Schools and risks

Risk assessment anxiety and what to do about it

Do you suffer from risk assessment anxiety? According to David Gregory, you are not alone but  you can master your fears!

Procrastination and frustration

Do you remember the first time you were asked to write a risk assessment? How did that make you feel? Were you excited and brimming with confidence? Or did you have more of an ambivalent feeling, put it on to the ‘I’ll get to that later pile,’ the one which you have to dust off and remove the sleepy dog before you get to it and then procrastinate for a couple of weeks?

Like a visit to the dentist, writing a risk assessment is something people generally wish to avoid. Why? As teachers, we all agree that student safety is critically important, but having worked in different schools, I’ve seen time and time again teachers feeling frustrated with the planning and development of risk assessments to support their plans for excursions, activities and tours. They know it’s important – but something of a necessary evil.

Setting up RAs well

Risk assessment is something I have learned to do over the years. I’ve also come to appreciate the real befits of setting them up well. From short visits to museums to running the largest residential snow sports program in Australia (yes surprisingly enough Australia does in fact have snow and a few ski resorts), no matter what the activity has been, the success of most programmes comes down to good planning and good risk management.

Further – if we understand risk and managing it well, we can also run a much wider range of activities for our students.

Learning how

However, the fact remains that most teachers find this frustrating and this frustration doesn’t lead to confidence in their planning. Why is this? The fact is that more often than not, risk management is not part of any teacher training and if it is, it generally doesn’t cover the specific context and environments in which teachers are working when running excursions.

This results in an uncomfortable and uncertain feeling where there’s this vague notion that you have to assess risks and keep students safe. But – where do you start and what exactly are you managing? If we don’t clearly understand what we’re expected to do and how to do it, it doesn’t matter what it is, from playing tennis to composing music, we naturally find the experience frustrating. We need to learn how.

Chunk up the training

How do you turn this sense of frustration and procrastination into a mindset of pro-active risk management that’s effective in minimising risks and keeping students safe?

Firstly, and unlikely as it seems, make learning about risk entertaining as well as understandable to get the buy-in of staff. I was once at a conference and had to speak about risk management in between the guy who was putting everyone to sleep talking about insurance and the pre-dinner drinks. I’m always up for a challenge, so we came up with something that had everyone on their feet and engaging with each other, a sort of funny icebreaker using a bingo machine, but when we called out the numbers, the person with it had to answer a quick risk management question from the bucket. This was either going to go really well or end in tears. At least if people started to fall asleep or cry uncontrollably, the pre-dinner drinks were in the next room!

Specific training for specific activities

Thankfully, I found that combining a unique approach to risk management while making it relevant and accessible to everyone at the conference was a huge success. During the pandemic, this led to the creation of a series of online risk management training courses for teachers which were specific to school excursions and activities. We based the courses upon industry best practices and used examples from our years of experience in planning and running countless school programs.

We broke everything down into bite-sized chunks so that we could take teachers through what we’ve learnt over the years in just a few hours. If you know where to start and can write risk assessments for any sort of excursion, for running Duke of Ed programmes, setting up complex international tours, you’ll do a better job. This means focusing specifically on the how and why of risk management so that the assessment of risk and its management becomes a way of thinking, regardless of what sort of programme or trip is being run.

Building an institutional RM mindset

Good risk management decisions happen weeks, months and even years in advance. Through building confidence and understanding of good risk management principles, practices and creating a culture of risk management, you can ensure that no matter how ambitious you want to be for your students, you can be confident that you and all the teachers with whom you’re working, know exactly what they need to do when it comes to planning for and managing school excursion risks. This not only helps to protect you as school leaders and teachers, but it also makes it easier to run great educational programs with your students each and every time.

This risk management mindset does take time, training and practice to develop, but making it easy and accessible is vital. Many strange, unpredictable and random things can and do happen on excursions regardless of how carefully you plan. When I think back to the various programs I’ve run over the years, lots of extraordinary and odd things happened that were completely out of our control (getting locked down with a group of Year 9 students in Parliament House for several hours was a first for me!)

Enabling and empowering

Having a sound understanding of risk management enables us not only to manage foreseeable risks with confidence, but also enables and empowers people with good decision-making skills so they can think on the spot. You learn to deal with any sort of random dynamic risks along the way and help keep everyone safe, so that your excursions, camps, tours and activities are memorable for all the right reasons.


David Gregory is the founder of Xcursion Risk Services, an experienced outdoor education teacher and the host of the  Xperiential Podcast




Feature Image by: geralt on Pixabay

Support Images kindly provided by Xcursion Risk Services

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