Schools across the Mahurangi area will re-evaluate their outdoor education programmes this year in light of new legislation, which takes effect on April 4.
The new Health and Safety at Work Act (HSWA) is part of a reform package aimed at reducing the number of serious work-related injuries and deaths in New Zealand by at least 25 per cent by 2020.
While there is agreement on the intent of the Act, educators are concerned at the impacts it could have on school sports, camps and other outdoor activities.
If accidents happen, the responsibility will fall squarely on the shoulders of the principals who could face fines of up to $600,000 or five years imprisonment, which they can’t insure themselves against.
Principals Federation president Denise Torrey is quoted as saying that teachers should be safe from punishment if they follow good procedures. But she said the mere possibility of stiff penalties could have a chilling effect.
“There are a whole list of things that could be potentially curtailed because people become risk-averse. And that’s a risk – that we become so risk-averse that we wrap our children and our staff in cotton wool and they can’t do anything.”
Other educators have called for more clarity about the law changes, while others are concerned about the extra administration that will be involved.
Mahurangi College principal David Macleod says outdoor education is too important to be abandoned, but admits the new legislation is “scary”.
“We’re already very, very thorough in our Risk Analysis Management Systems (RAMS),” he says. “Staff always do a full reconnaissance site visit prior to a camp and every precaution is taken to identify any potential risk. But it is very difficult to mitigate against all risk – the very nature of these outdoor experiences is about taking risks. The legislation just adds another dimension of worry for the school.”
Mr Macleod said a Year 9 camp at the end of last year gave the school a taste of the liability worries that are ahead.
During an overnight hike, a student became ill from an infected scratch and the teachers in charge set-off an emergency beacon. A helicopter was dispatched and the student spent a couple of days in Tauranga Hospital recovering. Mr Macleod says because the school party was out of phone range, he was not advised of what the problem was until the emergency services rang back.
“This could have been a really bad scenario. If it was deemed that we had not taken adequate precautions, then under the new Act we would have been liable.”
Mr Macleod says he has no intention of curtailing outdoor education at this stage.
“We’re a NZ school raising Kiwi kids, and this is part of a Kiwi education. We run camps for Years 7, 8 and 9, and a five-day Year 13 camp on Great Barrier Island, as well as offering it as a subject for seniors. It’s extremely beneficial and we will do all we can to retain it.
“But, there will always be accidents and if the law comes down hard on principals, then it could spell the end of outdoor education in schools.”
Wellsford School principal David Bradley says it’s a pity that schools are being treated like businesses, as if they are profit-based and trying to cut corners to save money.
“Schools are about giving children life experiences with a measured amount of risk, which is managed as carefully as possible. But, accidents do happen and is it fair to hold the principal personally responsible?”
Mr Bradley says in some ways the legislation may make schools safer, in terms of liability, simply because they will do fewer things that involve risk.
“But it won’t make children safer. If you climb a tree and fall out, then you learn not to go higher than you have the competence to manage. Without that sort of experience in a controlled environment, the resulting accident could be worse because the kids have under-estimated the risk. We’re trying to wrap the kids in cotton wool, but it’s not in their long-term best interests.
“We have a bike track at school and we’re building a BMX track, and we’re deliberately putting in hills and bumps – under this new legislation I question whether we will be able to keep it.”
Mr Bradley says at a recent Combined Principals meeting, the feeling was that schools would do less and less outside the classroom because principals and Boards of Trustees wouldn’t want to carry the risk.
“Trips away and camps are a traditional part of a Kiwi education, but this looks set to change. Even if you think of athletics – the kids are throwing javelins, shot puts and discus, and jumping into sandpits. What happens if something goes wrong and should the school be held responsible?”