Patsy Calton, MP: Parliamentary Sponsor Patsy Calton welcomed participants and introduced the evening's theme by describing society's increasing risk aversion and the increase in litigation as very worrying developments.
Libby Purves, OBE, broadcaster and columnist, in the Chair: Libby Purves explained what the Campaign for Adventure has achieved and emphasised its breadth – the fact that it is concerned with achieving a balance between risk and enterprise in society generally – across all spheres of life. She suggested that more balanced attitudes were becoming apparent with, for example, an awareness that absolute safety cannot be achieved and with healthy mocking of precautions that have gone too far – such as the banning of conkers.
Frank Furedi, Professor of Sociology at the University of Kent at Canterbury: Frank Furedi explained that he feels very angry about the sanitisation of his child's experience in an urban adventure centre where there are a cluster of adults making sure the children are "safe". He noted that society's developing attitudes to risk have been imported from the US and regretted that observation of the state of affairs in the US suggests we may still be at the beginning of the process. He made three key points: " Children's relationship with risk should not be a passive one – a risk should not be felt to be "hanging over" them. Instead, children should learn to interact with risk and manage it. " There is a trend towards a new definition of safety in society – increasingly the concept of an accident is resisted. He illustrated the absurdity of this by proposing a way of eliminating bicycle accidents – simply ban bikes. Clearly we must not deprive young people of experience – we must still leave them scope to work things out for themselves. " Whenever a serious accident happens, there is a tendency to press the button of regulation. Society should resist this. We need to encourage young people's childlike sense of adventure – finding novelty in everything they do. We must respect and applaud this sense. It's about cultivating an ethos of risk taking with responsibility – we must trust children and believe in their capacity to handle life.
Discussion: Frank was asked by Huw Irranca-Davies MP how to change that ethos when risk avoidance is so central. He replied with a very simple suggestion – ban litigation in the public sector.
Jane Buckley, CEO of Changemakers and past Chair of NCVYS, was joined by Ataf Sabir, a young entrepreneur who has been supported by Changemakers: Jane suggested that, in a world of rapid change, a knee jerk reaction and a tendency to over protect were all too common. She thought the key question is how to help young people to develop the internal strength to deal with risk. How do we get this into education? By allowing young people to experience unpredictable outcomes. The key challenges are not physical but social – for example, to help to resolve young people's sense of disempowerment from political processes. In Changemakers, young people analyse their own dreams and dreams for their own community, within a programme in which trust and support are central. Ataf is a 17 year old who coped magnificently with the pressure of having far less time than he needed, with a powerful and humourous presentation about the project that he and fellow young people are running in his local community. The project is designed to serve the community by, for example, marriage support, health education and help with problems. This involves a big financial risk and the finance is wholly raised by the young people to fund their own entrepreneurial ideas. He said that the biggest single factor in making such projects work is that they are trusted by the adults in Changemakers.
Discussion: Julian Brazier MP made the point that, in view of legislative pressures, it is difficult to give young people responsibility for anything involving other young people and suggested that we must change legislation to allow young people a greater degree of freedom.
David Hopkins, formerly Professor of Education, now Director of the Standards and Effectiveness Unit at the Department for Education and Skills: David noted that, throughout his life, he has had two consuming passions – mountaineering and education. He showed that the principles that underpin a challenging adventure experience could be applied to both to the classroom context and to the promotion of organisational change in schools. His core values are that every school can improve and that every individual has a contribution to make, always setting high expectations. The push for higher literacy and numeracy standards can be criticised but they have succeeded – and now is the time to build on their success. He suggested that young people need a powerful learning experience. David has responsibility for delivering "personalised learning", announced by the Prime Minister in September. This is simultaneously an educational aspiration, an educational strategy and an approach to teaching and learning. He suggested that customising the educational system will achieve both equity and excellence. In conclusion, David suggested that personalised learning represents the confluence of the best educational traditions and that it relates directly to the aims of the Campaign – to show that life is best approached in a spirit of exploration, adventure and enterprise, to influence attitudes towards risk and to achieve an appropriate balance between risk and safety.
Discussion: Roger Putnam observed that, while the introduction of a prescribed curriculum was welcome in many ways, it could also be a huge constraint and asked how we can loosen the constraints and relax the curriculum. David replied that he was very excited about the potential of 14-19 reform, not only in terms of knowledge acquisition but also in learning about how to learn in a more sophisticated way. Tim Collins MP observed that much of the language used during the evening to date was in terms of "removing barriers". He though that a positive way forward would be to get all political parties to sign a statement that we must encourage more risk taking. If an accident occurs, the Campaign for Adventure should stand up and say we will learn from this but we must not reduce the amount of adventure available to young people. Libby Purves wondered whether there was a degree of risk aversion in the trend away from the "sudden death" exam.
Roy Amlot QC, criminal barrister and Chairman of the Bar Council 2001-2: Roy explained that he was devoted to adventure and considered that adventure is a necessary and vital ingredient in the experience of young people. If we remove it, there is a real risk that young people will find more anti-social forms of risk taking. He considers that the common law liability in negligence needs the closest attention because it is capable of shaping a culture which is too precious and likely to excite people into over-zealous litigation. It is essential that the general principle of liability is determined in a balanced way in the right context. He illustrated two cases in the sporting context in which it could be argued that the decisions did not properly take the context sufficiently into account and which gave him real concern. He considers that judges are key in achieving a healthy and balanced attitude to suck risks and that the Campaign should find a way to open up a dialogue with the legal profession.
Discussion: Nigel Haynes totally concurred and expressed concern over the enormous rise in insurance premiums. Libby Purves asked whether society needs protection from ambulance chasers? Roy suggested that the practice cannot be stopped but that society can ensure that their advertising is carried out in a responsible and restrained way. Marcus Bailie emphasised that we should be seeking solutions and wondered whether the US practice which requires participants to recognise and accept inherent risk might help. Roy considered that there were many dangers in this approach – in our legal system, even though people consent, the duty of care does not go away.
René Carayol is a speaker, columnist and broadcaster whose major focus is business transformation He looked at risk from a business perspective and considered that we should manage a little less and lead a little more. He suggested that the tendency to hide behind "processes" was typical of the pull of the past. He illustrated his talk with examples of leadership from Sir John Stevens' career, in which Sir John was willing to embrace risks in the belief that people are more important than process. René gave examples in which bright, imaginative graduates entering a workplace had their new ideas and initiative stifled by stereotypical processes. He thought we could learn from Pepsi's approach – "Launch and learn" and "Fail fast" He left us with the observation that "If you're in complete control, you ain't going fast enough!"
Final discussion: John Adams suggested that we should not lose sight of the concept of "bad luck". Roy Amlot suggested that judges should reflect society's attitudes – if they do, society will change. Lord Stone will be contributing to a debate in the House of Lords on science and politics and will make some of the points made during the meeting. He suggested that a forum (such as the Royal Institution) should be found in which a discussion with the judges can be initiated. Tony Thomas regretted the increasing trend to see issues in black and white and suggested that we must get society to realise that they were often complex, with no simple answers. Huw Irranca-Davies MP argued that we are over-regulated. Ian Lewis noted that creativity in a number of areas seems to be declining and considered that this is an important aspect of an adventurous attitude. Mia Nybrant suggested that, if objective scientific risk assessment is properly applied, that would be a step forward. Instead, the precautionary principle is far too prominent.
In her closing comments, Libby Purves suggested we need the right to fail – to mess up. Randall Williams thanked everyone who contributed to the debate and asked everyone to focus on action they can take to make society less risk averse and more adventurous.
There have been numerous letters following the event and a determination to carry on the aims of the Campaign