An issue of risk management

A camp safety issue in a school is complicated by existing tensions. An intermediate principal questions whether in trying to solve one issue she has exposed students and the school to an unacceptable level of risk.

Staff and board tensions

I moved to a large intermediate school in the city. I was aware of a number of relationship issues at this school before I took up the principal’s position. Right from the interview I sensed there were problems between the staff and the board of trustees. These seemed to be particularly bad in the senior part of the school.

Though not specifically articulated, I got the impression that the teachers of senior classes felt the board had become too involved in management issues under the previous principal. The board was also not publicly supportive of Year 8. Indeed, two trustees had sent their children to other schools at Year 8. Another high profile member of the board was very vocal in his deliberations over whether to send his eldest child elsewhere.

As an experienced and I believe successful principal, I was confident that I could solve these problems. However, before long I realised that a number of these issues would take time to resolve. This was a particular challenge as patience is not a virtue with which I have been abundantly blessed!

In my first year I did not make a lot of progress in resolving the issues I’d inherited. For example, the Year 8 teachers had boycotted a joint board/staff social function at the beginning of the year. I was really annoyed about this as the function had been my initiative to rebuild relationships. While I developed a good relationship with the board, the old tensions between them and the senior school teachers continued to surface from time to time.

Back to top

Planning the school camp

During my first term planning began for the annual Year 8 camp. The plan was to travel to a country town 100k away and have the programme provided by an experienced outdoor pursuits company that I’ll call Education Outdoors Incorporated (EOI) for the purposes of this story. EOI had been around for over 10 years and was experienced in working with both school groups and parties of adults.

Two months before the camp the suggested programme was presented to the board for approval. In the past couple of years there had been a number of highly publicised accidents on school camps, so the board wanted very strong assurance that the camp would be safe. Two members of the board wanted further assurances and documentation regarding EOI, so we went over the Risk Assessment documentation again with the board.

I believed that the camp wasn’t really the only issue behind seeking these reassurances. I felt this was the same lack of communication and understanding between the senior school teachers and board resurfacing. In this case I felt it was very important that I showed publicly that I had confidence in these teachers. I expressed to the board my personal confidence in EOI as an experienced company, with well-documented procedures and a very good safety record.

The approval was given for the camp, but I still felt that the two members of the board who had asked for additional assurances thought we were over-confident and that we should have had more safety documentation.

As I drove home from the board meeting that night I had a nagging concern that I might have been too strong in my endorsement of EOI. I didn’t really know the company and felt that well-written RAMs did not always transfer to actual practice.

Back to top

A shocking incident

The camp was due to start on the Monday morning. At 3.30pm on the Friday afternoon before camp my assistant principal got the call from the director of EOI. There had been an accident with the company and a young adult had been badly injured. I was assured that the school camp did not include this activity and very few of the staff involved with the incident would be working with our students. The story was about to be broadcast on national radio.

I considered the school’s position:

  • I could postpone the camp but, given the timing, it would be very hard to get another suitable date.
  • The school and the families stood to lose a lot of money if the camp was postponed and a number of families would really struggle if they had to pay again.
  • The students and the teachers would have been very disappointed.
  • If we went ahead and anything happened the school could be viewed as negligent.
  • The relationship between the board and the senior school was still fragile and it was important that this was managed. I felt the staff would react very negatively if the camp was postponed or cancelled.
  • As our EOTC policy said that approval for camps must come from the board this was not a simple management / governance issue. In this case the policy did allow the board to have a say on the management of the camp. Despite the fact that the board had already approved the camp, not informing the BOT of the accident would, I believe, have been both unprofessional and unethical.

I considered my personal position:

  • I had given my assurance to the BOT on the competency of EOI, yet I didn’t really know a lot about them.
  • The assistant principal and I had signed off on the RAMs. These looked OK but now that we had to really rely on them I realised neither of us was an expert in outdoor education safety.

    Back to top

Reflective questions

  • What is the problem or issue here? Is there more than one?
  • What would you do at this point if you were in this principal's position?
  • What are the principal's options for dealing with this dilemma?

