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Singapore student's rope course death raises questions over volunteer instructors in outdoor education sector

SINGAPORE: Unpaid volunteer instructors are not common in the outdoor adventure education sector, operators told CNA after one such instructor was sentenced to jail earlier in January over the death of a 15-year-old.


The 2021 incident saw Anglo-Chinese School (Independent) student Jethro Puah Xin Yang fall from a high-element obstacle course at SAFRA Yishun.

Volunteer instructor Muhammad Nurul Hakim Mohamed Din - who was in charge of the course - had failed to check Jethro's harness. The teenager’s leg loops were not properly secured, and came unbuckled after he fell from the obstacle.


Case details revealed that Nurul Hakim had been volunteering with the outdoor adventure learning company Camelot since 2017, and had completed an instructor course by the company in November 2020.


The incident raised questions on why a volunteer was deployed as an instructor, and whether such staffers are paid professionals. 


In response to CNA’s queries, Camelot said Nurul Hakim was in a “transitionary period” as he was on the cusp of completing his National Service obligations and scheduled to join the company as full-time staff.


During this period, the 23-year-old was not paid due to his “personal circumstances”, the company said, adding it was unable to elaborate further.

“We sent him for the same training (which he completed) and entrusted him with the same responsibilities, as our full-time staff.”


SAME ACCOUNTABILITY, SAME CARE

Secretary-general of the Outdoor Learning & Adventure Education Association (OLAE) Delane Lim told CNA that the more commonly used term in the sector is that of a "freelance instructor", who is professionally paid for their services. 


Providers or operators who use the term "volunteer instructor" are generally from social or charity organisations that offer similar outdoor education services, noted Mr Lim.

He added that these instructors are pro bono and unpaid professionals. 


“Whether (instructors) are paid or unpaid or whichever role given, they are still regarded as a responsible individual, subject to the same level of accountability and they shall provide the same duty of care to any participants in (outdoor adventure education) activities,” he stressed. 


Freelancer Ronald Wee volunteers his services as a high ropes instructor for the National Police Cadet Corps - but receives allowances for his involvement.


Likewise, he was always paid for his services when outsourced by outdoor education companies, said the 35-year-old. 


When deployed for school-related activities, Mr Wee, who has been a freelancer for about 10 years, noted that there are students who often feel scared prior to going on a high-element course. 


“Usually we help them understand why they are fearful. We help them understand the difference between perceived risks and actual risks,” he said.


“We also remind them that it is a ‘challenge by choice’ activity. So, if they still feel that they’re not up for it, we allow them to back (down).”


Noting that his line of work was the "riskiest" part of outdoor adventure camps, Mr Wee said companies as well as the OLAE now share the Camelot incident to warn instructors about safety lapses.


SELECTING, TRAINING INSTRUCTORS

Hiring processes and policies for Outdoor Adventure Education (OAE) roles vary across companies, said OLAE's Mr Lim. 


Many firms, particularly for roles in the Ministry of Education's OAE programmes, require certifications from the Association for Challenge Course Technology (ACCT), Outward Bound Singapore or the relevant National Sports Association. 


For institutions not under the Education Ministry - such as international schools - companies often establish their own certification frameworks to specify competency requirements, said Mr Lim.


At training provider Focus Adventure, employers look for staff who have completed basic instructor and facilitator courses. 


Those selected also need to undergo instructor and facilitator development programmes. These assess an individual's activity knowledge and management among others, said chief executive officer Sasi Kumar. 


Under these programmes, potential employees have to complete a series of activities as well as in-house and on-the-job training to be promoted to the next rank, he added. 


For Forest Adventure, staff who are hired must demonstrate attention to detail, willingness to learn and good interpersonal skills, said Mr David Lim, general manager of production company Tomorrow Entertainment, which operates the outdoor park.


All new hires must go through two-day training followed by on-job-training under the supervision of a senior instructor, he said.


During on-job-training sessions, new hires must pass both theory and practical assessments before they qualify as an instructor.  


The training module is drawn from recommendations and standards set by the European Ropes Course Association and the US-based ACCT, said Mr David Lim. He added that the company also sends existing staff for external courses and certifications on working at heights. These include occupational first aid and rope access qualifications aligned with requirements of the Ministry of Manpower, Singapore Civil Defence Force and Building and Construction Authority (BCA).


While Forest Adventure hosts height-based activities for school groups, it is also an attraction that is open to the public and thus conforms to “more stringent rules” such as BCA’s Amusement Rides Safety Act, noted Mr David Lim.


NATIONAL STANDARD IN THE PIPELINE

Meanwhile, a national standard to address safety in OAE activities is also being developed, the government's National Youth Council (NYC) announced on Wednesday (Jan 24).


Seventeen representatives from the sector have been working together with an OAE Council to develop a standard which will cover land, water and height based activities, NYC said in a media release. 


The standard will be open for public feedback in the second half of the year, and is expected to be published by 2025.


Responding to CNA’s queries, NYC said that the national standard sets out responsibilities of both employed and voluntary instructors, as well as providers who conduct OAE programmes and activities. 


“It will stipulate the expected level of care, safety and competency for the conduct of OAE activities,” said NYC. 


Outdoor education operators should also review the competency and skills currency of their instructors, and provide additional training where necessary, to enable the conduct of safe activities.


“OAE providers and instructors have a duty of care to the participants," said NYC. 


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