International educational tours are back: but are you really prepared to manage the risk?

International educational tours are back on the agenda for Australia’s secondary schools, and with good reason.

Educational trips and tours are a fantastic way to build immersive real-world experiences into any school program: whether languages, sports, history, technology, or cultural experiences, the possibilities are endless.

However, there are some practical realities of running international educational touring programs. This includes several potential risks to which you may be exposing your staff, students and the school. There were four preventable student fatalities on school travel programs in 2019 and countless incidents that have exposed schools to adverse media attention and legal action.

International touring requires staff to provide 24/7 care, which blurs the lines between personal risk and institutional risk. However, in our experience with international educational 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.

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, which also has different cultures, laws, and standards from our own.

This can result in a significant risk gap and potential exposure to massive liabilities, which are difficult to defend.

Where and how have incidents occurred?

If we look at the four student fatalities which occurred tragically on international school programs in 2019, they were not in remote, high-altitude, high-risk locations on extreme expeditions. Rather, they were on programs which 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 a history tour, the other a language tour) were eerily similar. Both had an infection that could have been treated easily by a doctor, according to the coroners. However, delays in decisions, poor communication with parents and not knowing the students as well as they should have, all combined to delay definitive medical care.

What is the true cost of a student death on an international tour?

Aside from the obvious legal ramifications for the school, in terms of the practical realities of the fall out from something like this, you have a family and friends who are shattered for the rest of their lives. You’re most likely going to lose staff as ongoing mental health issues such as PTSD is highly likely. One staff member attached to one of the 2019 tours has since died of a heart attack, and the family claims this 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 for years to come. The family will, most likely, take legal action, which will take years and cost millions of dollars. The board will want to see action taken and could remove the head of the programs, or even seek to dismiss the principal. Insurance will go through the roof.

If this sounds like a nightmare, then there’s the police and WorkSafe investigations – and the potential for harsh financial and legal penalties. For example, the maximum penalty for a workplace fatality where negligence is proven can be up to 25 years imprisonment for an individual and a $16.5 million fine for the organisation.

If you are a school principal, executive or board member, you also need to be aware that 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.

What do school leaders need to consider?

It all comes back to the simple question: what training, skills and experience do your staff really have to be operating in a highly complex and dynamic environment in which they have minimal control over many risks?

Cancelling international travel isn’t a realistic option, as it 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 ok (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
  • Careful planning and vetting of each program by teams who understand the risks involved for each location – including accommodation, healthcare and transport
  • Staff who are well-trained and equipped to respond quickly and effectively to dynamic situations which arise along the way.

In short, schools can’t meet these requirements alone. You need the right external partners to manage the complexities. This will allow you to 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.

How can we help

Latitude Group Travel is Australia’s leading provider of custom designed, curriculum linked, educational, experiential learning tours for late primary and secondary school students. We have partnered with Xcursion Risk Management to offer schools a far reaching, highly valuable audit, training  and consultation service.

Together, we offer a strategic tour program consulting service that provides a clear pathway forward for the school’s executive team to lead their tour program with confidence. In addition, the service deliverables act to differentiate your school from others through the quality of the tours and best practice risk management protocols.

To find out more:

Tour Brochures – Request a copy of our Strategic Planning & Review / Risk Management Audit brochure by filling out the form – we’ll send it to you via email
Get in touch to find out how to claim the discount for your school.

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