by David Gregory
International school trips are a fantastic way to build immersive real-world experiences into any school program. In fact, the more experiential we can make our classrooms and approaches to learning the better. Be it languages, sports, history, technology, or cultural experiences, taking groups overseas on tours is now an important fabric of many schools.
However, before we grab our passports and start planning the duty-free shopping, let’s take a step back and review some practical realities and potential downside risks of running international school programs and the potential dangers to which they expose staff, students, and the school. With four preventable student fatalities on school travel programs in 2019 and countless incidents that have exposed schools to adverse media attention and legal action, it’s critically important to ensure all staff have the right training, skills and experience for international travel which is far riskier and can have far greater consequence than any other program your school will ever run.
As we know, the world has changed significantly in the last few years, and whilst we might be back to ‘business as usual’ in Australia, there are many countries with much lower vaccination rates and healthcare systems that remain under significant pressure. So we might be good to go, but what are we going to do, and can we get access to suitable medical care for our staff and students if needed?
Despite this added complexity, this is not the focus for us, nor in our opinion is it the greatest risk facing schools for their international travels. It does still add to the considerations we must make, but let’s take a look at a far greater concern for travel safety which is much closer to home and that is the inherently risky nature of these programs, the 24/7 care that staff must provide and the blurred lines and disconnect between personal risk and institutional risk which surfaces so often on international tours.
I started over two decades ago in outdoor education and during this time ran a boarding school, spent over 1000 nights in a tent, treated countless minor injuries and illnesses, reviewed many thousands of student medicals, and headed overseas on international programs. In outdoor education, we always had that risk management focus for every program we ran. We carefully assessed the risks as a team, briefed our staff and students and continued to build a culture of safety for everything we did week in and week out. Our training, qualifications, and experience in both high-level first aid and outdoor skills were extremely important. The level of scrutiny that was applied to us and our programs from the school admin was always high, and we were transparent in our approach to what we were doing. If something didn’t go to plan, we reported it and reviewed it. With all this in place. invariably we were operating in line with or exceeding industry standards and very rarely did we have to deal with a significant issue.
However, in my experience with international school tours, most of the time schools are not running these programs with highly trained, skilled and experienced staff who plan for and proactively manage a range of complex risks daily. They’re mostly being run by classroom teachers who have an excellent academic skillset in the classroom and good intentions. However, often good intentions don’t translate into good safety practices when staff are responsible for students 24/7 in an unstructured environment, that has different cultures, laws, and standards from our own. Therefore, this strong classroom skill set is not what’s needed for the practical and often complex realities of taking students overseas and can result in a significant risk gap and potential exposure to massive liabilities that are difficult to defend.
If we look at the four student fatalities that tragically occurred on international school programs in 2019, they were not in remote, high-altitude, high-risk locations on extreme expeditions. Rather, they were on programs that many would consider ‘low-risk’. Two of these students died on language programs in Europe. One student died on a cultural program in Vietnam and one student died on a history tour of the USA surrounded by some of the best medical facilities in the world that were readily available, literally minutes away at any point in time! When looking at these incidents from this point of view, it adds even more to the frustration as to why and how these student deaths occurred.
The deaths of two of these students in different locations (one on a history tour, the other on a language tour) were eerily similar in that both of them had an infection which according to the coroners could have been easily treated by a doctor. However, according to the findings in each case, delays in decisions, poor communications with parents and not knowing the students as well as they should have, all combined to delay definitive medical care.
Reading any coronial inquest is heart-wrenching but reading ones where you can see obvious red flag after red flag appearing is inexplicable. According to the coroner in one case, literally nothing was done by the teachers on the program until the girl collapsed from septic shock and went into cardiac arrest. Minutes later an ambulance was at the hotel, but by this point in time it was too late to save her… Unfortunately, what’s an obvious and foreseeable risk to trained eyes can be completely missed by untrained eyes.
What’s the true cost of an international trip which ends like this? If you’d like a legal opinion, get out your chequebook and ask your lawyer as we’re experienced risk managers and not lawyers. However, in terms of the practical realities of the fallout from something like this, you have a family and friends who are shattered for the rest of their lives. No more birthdays, no more Christmases. These will just be haunting memories of what was and what should have been. You’re most likely going to lose staff as ongoing mental health issues such as PTSD are highly likely. One staff member from a Victorian School who was on a language program to Europe in 2019 has since died of a heart attack which the family claims was related to the persistent stress caused by the student’s death. The lack of trust from the parent community will seep into every other program. The family will most likely sue, which will take years and the cost of which will be astronomical, running into the millions. The board will want to see action taken and could remove the head of the programs or even seek to dismiss the principal and insurance will go through the roof.
If this sounds like a nightmare, then there are the police and WorkSafe investigations. The harsh penalties that could be brought by the various state-based Work Safe organisations add significant weight to the seriousness of a preventable death. The industrial manslaughter laws and penalties were beefed up in 2020 in Victoria and other states continue to head in the same direction, with South Australia announcing changes to their laws in July this year which criminalise offences for work-related fatalities. The maximum penalty for a workplace fatality where negligence is proven can be up to twenty-five years gaol for an individual and a $16.5million fine for the organisation. These sorts of criminal charges are generally aimed at members of the organisation’s leadership, not the person on the ground making the day-to-day decisions.
Again, we come back to what training, skills and experience your staff have to be operating in a highly complex and dynamic environment in which they have minimal control over many risks.
The simple solution would be to cancel everything, which would be ridiculous as international travel is a vitally import part of education. A more rational solution is to review how your programs are set up, how your staff and students are recruited and vetted, as well as what training, support, systems and processes are needed to safely run these programs.
It’s no longer okay (if it ever were) to have classroom teachers with a great idea for travel that ‘the students will love’ (which possibly came about from their desire to travel themselves and have someone else pay for it). Instead, there needs to be clear educational goals for every international program that’s being run. Each program needs to be carefully vetted and planned for by teams who understand the risks involved for each location to which they’re travelling. Have recced these locations to understand the nature of accommodation, healthcare and transport as well as the local environment and are well-trained and equipped to respond quickly and effectively to dynamic situations that arise along the way.
Managing risk with students in a dynamic environment is a specific skill set and a culture that must be developed and supported over time through effective planning, ongoing training, transparent reporting, review processes and regular stress testing. Good risk management decisions happen, weeks, months, and years in advance and through building a culture of risk management, you can be confident that your international programs are being well run and if something does happen, your staff can respond quickly and effectively to the situation at hand.
If you would like advice on any forthcoming international trip you’re currently planning you can contact David Gregory at
David Gregory is the CEO at Xcursion Safety, for more information, visit www.xcursionsafety.com