Below is a briefing from City of Edinburgh Council on its residential education plans in the coming year.
Residential visits are progressing; the Council is taking a proactive, incremental and proportionate approach aligned with its priorities of protecting Council staff, vulnerable individuals and essential services, including keeping schools open.
Step 1: camping expeditions promptly reintroduced in June. Offsite camping, including the Duke of Edinburgh’s Award expeditions, were permitted by Scottish Government in May and approved by CEC from June onwards. Permission was sought via the Council’s Service Resumption Group (SRG) process and a template risk assessment produced to minimise transmission risks. Health Protection Lothian was consulted regarding risk assessment, transport and general guidance. The financial risk was assessed to be minimal (low cost often self-led or delivered inhouse by the Sport and Outdoor Learning Team) and transmission risks could be managed initially through single occupancy of tents (in-line with Scottish Government policy). Several groups have restarted resulting in many Secondary pupils undertaking overnight camping excursions.
Step 2: reopening of Benmore and Lagganlia during the Autumn Term. I am sure you will be pleased to know that this has been very successful with over 1000 young people from Edinburgh undertaking an overnight visit. This has required an immense amount of planning. Decisions were made in May 2021 for the Autumn; we did not know what the Autumn SG advice would be nor the transmission rates. Budgets were updated, staff training undertaken and SRG approval gained in the Summer Term (all within a few days of SG approving residential visits).
Steps 1 and 2 are being used to understand the pandemic within a school residential context; developing resources through learning and partnership work with Health Protection Lothian. The Council has an enviable range of tools designed to assist schools (more info below).
Regarding Step 3, senior Council leaders will shortly be presented with a further SRG request linked to reopening specific UK visits to non-Council providers. This is a more complex step that has required the involvement and approval of colleagues from Insurance, Procurement, Legal and Finance.
I wish to take this opportunity to thank Lorna French, David Bruce and Lynn Paterson for their leadership and support. We are very fortunate to have leaders who listen to staff and commit to an approach. Their proactive attitude means we have been able to progress with residential visits.
This proportionate approach is making sure we have the capacity to learn, manage outbreaks and develop/trial resources so the next step (Step 3), which will involve a significant increase in visits, will be achieved safely and staff/families feel reassured that the Council and providers are fulfilling their responsibilities. This in turn will maximise attendance. If this is not undertaken robustly, there is a substantial risk that we experience several outbreaks, resulting in the temporary pause of all residentials so that appropriate mitigations are put in place to minimise risks. The Sport and Outdoor Learning Unit has been in contact with several providers to request their latest information and to offer an update meeting. A number have not yet replied.
The primary reasons for this stepped approach are twofold:
- Minimising transmission risks and managing outbreaks, and ensuring schools remain open to educate pupils. Residential visits are a higher pandemic educational activity risk due to the overnight component (national household guidance applies to higher risk contacts including dormitories). The Council has used the first two steps detailed above to liaise with Health Protection Lothian (HPL) to produce essential and rigorous tools to (a) minimise transmission risks and (b) to manage symptomatic persons whilst on the visit. This has included a checklist, template risk assessments (overnight and transport), process for monitoring Covid contexts before, during and after the visits and scenarios with appropriate actions. School residential visits within a pandemic context is relatively new and HPL value our work with them so they can develop their advice to us and other neighbouring local authorities (one of which is yet to restart residential visits). This has been essential work and we have seen at first hand when these resources have safeguarded people’s wellbeing. You will be reassured to know the Council has formed an enviable relationship with HPL, including weekly meetings dedicated to residential visits. As you know, we rely on the significant enthusiasm and agreement of staff to plan and attend residential visits. It is important that we put in place appropriate safeguards, so they feel reassured and are safe. Staff feedback regarding our resources and support has been extremely positive. Likewise, we also receive questions from families wanting reassurance about pandemic safety and arrangements e.g. repatriation. Our robust scenario planning and information sessions have been very well received and reassuring for families. This has all been created through a proportionate restart that has allowed us to learn and develop resources to deliver safe residential visits. We have had ‘Covid instances’ at the centres and these have been managed very well, ‘lessons learnt’ used to improve guidance/resources and the impact on school operations generally kept to a minimum.
