It looks as if snow
is only for kids
from private schools
World Snow Day, Tyndrum
Photograph by Islay McLeod
While the Sunday papers were getting exercised by the latest angles on the independence debate – whether a Scottish defence force will cut the mustard or who owns the pandas – even the broadsheets largely missed that other important event of the week: World Snow Day.
I'm not inventing this. Honest. If you are not one of the more than 1,500 people worldwide who 'liked' the event on Facebook, you can catch up on the official website at www.world-snow-day.com where a satellite map shows red dots strategically placed over Scotland. The target is not Faslane but Scotland's ski areas. Many of the planned events were no doubt hampered by high winds but in Glenshee I saw children taking part in slalom races, tubing and sledging. There was even the offer of slope-testing a 'blood wagon' sledge, as driver or passenger. I was tempted but remembered my age.
Skiing, even in Scotland, is a minority sport. Not even Alex Salmond could give it mass appeal. 'It's Scotland's snow'. Perhaps not. The lack of broad appeal was confirmed when BBC2's 'Ski Sunday' programme ended abruptly in order to keep the network on schedule after the snooker over-ran.
What struck me was that the World Snow Day participants appeared to be largely families and parties of children from independent schools. My source of evidence for the latter was the minibuses displaying their school names. When I was introduced to skiing by teachers in the 1960s, the Glenshee car park was full of buses chartered mainly by local authority schools and ski clubs. These days, I imagine car ownership is greater among outdoor enthusiasts but another trend is evident. The irony is that in an age when children go to school dressed in brand-named outdoor gear undreamed of by Himalayan climbers of bygone years, there appear to be fewer opportunities to try outdoor activities organised by local authority schools. As a teacher in the late 1970s and 1980s, I could kit out an entire class by taking them to the outdoor equipment stores operated by the former Strathclyde region.
Visiting my sister in England last year, I was interested in the letter my nephew brought home from school advertising a ski holiday to the Alps. The programme showed only half-days spent skiing. I was keen to know what happened during the remaining daylight hours. The explanation was that in the mornings the children would go to classes run by commercial ski schools. The teachers accompanying the party would not be skiing with the children in the afternoons, but supervising them in their hotel or around the resort. The reason for what to me seemed like a missed opportunity for teachers to help their pupils practise the skills taught by instructors in the morning through free skiing, was driven by concerns about safety.
A couple of years ago, a residential child care worker told me that his manager required a written risk assessment form if a child wanted to
ride a bike.
Safety and competence in taking children on adventurous activities was a major concern for my generation of teachers, working in schools in the years following well-publicised tragedies like the 1971 Cairngorms disaster when seven children died in whiteout conditions. We took the trouble to get training and qualifications and followed the local authorities' rules on the ratio of instructor to pupils and writing a good proposal for trips to be authorised by an appropriate senior manager.
Some activities are so obviously hazardous that they are best left to professional instructors but it is difficult to understand why teachers today seem disinclined to supervise pupils in conditions where parents happily take their own children – for example on marked pistes in ski resorts. The explanation is no doubt complex. One barrier is the 'risk assessment' procedure which did not involve complex form-filling in my day. I am told there is no standard approach in Scotland, with the amount of bureaucracy varying considerably between councils.
If true, this is a pity because the model forms provided in the Scottish Government's guide, 'Health and Safety on Educational Excursions', appear moderate and sensible. Some of the difficulty no doubt lies in confusion about the degree to which teachers or social workers are free to exercise judgements about risk. A couple of years ago, a residential child care worker told me that his manager required a written risk assessment form if a child wanted to ride a bike.
Another barrier is the fear of litigation should something go wrong, for example, if a child is injured. Worry about accidents is an understandable reaction for professionals working in childcare and education, and the anxiety produced serves as an appropriate reminder to plan carefully and not take undue risks, but concerns have been greatly exaggerated by myths circulating about health and safety. Children's commissioner, Tam Baillie, launching the 'Go Outdoors!' guidance (2010), aimed principally at those working with 'looked after' children (children in care), said: 'A risk-averse and bureaucratic environment – which leads to "cotton wool" kids – breaches children's rights and undermines healthy development'.
The Curriculum for Excellence is promoting outdoor learning which I think is a good thing. I am just a little worried that some of the more adventurous activities are less accessible to the broad range of school pupils than they were in the relatively recent past. If there is a World Snow Day next year, I hope more schools will run buses to the ski centres, even if it means I have to spend longer queuing for the lifts.
Graham Connelly is a senior lecturer in the school of applied social sciences at the University of Strathclyde