Training agency standards are written to represent the minimum acceptable level of any aspect of a training course, under any circumstances. They are not meant to represent the typical level to be expected or even a target to be hit. Good instructors understand that the level should, in most cases, be exceeded.
A good example of this is the student/instructor ratio
A given SDI course may have a ratio of 8:1, meaning 8 students to 1 instructor. This does not mean that it is sensible, or advisable, to have a ratio of 8:1 at all times. The standards make this very clear as they go on to say that “it is the instructor’s discretion to reduce this number as conditions dictate”. This means that if the visibility, conditions, level of student’s ability, or any other factor is less than ideal, then good risk-management principles, or defensive teaching, would ensure that this ratio should be reduced. If the visibility is very low, then it may be impossible to physically see all 8 divers at once and so becomes impossible to monitor and control all the students. If the surface conditions are rough or the dive site allows access to deeper water, then there is a chance that a student could get into difficulties without the instructor being close enough to assist immediately. Equally, if you have 8 students, all of which struggled in the confined water sessions, trying to keep group control and provide them with the level of instruction required will be very difficult, if not impossible. In any of these cases, a ratio of 8:1 is not appropriate. There are times, for example, when several of the conditions above are present and even a 3:1 or 2:1 ration would be unwise.
The same applies for a program such as the TDI CCR Air Diluent Diver course. The standards state that the maximum ratio is 4:1. With poor conditions or with students that are struggling to get comfortable with their rebreather, this ratio should be reduced accordingly. Trying to manage 4 new rebreather divers who are struggling with buoyancy would be a big challenge. The principles of defensive teaching would again mean that this ratio should be reduced to provide better supervision of the divers.
Why not reduce the ratios?
Of course, this begs the question; why not reduce the ratios in the standards to take into account poor conditions? The reason for not doing this is that there may be times when the maximum ratio is perfectly sensible. If you have a very small bay or training lake with no access to deep water, excellent visibility, and eight students that performed excellently in confined water, then 8:1 may be perfectly acceptable. If you are running a rebreather course with very experienced divers who are doing well on their rebreathers or who may even be crossing over from another CCR, then a ratio of 4:1 is perfectly sensible. The standards should not prevent the instructor from doing something that is perfectly sensible.
A similar discussion can be had with regard to in-water time. The SDI Open Water Scuba Diver standards state that each dive must be a MINIMUM of 15 minutes with a total of AT LEAST 80 minutes across AT LEAST 4 dives. Some instructors may see this as an invitation to do no more than 20 minutes on every dive and limit the course to just 4 dives. This is not the intention. Instructors should be aiming to give students as much in-water practice as possible. With large groups, it may not even be feasible to complete all of the required skills in this time, especially if one or more of the students is having a problem with one of the skills and needs more time to practice.
Again, why not insist that all dives are longer, say at least 40 minutes with a total of maybe 180 minutes. The reason for this is that there may be occasional circumstances where 20 minutes or even 15 minutes is acceptable. If a student is getting very chilled, for example, in very cold water or if a dry suit leaks, then keeping them in the water for 40 minutes may be absolutely the wrong thing to do. If the diver has completed 15 minutes before getting too cold, then it is preferable to credit this dive to their experience rather than saying that the dive does not count. In addition, if the instructor only has 1 or 2 very competent students, it may be perfectly possible to achieve all the required skills during a 20-minute dive. Even though most circumstances would encourage the instructor to exceed the minimum amount of time, we do not want to impose unnecessary limitations or an excessive level of inflexibility on instructors.
Finally, the same approach can be taken with the knowledge and skills specified in the standards. This is the minimum level required for each course. However, if there are local conditions or practices that are common and will be experienced by divers, the instructor should be covering these topics or procedures. Of course, the additional knowledge or procedures should be consistent with the level of the course. So, this does not mean that the instructor should be teaching open water students all about decompression procedures just because that type of diving is common in their area. It would, on the other hand, be appropriate to teach a diver how to deploy a Delayed Surface Marker Buoy if all diving in their area involved the use of such a device.
When looking at training agency standards, an instructor should always consider them an indication of the minimum acceptable level. They should always be on the lookout for ways that they can reduce risk, improve the students’ learning experience, or better prepare them for the local conditions by teaching to a higher standard. The benefits of this should be obvious. Reducing risk also reduces the chances of an accident during training. Improving the students’ learning experience will help to build the dive centre and the instructor’s reputation for providing high quality training. Both of these will help to grow the dive centre’s or individual instructor’s business over the long term. If an instructor does end up teaching to the minimum standard, they should be able to explain to themselves and to their students why the minimum standard is appropriate in this particular situation.