- Minimising financial risks / protecting monies. From October 2020, the Council like other local authorities no longer has pandemic cancellation insurance that caters for school residentials (prior to travel). This significant national barrier was highlighted early to Scottish Government. External providers have developed a range of ‘Covid guarantees’ in a variety of formats e.g. verbal assurances, email ‘pledges’ through to some modification and presentation of terms and conditions. These vary significantly in quality and detail, for example, some only seem to provide cover for the scenario of ‘Scottish Government not permitting school residentials’. In reality, there are a range of Covid scenarios that need consideration, examples include but not limited to postponement/cancellation/significant alteration due to (i) local outbreak management (local outbreak requires a single residential to be cancelled based on advice from HPL/Council); (ii) insufficient staff due to isolation, illness or redeployment elsewhere in the school to keep it open; and (iii) individuals identified as close contacts. Visits to Benmore and Lagganlia include comprehensive pandemic cancellation guarantees based on our learning from the pandemic in a residential context. Schools have received questions from parents/carers about how their contributions are protected and so our significant work in this area dating back to May 2021 is providing excellent standards of reassurance for our parents.
The forthcoming Step 3 SRG request includes a recommendation to create a central checking process managed by Council officers who have the capacity and expertise to scrutinise external providers’ terms and conditions, and pandemic arrangements. This allows School staff to focus on teaching and learning, and pupils’ wellbeing. I am sure Councillors, school staff and families welcome this approach. The proposed aim is to create a central approved list that schools can choose from. This would deliver consistency and capacity across the Council.
External providers are highly valued and form part of delivering sufficient capacity to support school residentials, particularly in the Secondary phase. Subject to clearance via the SRG process, we expect this process of approval to start in January 2022 with some trials before this. It is acknowledged there is always a lag between booking and delivery due to the planning required. Any future visits are always subject to the latest guidance, a risk assessment of transmission rates and local pandemic contexts.
You will be pleased and reassured to know that Council Officers have been invited to co-lead national working groups to look at national solutions and develop resources for use across Scotland; based on a number of those created by our Council. These resources should be ready for Step 3.
Regarding other local authorities, the picture varies across Scotland. Some local authorities have decided not to permit any school residential visits whilst they devise and implement processes (mainly due to pandemic transmission and financial concerns). Other local authorities are permitting residential visits, often with specific conditions and requiring the Head Teacher to check and evaluate provider terms and conditions and infection control measures. Several schools are reluctant therefore to procced due to concerns about financial risks and how to deal with outbreaks. This information comes to us via our membership of SAPOE (Scottish Advisory Panel for Outdoor Education) and is reliant on LAs submitting data returns. Regarding private schools, some have decided not to run residential visits to centres this academic year but reintroduce them in 2022/23. Conversely, others have decided to proceed.
Bonaly Scout Centre
We are currently developing an offer for schools delivered by the Sport and Outdoor Learning Unit at Bonaly. Bonaly no longer has its own instructors. This includes a pilot ‘targeted transition day’ programme; shorter residentials for younger children; potentially some secondary school days and meeting any urgent needs to ensure all P7s are offered a residential experience this year (small number of schools).
As you know, schools and wider Council services are working hard to deliver outcomes in different ways throughout this pandemic and more recently via an increasing transmission rate. This includes day visits to achieve specific outcomes. Schools are being kept up to date via the Council’s Coronavirus Excursions Toolbox which allows us to interpret national general schools and specific offsite visits guidance into ‘local’ advice and practice.
I hope you consider this to be a useful and full explanation and can see how tirelessly and proactively schools and the Sport and Outdoor Learning staff are working within a very dynamic context to support all pupils. Our stepped approach means we are developing nationally recognised resources to support safe visits and the ability to check providers to ensure they have suitable and sufficient measures in place. This means that Edinburgh schools can focus on day to day operations, rather than be worried about checking terms and conditions etc.
We share the disappointment of any pupil missing a residential visit and thank school staff in trying to present flexible solutions within this ever-changing context. The work continues.