planning visits to their areas and I know that this is a subject of very great concern to them and to the Countryside Commission.

I again thank my hon. Friends for the opportunity to speak about this subject tonight. The message of safety is one which will bear repetition and needs constant repetition if it is to be effective. I hope that those concerned will take note of everything that has been said this evening. May I also say how much I admire the way in which the constituents of my hon. Friend the Member for Ipswich have tackled their great distress.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at nine minutes to One o'clock.