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Thursday, 5 July, 2001, 13:38 GMT 14:38 UK
'Distraught' staff face more questions
Lac de Caniel
The lake where Bunmi Shagaya died
The teachers who had been with 11-year-old Bunmi Shagaya on their ill-fated school trip to France broke down after returning her classmates to their parents in south London early on Thursday.

They are being given time to rest before an independent inquiry being set up by the local education authority can begin questioning them about how Bunmi could have escaped their supervision, with fatal consequences.

Robert Blower, spokesman for Lambeth, the education authority which covers Hill Mead Primary School, said the returning teachers were "visibly shaken" as they handed the youngsters over to their waiting families.

"The French police finished questioning the teachers at 10pm last night and because the parents here wanted their children back as soon as possible they started on their journey straight away," he said.

'Poignant'

"They arrived by coach back at the school at 5am. We had taken the parents into the school hall and then we brought the children in to them.

michael peters
Michael Peters: Great shock and sadness in the community
"The most important thing for the teachers had been to deliver the children home, so once this was done they seemed to visibly breakdown. They were absolutely distraught."

The local MP, Tessa Jowell, described the reunion as one of "unbearable poignancy".

The teachers are being offered counselling.

Inquiry

Lambeth's director of education, Michael Peters, said the immediate priority was caring for those affected by the tragedy.

"There are many questions rightly to be asked and what we want to do is to have a independent inquiry that can look very clearly at all the questions in the cool light of day," he said.

On the face of it the school had complied with the Department for Education's guidelines regarding supervision on trips.

There were six members of staff from the school present at the time, supervising 41 children - an adult-pupil ratio of one to seven, within the guidelines of one to 10 for that age group.

Headcounts

The guidelines recommend regular headcounts, especially when a party leaves a venue.

Her disappearance was noted in a headcount as the school party left the Caniel Lake at Cany Barville, near Dieppe. It is not clear when the last count before that had been carried out.

One other area of concern will be how well Bunmi could swim.

According to Lambeth Council, Bunmi had achieved her 10-metre swimming certificate during the current school year.

"She enjoyed swimming," a spokesman said.

Nevertheless, by that age the national curriculum requires that she should have been able to swim 25 metres unaided.

And the safe surroundings of the Brixton Recreation Centre pool are a world away from the deep, weed-clogged water of the French lake.

The official guidelines specifically warn about the potential danger of natural waters.

Warning about weeds

They say the group leader should be aware that many children who drown are strong swimmers, ascertain for themselves the level of the pupils' swimming ability, and be aware of the local conditions - such as currents and weeds.

In a report last year, the inspectorate Ofsted voiced its concern that more than half of 301 schools it surveyed had reduced the amount of time they were giving to swimming, which head teachers said was because of the demands of the national literacy and numeracy strategies.

Even so, it said that four out of five pupils could swim 25 metres by the time they left primary school.

The most recent Ofsted report on Bunmi's own school, in October 1999, raised no concerns.

It said: "In swimming, all pupils achieve the standards required of swimming 25 metres unaided and overall attainment is very good."

French investigation

It did however note that in general terms assessment and recording procedures for physical education were "underdeveloped".

The leadership of the head teacher, Nicholas Oliver - who was on the trip to France - was described by Ofsted as "outstanding", and parents told the inspection team that one of the school's strengths was that the children were well looked after.

Lambeth's education director, Michael Peters, said that the main inquiry at this stage remained with the French authorities.

It is possible charges could be brought if they consider that supervision was inadequate.

Last year an English teacher was given a six-month suspended prison sentence by a French court after being convicted of the manslaughter of a 13-year-old pupil, who drowned while on a school trip to northern France.

He has lodged an appeal.

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See also:

04 Jul 01 | Education
Teachers' tight guidelines for trips
11 Apr 01 | Education
Manslaughter teacher to appeal
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