For David Gregory, effective outdoor education risk management depends on the collective skillset at a school’s disposal.
What skills do your team lack?
How often should schools review the outdoor programs they’re running from a safety perspective? When it comes to experiential or outdoor education programs, there are often key activities which need specific training and/or experience so they’re able to be run effectively, efficiently and safely. However, when one team member moves on, standards change or complacency creeps in, this can become a significant risk to a school. The effects of staff turnover in international schools can pose a particular risk.
Having a system in place for constantly assessing and reviewing where the gaps have started to open up has always been important and has never been more so. To be clear, micromanagement of staff is definitely not needed here and can be massively counterproductive. However, the opposite is also true. If you have staff whose skills are never developed, reviewed or improved, this can lead to complacency, poor work and an ‘expert’ blind spot situation where everything will be ok, because it always has been. For any organisation, including schools, there needs to be a happy and effective medium for this. With no reviews or identification of key skills and experience, or the blind expectation that everyone has the same level of skill because you set a qualification as a minimum standard for employment, then you could be deluding yourself into a false sense of security and setting yourself up for problems down the track.
One place where I worked as an Outdoor Education instructor, all field staff were trained to a minimum standard of ‘Cert IV’ in outdoor recreation. However, the skills and abilities of each member of staff varied enormously. Their ability to engage students in the group, their ability to setup ropes courses, expeditions and debrief activities all differed massively. Yet they all had the same qualification. The potential risk in this situation is that you can’t simply allocate staff to activities without understanding their strengths and weaknesses in specific areas. However, the positive of this is that you need people with divergent and complementary skills to make it a fun and dynamic working environment.
Knowing your team
Despite having gaps in training and skills, the team dynamics in that same organisation were really positive. Tasks and role allocations were made by team leaders with a real knowledge of what were in effect a great set of complementary skills. For example, I can’t reverse trailers. I try, but it never ends well. So, one of my colleagues always reversed the trailer. Conversely, some of the team were squeamish with ticks, blood and open wounds, which I wasn’t, so I ended up removing all the ticks and patching up all the gaping open wounds.
Even in a good team there are gaps
At the end of the day, we worked well together. However, there were still gaps in some skills and knowledge which caused a number of breakdowns in communications and challenges along the way. It’s therefore critical, even if things are running reasonably well, to review the skills needed to run the programs for which we are responsible, as part of our ongoing risk management. So often people think of risk management as simply the documentation you’re creating. However, it’s far more than that:‘Cert IV’ in outdoor recreation to the way in which risk management is developed and implemented.
There has to be a culture of healthy and reasonable questioning. What are the strengths of your team? Where are the gaps in their collective skillset and what training to they need to help close these gaps? Often general risk management training is overlooked in favour of activity specific training. However, although activity specific training, can develop a great set of skills, is often the broader aspects of risk management that are missed when we focus on one specific area. Hence, it’s important to keep this in mind when reviewing the training needs of your team.
Plugging the gaps
Once you’ve been able to identify the gaps, then it’s important to provide opportunities for training, or on the job experience to help the team members to improve their skills in this area. This can make a huge difference to the safety and coherence of the organisation and the team dynamics. External training is also critical to ensure that the right skills are being developed and being done in a way that’s also objective. Internal processes and procedures are necessarily being challenged and tested to help ensure industry standards are up to date and being met, and there are often hard questions that need to be asked – and answered.
If you haven’t reviewed where you’re at for a while, then the start of a new school year may be a good time to do so. Identify your skills’ gaps and ensure you get your team trained in each of those areas of need to ensure you’re running safe, awesome outdoor programs for your students. After lockdown restrictions are eased, everyone will be raring to get outside, and knowing that training gaps have been addressed, and risks – both new and old – have been properly assessed, school leaders will be able to rest just that little bit easier.
David is an experienced outdoor education teacher from Australia who’s worked on various domestic and international programs for over 16 years. David has planned and led outdoor education programs for students from primary age, through senior school. David trains staff – Online or Oncampus – in the skills of Risk Management.
For more about on line risk management when taking kids on trips see the video: