Managing risk for school visits: getting the balance right

Date Posted: 01/11/2013

Victoria Wilcher from the Council for Learning Outside the Classroom looks at the barrier of risk management when it comes to getting young people out and about.

It's easy to understand why teachers can be hesitant when it comes to organising a school trip - risk management is a big issue. However, organisations including Ofsted and the Health and Safety Executive support learning outside the classroom (LOtC) as a valuable way of helping children to learn about risk management and keep themselves safe. There is also growing recognition of the value of outdoor play for children of all ages.

As one of the four pillars of the Ofsted framework, behaviour and safety in schools is an important consideration. The Ofsted framework notes that inspectors should consider:

… whether pupils feel safe and their ability to assess and manage risk appropriately and to keep themselves safe.
(Ofsted, The framework for school inspection - 2013)

One of the best ways for children to learn how to manage risk appropriately is to encounter new experiences within a safe environment, and learning outside the classroom gives children the ideal opportunity to experience and manage their own risk. In Ofsted’s own report on learning outside the classroom, inspectors found that:

Learning outside the classroom also contributed to… staying safe…This happened, for example, when the children and young people took on different and additional requirements to promote their own and each other’s safety when out of the classroom.
(Ofsted, Learning outside the classroom: How far should you go? - 2008)

The Government view of health and safety is based on the notion of reasonableness, and Department for Education guidance emphasises that schools should take a proportionate approach to risk management. The goal of risk management procedures should be to help children to undertake activities safely, not to prevent beneficial activities from taking place, or to reduce the benefits of these activities through misguided attempts to remove all risk.

This view is supported by information provided by the Health and Safety Executive (HSE), which recognises that young people need to experience some risk in order to learn how to competently manage their own risk.

To support this, the HSE has produced a document entitled School trips and outdoor learning activities: tackling the health & safety myths. Judith Hackett, chair of the Health and Safety Executive, made clear her view of the importance of giving children the opportunity to experience risk in a blog post on the HSE website:

You can't teach young people about risk from a text book - they need some practical experience. That's why cosseting children and seeking to remove all risk from their experiences ultimately leaves them ill equipped for adult and working life.
(Judith Hackett, Young people, risk and an exciting education - March 2012)

In order to encourage this more positive view of risk, and support more schools to engage in learning outside the classroom, the Council for Learning Outside the Classroom (CLOtC) advocates the use of Risk-Benefit Assessment, rather than traditional risk assessment procedures.

In a Risk-Benefit Assessment, the user thinks first about the benefits that an activity will have for young people’s learning and development, and then looks at the risks involved. By considering the benefits of an activity alongside the risks, it helps schools to think about the value of an activity, and highlight learning outcomes.

CLOtC has also developed a special course for schools with Tim Gill, a learning and play expert, which looks at the use of the Risk-Benefit model in schools, and offers guidance on how to overcome health and safety fears.

Tim Gill is one of the UK’s leading thinkers on childhood and has written extensively on managing risk in outdoor learning and play. His influential book No Fear: Growing up in a risk-averse society was published in 2007 and in 2009 the English Outdoor Council published his report Nothing Ventured: Balancing risks and benefits in the outdoors. He is also the co-author of the Government-funded publication Managing Risk in Play Provision: Implementation Guide.

“In many play and learning situations,” Tim argues, “there are intrinsic benefits from allowing a degree of risk. These risks and benefits must be weighed against each other. Conventional, factory-style risk assessment, with its focus on reducing risk, is simply the wrong tool for the job. The good news is that the HSE recognises risk benefit assessment as a sensible approach.”

The Council for Learning Outside the Classroom offers free support and information to schools through its website, It also manages the LOtC Quality Badge, the national benchmark for educational visits, which recognises organisations offering good quality educational experiences where risk is effectively managed, and LOtC Mark, the first national accreditation for schools which recognises, and supports the development of, learning outside the classroom.

You can find out more about Tim Gill via his website and blog at

School Travel Organiser's Guide