Promoting choice in school expeditions
The coming few months are when many schools will start researching and planning major school expeditions for 2011 and 2012. But where do you start and how do you find a reputable expedition company? As far as the Outdoor Education Advisers Panel and close to 90% of Local Authorities are concerned, the Learning outside the Classroom (LOTC) Quality Badge is all the proof that is required that an expedition company is "reputable". Indeed, many Local Authorities are now actively encouraging their schools to only look for the LOTC Quality Badge when choosing an expedition company. It makes the process of authorising expeditions super simple for the Local Authority, and I can see the attraction in that, but is it such good news for students?
Let it be clear, I believe in the benefits of learning outside the classroom. I believe in standards and accreditations too. Call it controversial, but I see the Expedition Badge scheme as narrow, restrictive and incapable of offering schools and students the range of expedition and adventure opportunities they should have, and need, access to. It is doing them a massive disservice.
Safety in numbers: 8848
In the UK we have the BS8848, a British Standard for the provision of visits, fieldwork, expeditions and adventurous activities outside the UK. It is a worldwide renowned safety standard which is recognised as offering the highest possible safety framework for overseas trips. In the case of an incident on an expedition, it is the BS8848, not the Expedition Badge scheme that is used by accident investigators as the benchmark for best practice. Yet the LOTC Expedition Badge scheme makes it impossible for some BS8848 compliant expedition companies to obtain the Badge.
The reason? They do not conform to the Badge's definition of "good practice".
The code of conduct behind the Badge is drawn from those of the Expedition Providers Association (EPA), a group of commercial companies who got together in 2003 to discuss "best practice". A group of self-regulating commercial banks should not be able to solely advise the government on economic policy, so why is it any different when it comes to school expeditions?
You might think my grumblings are coming from a commercial point of view. Not so. As an independent niche travel agency specialising in school expeditions, we stand for choice. Matching the right operator to a client's requirements is the very essence of our existence. We act as agents for a number of EPA / LOTC Badge-holding companies, and we could, if we were so inclined, place all our expedition business with them. Good companies as they are, they are not always the best fit to our clients' expedition requirements.
One size does NOT fit all when it comes to school expeditions, yet with the LOTC Expedition Badge schools are being shoe-horned into a very narrow fit of trekking boot.
The problem is that the EPA Code of Conduct severely limits the type of company that can apply for the Badge and not in a positive way. It is restrictive and excluding rather than flexible and enabling like the BS8848. Aspects of it could also be viewed as verging on anti-competitive as no evidence base exists to warrant the restrictions levied or to justify calling such requirements good practice.
So what are the issues?
There are a number of issues with the scheme in its current form. The most fundamental being the EPA's insistence that expedition companies should exclusively use UK leaders. The EPA's code of conduct stipulates that expedition leaders must be CRB checked and that they must also meet and work in a leadership capacity with students prior to the expedition. These requirements make it impossible to use an overseas leader.
Some may argue this is a safety issue, yet it is not a requirement of the BS8848 and there is no flexibility with in the Badge to compensate for a non-CRB checked leader with additional CRB checked teachers.
Some may argue it is to ensure a quality learning experience. It seems an almost colonial mentality to believe that only UK people have the ability to lead, inspire and manage the safety of our young people abroad. Not only that, but in taking this attitude, students are missing out on one of the most educational opportunities of overseas travel - the knowledge and experience offered by a professional local expedition leader.
In the developing world there are many professional expedition guides. Many have equal or higher standards of qualification and experience in safety management, group dynamics and expedition logistics, than the UK leaders that frequently accompany school groups. Consider also a local guide's far higher level of specific and applicable destination knowledge, his or her language skills and also their relationships with and understanding of local people and cultures.
There is also the cost implication. The extra cost associated with UK leaders accompanying groups means fewer students can afford to sign up to expeditions. If the Badge Scheme were meant to enable more students to undertake such trips, here is another area where it is not fit for purpose.
The LOTC Expedition Badge's insistence on UK leaders also goes against the very fundamentals of responsible tourism. If qualified leaders exist in the destination we should be investing in them, employing them as leaders and paying them a fair wage. In doing so, we will be putting more money directly into the country our young people are visiting as guests.
Alongside the small number of EPA / LOTC Badge-holding school expedition companies that we deal with, we also work with dozens of UK trekking and expedition companies that have been leading the way in adventure travel for decades. These companies have long understood the need, benefit and duty to invest, train and promote local leaders. And the results are there for all to see. Almost every expedition we've put together for schools has used professional, experienced and utterly fantastic non-UK, English speaking leaders. And the feedback is always the same - it is the leader that made the experience truly special. Yet such forward thinking and responsible operators cannot apply for the Badge.
There are those who might argue that parents and the school expedition 'industry' aren't ready for non-UK leaders. Is this the case or is it easier for a handful of seemingly influential companies to stick with what they know, with what fits their own style of expedition? It also restricts the number of companies that can apply for the Badge.
Distorted approach to risk management
When Lord Young publishes his report into Health and Safety later this month he will lambast the excess paperwork and minute detail currently involved in planning school trips. In the recent publication "Nothing Ventured" by The English Outdoor Council, Tim Gill also wrote about the problem of overbearing safety guidelines: "Indeed too much guidance, at too great a level of detail, can be counterproductive, because it can reinforce a distorted approach to risk management that focuses on technical compliance rather than critical thinking and proactive problem solving".
And that's the issue. Unnecessary detail and guidance means our schools are being actively encouraged to choose from a narrow selection of companies, often resulting in students paying more than is necessary for the expedition experience.
There is no place for cowboy operators, and I'm not asking for safety management to be scrapped. Schools and Local Authorities need a degree of realism about safety, not just with UK based trips but also those going further afield.
I want Local Authorities to be able to recognise "reputable" expedition companies for what they are, rather than how they measure up against the guidelines set down by a few influential yet commercial companies. I want state school students not to be detrimentally affected by paranoid and self-protecting attitudes, and for as many young people as possible to benefit from the intense learning experience of expeditions. Schools should have a choice about how they run their expeditions.
We have the BS8848. Let expedition companies use it and get on with what they do best.
Director, The Specialist Travel ConsultancyCommenting is not available in this channel entry.