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School visits abroad
HOW SAFE ARE SCHOOL VISITS ABROAD?
The arrangements surrounding educational visits abroad is something that concerns many parents who are often not equipped with the questions they ought to be asking. What about schools - do they know the questions they should be raising when they hire a coach or hire the services of a school tour operator? How much experience does the tour operator have in organising such a visit to another country and what, if any, emergency procedures are there in place to protect pupils?
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So just what should parents be asking? What should schools be doing, but more importantly, what standard should the tour operator meet to ensure the safest service?
Educational visits do not have to be stressful for parents or teachers or fraught with danger for pupils, as long as those responsible for co-ordinating the visits know the scams that some tour operators are all too ready to exploit that threaten everyone’s safety. Look out for cheap quotes and additional costs for executive vehicles with toilets and be warned, some companies charge extra for just being outside a certain radius of a port for departure!
What the written risk assessment should include
Schools must prepare a written risk assessment to cover every aspect of the safety of the pupils and staff on the visit. Transport, accommodation and activities planned are just some of the issues that must be included. Parents should not be worried about asking for a copy of this. Then there is an opportunity for parents to bring to the school’s attention at an early stage, anything of concern. This ‘working together’ approach is a sensible one but if you are a parent reading this and your child’s school is not amenable to this approach, perhaps you might want to reassess whether to entrust your child’s safety to them on a visit abroad.
Three point belts are always a safer option for any school trip or visit abroad. Always check that children in your care are not transferred to a coach with fewer safety features once they get off the ferry from the UK.
What should the Schools Tour Operator do?
A good Schools Tour operator will spend up to six months planning an educational visit on behalf of a school, organising everything; transport, flights, ferry crossings, accommodation and where applicable, they will be involved in some of the activities the school wishes to include.
A well run operation will guarantee the best transport arrangements, using well equipped coaches that benefit from having the latest safety features. There may be a belief that as long as safety belts are provided, that this is enough, but it is essential to understand, that although seat belts play an important role in protecting passengers during an impact, that other hidden safety elements are just as vital to safeguard your child.
Therefore, the only coaches that should be hired should be those that meet ECE R66 Regulations which effectively means that the vehicle supplied will be built with a structure that will stay in one piece should it be involved in a roll-over crash.
Background of ECE R66 Regulations
Staying in one piece, affords survival space for all occupants; it is also the case that in almost all coaches that meet R66, the anchorage points to which safety belts are attached will form part of the design structure of the coach. This standard became mandatory in the United Kingdom on 1 April 1993 so coaches built before this date are extremely unlikely to meet this high level of safety. Some of the less reputable transport operators will keep coached on the road that are more than thirty years old. Often they will disguise them with refurbishments and cherished number plates but the original design and structure of the coach will not have altered.
A representative from Brittany Ferries runs through health and safety procedures with pupils on a visit abroad.
Dangers of retro-fitted seat belts
Additionally, the belts fitted into pre-1993 coaches will, in almost every instance, be attached to fabricated anchorage points. It should be noted that older coaches which can look like new from the outside, are likely to have deteriorated in places you cannot see, in some cases, to such an extent that anchorages will be fitted to corrosive cross members under a half inch marine plywood floor.
There can be very real dangers for passengers using seat belts that are retro fitted to older, corroded vehicles. When it becomes necessary for an anchorage point to be fabricated, it cannot always be fitted in the accurate location to allow the belt when fitted to them to lie in the correct position on the passenger. During an impact incorrectly worn belts can cause serious injury to the wearer, sometimes permanent or life threatening. The other concern about retro-fitting belts into older vehicles is that the actual seat with the occupants belted into it, can be wrenched from the floor during a crash, with passenger and seat becoming a flying missile, even at a low speed impact.
What to expect from a reputable coach company
A reputable coach company will be able to provide an audit trail to the tour operator clearly detailing maintenance records of the fleet and provision of other information related to the drivers they employ such as their experience driving abroad, whether they have any training in first aid and if they have passed a criminal record check to ensure their suitability to work in close proximity with children or young people.
European Heritage Tours take the strain out of organising a visit abroad.
Drivers - will one do or should we be provided with two?
On some visits abroad a coach company will provide two drivers where they believe this might be necessary. This will depend on the nature of the visit, the driving hours that might apply in order to ensure that the Driver Hours Regulations are met. These Regulations are there to protect all road users so drivers do not become tired. There are stringent driver hour requirements and this information can be accessed by the school (or parent) from the Traffic Commissioner’s office (see your local directory).
What checks have been made on the drivers you use?
A criminal record check should not only apply to the driver/s engaged on the contract, but to the tour manager, whose responsibilities are many but include acting as a co-driver to ensure the driver sticks to his driving hours and other EU laws. An experienced and fully trained tour manager will understand the many safety issues that are essential to safeguard pupils and staff alike and have a general background knowledge of the rules that apply in different countries and will know about good places to stop to eat, were other amenities are such as toilets and will have a well used route outlined ready for the driver to use.
About tour managers
Tour managers work independently from the coach drivers; they are employed by the tour operator which is likely to add another £8 extra to the overall cost per pupil – a small price to pay for piece of mind. The tour manager will oversee all aspects of the visit, dealing with any problems that may arise and will have an emergency procedure in place. A good tour operator will have requested from the school and the coach company a copy of their own written procedures for dealing with any emergency during the trip so that the tour manager will have familiarised himself with this.
