Two days ago, six school children and a teacher were washed to their deaths in a flash flood on a NZ mountain stream (see stuff.co.nz and NZ Herald). A terrible accident and it brings back poignant memories of a similar accident in the Yorkshire Dales, UK when two schoolgirls were swept to their deaths. In both cases, the children were staying at an outdoor centre as part of a school trip.
One aim of such centres is to introduce kids to things in the outdoors that they might not normally have a chance to experience. There is a sense of adventure and fun – climbing, caving, abseiling, kayaking, gorge-walking etc. However, the more important goals are making the kids more self-confident as well as understanding the importance of the team, trust and camaraderie. These are life skills that can be applied anywhere. Working in the outdoors, in environments that are alien to most of the participants, forces kids to confront their fears, to rely on others and to help others in order to get through the day. While outdoor instructors will not normally take kids into places that are overly hostile, often the environments can be outwith their comfort zones. The sense of achievement that the kids have at the end of a day is palpable (without claiming that every kid will go away saying that they enjoyed it of course).
It is a shame therefore, that while parents and friends are grieving, before an investigation and inquiry have taken place, there are media pundits calling for such centres to be closed down. This knee-jerk reaction is perhaps understandable but is doomed to be of the “Act in haste, repent at leisure” variety. I cannot prejudge what any inquiry may come out with as I have only media reports to go on; an error of judgement may or may not have been made. What hasn’t been mentioned are the thousands of kids that have passed through such centres without a scrape and come out the better for it. The benefits are unlikely to be visible in an individual immediately at the end of a week; I think that a lot of that accrues when the child returns to their home environment and reflects on what they achieved. There can also be the change in the group dynamic when classmates realise that they have revealed and seen in others quite deep emotions during these experiences.
Calls for OE centres to be closed are short-sighted, selfish and ill-informed. I was in the UK when the Lyme Bay disaster happened. Two things came out of that event: regulation of outdoor activity providers and a climate of institutions becoming risk averse. My experience was in caving and many people came to caving through university clubs. Suddenly that influx of new blood dried up as university athletic associations refused to provide support for anything that was seen as being a ‘dangerous’ sport. Never mind that you were more likely to have a serious injury playing rugby or attending a football match in certain parts of the country. With regulation, all instructors had to have a ‘ticket’ for any activity that they might lead. This is positive in one way as parents can be assured that instructors have the correct pieces of paper. It also meant that to get work, new instructors had to get tickets in a variety of activities. People might be highly skilled at the main pursuits that they were involved in but still have to get other certificates to increase their chances of being employed. While they could get those tickets, say in caving, they didn’t have the depth of experience to apply sound judgement in every situation that they might come across, especially where gross variables such as weather play a part. Prior to regulation, that experience would be gained by mentoring from other instructors at a centre. Post regulation and with increasing financial constraints, someone with 3 months caving experience and a cave leaders certificate could be ‘trusted’ on their own since the certificate said that they were competent. They were in fact on an even keel with cavers with 10 or 20 years experience in terms of pieces of paper.
Post Lyme bay, there was an element of knee-jerkedness (?!) which provided some benefits but generally was negative in terms of the risk averseness and false sense of security in bits of paper that it engendered. After the Stainforth tragedy, there were similar calls and calls for the prosecution of the teachers leading that party at the time. Stainforth was different since the group in the stream were being led by teachers inexperienced in that environment (See HSE report on Glenridding incident and Marcus Bailie report on Stainforth inquest) but tasked with undertaking it. Fortunately the calls for summary justice were resisted in this case. Kids from Leeds and Bradford are still able to go up to the Dales and stretch themselves and pump some adrenaline round their bodies. We must hope that calls in NZ are similarly resisted. That is not support for a gung-ho attitude but a recognition that kids need to learn at the boundaries and be physical as well as mental. The centre involved is an Edmund Hillary centre, a man who is a Kiwi icon, and his first experience of the outdoors was going on a school skiing trip from Auckland. He reckoned that the most important thing that he did after that was not climbing Everest but helping others when they needed help. Let’s not stymie others from extending kids education offline, out the class and firmly rooted in First Life.