Practitioner comments on dilemma

Principal one

  1. I would have done as this principal did and go on camp! I don’t see any other option that would work. If the principal had investigated and found that there were areas of concern the camp could have been cancelled and a series of local day activities put in place. This may have been very unpopular with the staff involved but would have to be discussed as necessary because of safety concerns that you had as principal (rather than those the board had). Open discussion with the Year 8 teachers would be important.
  2. There is a bigger issue involved here. While camp is the particular problem of the moment the deeper issue is the lack of communication and support between Year 8 teachers and the board. This issue needs to be addressed if the school is to thrive at this level. The board has to be seen as supporting this part of the school so work needs to be undertaken to bring the two groups together.

Some ideas might be:

  • employing an external facilitator to do a visioning exercise with the teachers and the board regarding what makes our school so great at this level (What is our point of difference?)
  • completing a SWOT analysis of the area where information from staff, students, and parents is collated and a working party of board, principal, and teachers completes a plan for future development based on strengthening the drivers and reducing the barriers (This could be incorporated with an off-site communication time where staff and board get to know each other as individuals and have some fun activities to encourage interaction.)
  • setting up a regular time for an interested board member to meet with the team leader of the year level to discuss new ideas and opportunities (Keep these meetings short, focused, and positive.)
  • the principal working with the year 8 teachers to look at new ideas for the future and presenting these to the board as a positive move. (Prior discussion with the board should indicate the need for this meeting to be positive and looking towards the future.)

Back to top

Principal two

  1. It is important to visit camp early to meet with camp staff and visit all action areas. If there are areas of risk a board member could accompany staff.
  2. Senior staff could present RAMS to the board. This would be a good way to rebuild relationships between board and senior school staff.
  3. When planning seek a status report from the camp site: safety record and procedures and experience of staff.
  4. The senior staff have to realise that the board is ultimately responsible for student safety and what they sign off, as they have to live by it. It is their role.
  5. The principal has a role in promoting a more positive board acceptance of the Year 8 year group. This is part of the school’s future. Hopefully board members would be encouraged to attend this camp experience and see the year group in action.
  6. The safety of the students has to be paramount - any doubt you do not go.

    Back to top

Leadership adviser

  1. Contact the board chairperson immediately to discuss the issue.
  2. If necessary ring/meet with the other board members to inform and gain their opinions.
  3. Consult EOTC policy and procedures.
  4. If at all possible insist on a meeting with EOI prior to the camp to review their safety policies/procedures, question where possible what had happened and seek an assurance that any changes to safety procedures had been made.
  5. Be vigilant while on camp. Take control if unsure.
  6. Report back to the board on the school camp after it has taken place.

    Back to top

Actual courses of action taken by this principal

I thought it was important that the camp went ahead but I also thought it was important that the school be seen as vigilant in its duty of care. I believed too that the board should be fully informed and that they should support the decision.

I rang the board chairperson and other board members. We discussed alternatives. We decided that I should go on the camp myself. As a staff we would meet with the EOI staff and go over the safety implications of all activities.

I also contacted the local community constable who was experienced in youth activities and outdoor programmes. He was also going on the camp as a parent. I asked him to join the school staff and EOI team to review safety procedures. It was this man’s reputation in the community that convinced the board to give the green light.

The camp went ahead without major incidents. However a couple of times I felt that the EOI staff were somewhat cavalier on safety issues, we had to overrule them.

Back to top

Writer's reflection

In the future I would get a second and more experienced opinion on outdoor education providers and RAMs from a teacher or principal in another school.

I would also try and be more circumspect in supporting agencies and programmes I am not well informed about.

When in doubt with competing issues it is important to focus on the most important. In this case the issues were the safety of the students, relationships in the school and my personal reputation as a capable and experienced leader.

Here the safety of the students needed to be paramount. While there is no doubt about what this actually means, in practice it can be more complex. There are no simple answers and some times decisions need to be made quickly.

Tell a colleague | Back to top