For example, with canoeing, you currently need one instructor for every six boats. For kayaking, you also need one instructor for every six boats. The difference being the one instructor for six in canoeing lets you take twelve students, while the one instructor for kayaking lets you take six students. These are very, very rigid ratios. Unlike a former boss of mine who said ‘Oh no! They’re just rough guidelines,’ you should never take them to be rough guidelines because if something goes wrong and you end up in court, you’re going to have to justify why you decided to go against industry standards.

When an industry body sets down guidelines for you to use for the safe operation of activities, you should always use them as a baseline. If you do this, you’re not going to get caught out in a legal sense if you’re operating with a group and something goes wrong.

However, if it were as simple as reading standard ratios from a chart for each activity, then how could you possibly go wrong with this? It all makes sense and is ok from a legal point of view! Or is it?

One mistake that’s often made is underestimating the impact that an individual’s behaviour will have on the group. In your staff to student ratio assessment, you must consider who the participants are. Time and time again I’ve seen situations where schools or organisations are happy to go with the set baseline ratios, possibly to save on costs.  However, they don’t consider the actual individuals who make up the group.

Behaviour, especially student behaviour, or more accurately poor student behaviour, adds a significant risk factor that’s often totally underestimated. The reality is that the majority of dangerous situations you can find yourself in when running experiential education programs, is due to poor student behaviour. When this is combined with another risk factor, such as poor environmental conditions, or failing equipment, you have a recipe for disaster on your hands. Consequently, failing to properly assess the impact of student behaviour on your staff to student ratios can set a group up for failure before you even begin.

Some groups I’ve had in the past have included some challenging students. Most of the time, you’re able to manage this quite easily. However, when you have an activity such as abseiling in which you have so many pieces of equipment to setup and things to actively monitor, you need to be laser-focused on one student at a time. You don’t have the leeway to be monitoring other students as you run the activity. Therefore, you have to consider different supervision ratios and regimes when you’re doing specific activities like this.

For a canoe expedition I once ran, on paper the staff to student ratios were fine. We had the right number of instructors, the right number of boats and in fact, our ratios were well within the standard operating guidelines. However, the behaviour of the group of students was so poor that it massively impacted on the entire risk profile of the activity. Forget the weather, forget broken equipment, forget poor judgment. The biggest risk was the students we had with us.

When this was brought to the organisation’s attention, it was dismissed and I was told we had enough staff. However, the practical reality was that due to behavioural issues, we didn’t! We therefore needed another one or two instructors with us to safely run the trip. Despite outlining a ‘hypothetical’ situation of what could happen with the then director, prior to the trip leaving, we were told to deal with it and we’d be fine.

We departed on the expedition as instructed and within fifteen minutes of leaving, it all started to go pear-shaped very quickly. What the other instructor and I  had predicted, was happening before our eyes. The student behaviour was horrendous. More akin to a youth at risk program, than anything else. We needed at least another two instructors to safely manage the risk and help manage the behaviour of the group.

What was the point of taking them out all? The organisation didn’t understand the risk they had put everyone in by not providing sufficient staff to student ratios. At twenty minutes in, we pulled the pin on the trip and returned to where we’d started. The group wasn’t going to learn anything and were on the verge of causing a major incident to themselves or those around them. Consequently, they were treated as if they were a youth at risk group, for which we weren’t sufficiently resourced to manage with only two staff. Therefore, despite everything on paper saying we had the right number of staff, the reality was, we were on the verge of a major incident only averted because we pulled the pin on it.

Sometimes groups will press on regardless of these sorts of behaviours with the misguided belief that their students may learn something along the way. However, it’s rare for students such as this to have amazing epiphanies and turn things around. Therefore, you’re only increasing the chance that something’s going to go horribly wrong, if you continue without the right staff to student ratios.

When you’re doing your assessment of risks, avoid this mistake. It’s not always just a simple matter of reading a number from a chart. Even if it’s exactly the same activity, exactly the same location and you’re using exactly the same equipment, the biggest variable factor will always be the behaviour of the participants.

If you are aware that poor behaviour from a specific group could be a factor and you still want to take them out, then make sure you have enough staff allocated to effectively manage this additional risk factor.

I’m not saying don’t give kids the opportunity for a fresh start, because that’s an extremely important part of experiential education. However, you must be realistic about the impact it might have on your activities. If you’re aware of poor behaviour and the potential that this behaviour will negatively impact on the program, then you need to ensure that you have a higher staff to student ratio than what would be considered a baseline. By doing so you’ll be able to effectively manage any behavioural or other concerns arising, deal with the situation and continue without further disruption. This ensures you’re always running safe and engaging programs in which staff and students are not placed at risk of harm due to insufficient supervision and support.