Meetings for parents/provision of information orally and in writing
Prior to visits, parents usually attend a meeting at the school to discuss the visit and raise questions. Tour companies should attend too and provide written details for each parent to take home for reference purposes including their company safety charter. This should detail basic measures taken by the company and just as importantly, their requirements from the school/parents. This means that the school will be asked to comply with all the tour operator’s safety policies. This should include a seat belt wearing policy and enforcement of it. It is vital for parents to support the enforcement of seat belt wearing, not only because it is now law in some EC Member States and a legal requirement in the UK for all passengers aged 14 years and over, but because safety belts save lives and reduce injury during a crash. Passengers who do not belt up can kill or seriously injure others occupants.
Questions should be raised if a tour operator does not have a safety charter. A ‘key questions’ guide that can be used by anyone during the meeting can be accessed by clicking here. This document is in PDF format and will open in a new window. The file is copyright free and you can save it to your own computer for use by your school. You can also download the sample in Microsoft Word format here. It really is down to parents to make sure the questions are asked and that adequate answers with written evidence are provided if you want your children to be safe.
Accommodation is another responsibility of the tour operator. It is worth finding out the appropriateness of the hotel to be used. Does it have an up to date fire certification and if so, has the school been provided with a written copy of it? If you are a parent, do not be afraid to ask for this. If you don't do this for your child, who will?
What distance has the driver driven before the pick up at the start of the journey?
Make sure the driver of the coach will arrive at the school in good time to take a legal break and no overnight travelling if possible. The distance the driver has had to drive before arriving at the school should also be taken into account.
Travelling through the night - not recommended by BUSK
It is never recommended that pupils are required to travel on board a coach during the night when there is temptation to unfasten safety belts to try and get comfortable so pupils can sleep. BUSK is aware of teachers who take sleeping bags with them so they can sleep on the floor of the coach - a great example to pupils! We realise that most teachers would never do this but we do have reports on a regular basis from coach drivers about these very issues. The only excuse ever, to travel during the night is where a flight or ferry connection makes it the only option to choose. If more parents understood the dangers to their children travelling through the night on a coach, they would not object to paying a little extra to ensure their child was provided with bed and breakfast, but more importantly, that the driver was provided with a bed too. Where two drivers are provided each should be given a separate room.
Prior arrangements with ferry companies
It is worth asking ferry companies if they are able to arrange for a designated area on board the ship at the time of booking, to ensure pupils stay together. Ferry companies view it as clearly the teacher’s responsibility to ensure pupils remain safe and behave in a sensible manner. To avoid other vehicles becoming blocked in when the ferry docks, it is essential that the party group together well ahead of arrival time, ready to board the coach and ready to drive off the ship.
Ferry companies are obliged to operate to many safety and security rules on board ships that are legislated for and various international regulations also apply. These must be adhered to at all times. The Captain of the ship will always have the final say over who is carried. Schools therefore should ensure their tour operator has made appropriate arrangements for a designated area on board a ship for pupils to stay together.
Insurance cover and breakdowns
European Directives for tourism demands insurance cover for tour operators such as ABTA so that in the event that a company goes bust, clients do not lose their money so it is worthwhile to check this out too. A responsible tour operator will only use a coach company that can provide written evidence that it has an emergency breakdown cover such as DKV or DAF Aid, prior to any booking going ahead so do ask questions about this. The last thing a parent wants to worry about is the possibility that their child becoming stranded in another country in a coach without the backup of a replacement coach that will meet the same high standard as the one they left the UK in. Parents too, should always get a written assurance that their children will not be transported in a different vehicle to the one hired by the tour operator unless it is in a breakdown situation. It is important to get the fullest information prior to the trip.
Safety on the road side
Breaking down and waiting for help to arrive can introduce its own hazards. Sitting on the side of a busy highway can leave passengers at risk. It is not always safe to evacuate the coach if pupils and staff do not have somewhere to wait that is away from traffic. In these circumstances, it is a well trained, professional tour manager that will take immediate action to limit the risks to all passengers.
All adults should have already been briefed prior to leaving the school and pupils should have received some safety training too and know that they must follow the directions given. The last four rows of seats at the back of the coach should be evacuated, moving passengers to the front rows where they will have to share seats until help arrives. This simple but crucial action can reduce risks from the real possibility of a large vehicle crashing into the back of the stationary coach. Luminous jackets for all adults should be carried on board so that when help does arrive, the adults can be easily seen by other motorists as a transfer of all passengers to another vehicle takes place.
Itinerary provided by the tour operator
The tour operator should always provide a fully comprehensive itinerary that will include absolutely everything. It is worth bearing in mind that this will have taken the tour operator six months to prepare (if done properly) and schools should comply with this as it will have taken account of all the legal requirements that the party must comply with.
What is alarming are the number of tour operators who do not spend six months preparing for an educational visit abroad; who only book a coach a few days before pupils are to be picked up which will not have given them time to find out about the coach company, its fleet and if they operate safely and within the law. These same companies do not provide when requested, details of any health and safety polices and frighteningly, there seems little that government agencies are doing to rectify this matter. Too many are still doing business with schools, which is why parents must start asking more questions which in turn, will mean schools have to research more before they book with a tour operator. Where coach brokers are used by a school or by a tour company it is important to make sure they are reputable. (See information about coach brokers on Simply Safe page)
Have you done everything to safeguard others in your care?
Safety is not optional when it comes to children or young people on visits abroad or even day trips in the UK. Safety has to be a standard requirement. Children trust adults and therefore all adults must do everything in their power, whether a teacher or parent, not to let them down.
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