The UK Government have launched their plan for ‘Olympics style’ school games contests to introduce more children to the health and personal development benefits of competitive sport, backed by £10 million of National Lottery funding. I’m delighted; a renewed focus on young people’s participation in sport couldn’t be better timed given our woeful departure from the World Cup. I’m supportive of any initiatives that aim to increase children’s access to the outdoors and help develop skills, such as teamwork, leadership and determination, which are essential for life beyond the classroom.
While many football fans in South Africa lament our poor performances over the past two weeks, back here in England there has been much to be positive about when it comes to children’s access to outdoor learning. On the 14th June it was announced that Lord Young would lead a Whitehall-wide review of health and safety laws with the aim of tackling overly burdensome red tape and the crippling effects of ‘elf and safety’. Brilliant! While there is no doubt that health and safety laws are an essential part of keeping people safe in the work place, the unhealthy fear of them which has developed over the years must be addressed if we’re to inspire teachers to make wider use of outdoor learning opportunities and encourage the voluntary sector to play a bigger role in delivering them.
In a recent press statement, Lord Young said he will investigate concerns over the "application and perception" of health and safety legislation, together with the "rise of the compensation culture over the last decade". In the context of outdoor education, I believe such investigation is very important given the continuing fear of health and safety legislation that exists despite the small number of incidents that occur on school trips. Despite an average of just under three legal claims made per year against local authorities for incidents occurring on school visits, a staggering 76 per cent of teachers said that concerns about health and safety was the number one barrier to delivering outdoor education. These results alone point towards a fear of risk that is greater than its actuality - we look forward to this review ensuring a common sense approach is restored to the process of organising safe and rewarding outdoor visits for children.
Within days after Lord Young’s announced review, the safety of children in the outdoors was back in the spot light. On 15th June, an independent report was published into the outbreak of E.Coli on a farm in Godstone, Surrey that struck down more than 90 people, including 76 children in August 2009. The inquiry, lead by George Griffin a disease expert, analysed the events of the outbreak and made recommendations for reducing the risk of members of the public contracting E.Coli and improving the health protection response to future outbreaks of this infection. Much to my relief the report did not recommend banning contact between animals and children as was reported by some press before the report was launched, it simply said that contact between animal faeces and children should be minimised or eliminated. While the report focused on the need to enforce better on-farm hygiene it was the public health bodies which received the most criticism – with lack of leadership and failure to contain the outbreak quickly listed as the two key points.
Encouragingly there has been a proportionate response to the E.Coli outbreak and many organisations, like us agree that we need to strike the right balance between ensuring robust risk management on farms and retaining the enjoyment of these facilities for visitors. While I am deeply sympathetic for those affected by the outbreak, we must keep in mind that hundreds of thousands of people visit open farms and rarely (thank goodness) contract zoonosis. Open farms are valuable outdoor education facilities and are effective in engaging children to learn about food and farming. Open farms already have to adhere to stringent guidance laid down by the Health and Safety Executive, introducing more red tape may simply make it too hard for farms to open their gates to visitors – something that would damage farm incomes and children’s education.
So while England may have dropped out of the World Cup there is a summer of fun ahead out in the countryside and on the farms for everyone to enjoy! To find an outdoor
education opportunity near you go to: http://www.growingschools.org.uk/