04 March, 2022
A teacher and a teaching assistant from Gateshead Cheder school led 13 boys up the icy and snowy Helvellyn mountain in the Lake District in March 2020.
The school admitted 'mistakes were made' over the field trip, which resulted in one pupil falling on the 3,000-foot high mountain and sustaining cuts.
Newcastle Magistrates' Court heard that the group of year 10 pupils were on an organised trip to the third highest peak in England. Despite reviewing the Lake District Weatherline Report, which stressed the dangers to those ascending above the snow line, the school decided the trip should still go ahead as planned.
The adults had no training in mountain leadership or experience in wintery conditions and were relying on a smartphone app for guidance. During the ascent, at least two members of the public warned the teaching staff to turn back, but they carried on and reached the 3,117ft (950m) summit.
However, as they made their descent they lost their way and ended up on steep terrain which included vertical rock faces with drops of 20 metres, the hearing was told.
One of the boys fell several metres on ice and sustained minor cuts. Another teenager 'panicked' and ran off.
The group had to be rescued by Keswick Mountain Rescue Team who cut steps in the snow to get them back to the path.
An investigation by the Health and Safety Executive (HSE) revealed that despite the poor weather conditions, many of the school children did not have suitable equipment, a number of them were wearing school shoes and school trousers, and others were wearing trainers.
In winter conditions it is essential that hikers wear full winter clothing, including mountain boots, and that those venturing above the snowline carry appropriate equipment including ice axes and crampons, stressed the safety watchdog.
The Sunderland-based school admitted breaching sections 2(1) and 3(1) of the Health and Safety at Work Act for failing to ensure the safety of both employees and those not in its employment. As well as the £30,000 fine, it was ordered to pay costs of £4,574.
'On this occasion, none of the party came to serious harm, however, the school were aware of the weather and ground conditions, but decided to proceed without the appropriate planning, equipment, or suitably trained leaders,' said HSE inspector Stephen Garner after the hearing.
'Those taking part in the trek that day were placed in serious danger and there was a clear failing by the school to adopt sensible precautions to ensure their safety.
'Excursions into mountains, particularly in winter, need to be led by people with the appropriate skills, knowledge and experience. If a school does not have access to the necessary expertise in house, then licensed Adventure Activities providers are available to manage the technical aspects of this type of trekking activity.'
He added: 'This incident was entirely avoidable. The HSE recognises the benefits of outdoor learning activities, including those involving hiking or trekking in mountain environments, however schools need to take sensible and proportionate measures to control the risks involved. This trip should not have gone ahead without such measures in place.'
The Gateshead Cheder, which has 300 pupils, was classed as 'inadequate' by the school inspectorate Ofsted in December 2020.
School trips requires careful planning especially for high risk activities. This case highlights the importance of ensuring risk assessments are undertaken when organising activity trips. Where necessary, external expertise should be utilised where the supervising teachers do not have either the skills or knowledge for the planned activity. The HSE have provided guidance for school trips and how risks should be managed, www.hse.gov.uk/services/education/school-trips.htm which is worth a read for useful reminders.
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