Academic journal article Journal of Outdoor and Environmental Education

Communicating Risk with Parents: Exploring the Methods and Beliefs of Outdoor Education Co-Ordinators in Victoria, Australia

Academic journal article Journal of Outdoor and Environmental Education

Communicating Risk with Parents: Exploring the Methods and Beliefs of Outdoor Education Co-Ordinators in Victoria, Australia

Article excerpt


The aim of this paper is to explore the risk communication strategies currently being employed in a number of Victorian Government schools to enable parents to make an 'informed' decision regarding their child's participation in a school outdoor education program. This paper also investigates the beliefs and assumptions regarding risk communication held by the outdoor education co-ordinators in those schools. Within the specific context of current theoretical thinking in risk communication, the potential implications of these chosen strategies will be discussed.

Lessons learned

It is apparent in coronial reports, recommendations and litigation following several fatal outdoor education incidents both in Australia and other countries, that communication between schools and parents could be improved. Several of these incident investigations suggest that parents were not appropriately informed of the risks involved, or were given insufficient information on which to base their consent (Ajango, 2005, Holden, 2002). Holden (2002) refers to the importance of this consent, stating that it must be truly 'informed' and therefore: "While evidence of consent is evidence of reasonable care, it is only relevant if the consent is informed consent, based on a full appreciation of the risks involved in the activity" (p. 2).

The issue of informed consent was highlighted in the Cathedral Ranges incident, a landmark for outdoor education in Australia. This incident occurred when a student badly sprained her ankle and while the staff were attending to her, another student from the group fell nearby and sustained fatal injuries. The student who suffered the ankle injury successfully sued for emotional trauma at having to witness her classmate die. Amongst other findings, Judge Lazarus found that "the information provided to parents did not advise them of the rugged and hazardous conditions" (cited in Stewart, 2000, p. 346).

All outdoor education programs, like the one mentioned above, are required to have a designated 'teacher in charge' of the program (Department of Education and Early Childhood Development, DEECD, 2007). School principals generally employ an outdoor education teacher or coordinator for this role. This person is tasked with assembling the program, which includes the risk communication information to enable parents to make an informed decision. It may be the case that, in the absence of clear guidelines and support material, the risk communication strategies may vary widely from school to school, and specifically from coordinator to coordinator. This research therefore focused on the school outdoor education coordinator and the risk communication that they were conducting with parents.

This paper attempts to understand the current risk communication strategies employed by government school outdoor education co-ordinators to satisfy the Department's requirements that: "Parents/guardians asked to sign consent forms must be given sufficient information about the nature of the proposed activity and the risks involved, and the degree of supervision, to enable them to make an informed decision" (DEECD, 2006, Parental Guardian Approval and Information, para.

Prior to sharing the findings of my study, I will review the relevant literature exploring the theoretical perspectives of risk communication.

Review of relevant literature

Since its emergence approximately thirty years ago (World Heath Organisation, 2002) risk communication has now firmly established itself as a discipline in its own right. Since it became apparent that the messages being delivered by the risk experts were not being received by the public as initially intended, risk communication has grown to become an important aspect in the overall management of risk within both public and private institutions (Fischhoff, 1995).

As defined by the Society for Risk Analysis, risk communication is a process that involves the exchange of views and information between people, larger groups and organizations. …

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