Enhance safety, not assign blame

It is rather puzzling to read the many responses on social media and in the papers calling for a review of tough, character-building overseas trips.

The arguments offered are manifold.

Some claim it unnecessary to fly long distances to relatively far-flung regions, or even leave Singapore to build character, or that primary school pupils are not safety-conscious enough and, thus, too young for such trips.

Others say school teachers are themselves not specially trained to operate in challenging locales, and expedition planners can never fully assess nor manage the many hazards that may strike.

These arguments, though, ignore the fact that the tragic events on Mount Kinabalu in Sabah, Malaysia, are the result of a natural disaster - quite rare for the region and totally unpredictable - rather than human error.

It was not a case of a lack of preparedness by the school, the teachers on-site not having the right mountaineering experience or showing a disregard for safety, or a lack of maturity or tenacity on the part of the pupils.

In fact, all the teachers, guides and pupils themselves performed heroically.

What happened was of a comparable degree of risk to that many Singaporean families face when they travel abroad on their annual holidays.

If any parent is unwilling to accept that level of risk, it is entirely within their right to refuse consent for their children's participation.

So, is there a need for these kinds of trips? Should parents and schools put children in situations where there is even a slight potential of bodily harm?

As a parent of young children myself, I say "yes".

The effort that schools commit towards stretching our students mentally and physically, and providing exposure to diverse experiences, with the view towards expanding students' world view and strengthening their character, is one of the most important goals of education.

Let us not cheapen the important work done by the teachers at Tanjong Katong Primary School, and in many other schools, by assigning blame to the blameless.

By all means, redouble efforts to enhance safety and risk assessment protocols, but we should not deprive other young children of such transformative learning opportunities in a knee-jerk reaction.

Steffen Toh Hai Chew Britain


This article was first published on June 10, 2015.
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