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Awake to the joy and terror of school trips

Like the knock on the door at dawn, the phone rings when least expected. In my case, it was 5.30am on Sunday. I groped for the handset by the side of the bed. "Rog, it's Mick. There's been a bit of an incident you need to know about..."

Mick was leading a party of 40 of our students staying at a youth hostel in France during our annual activities week. An intruder had broken into the hostel in the early hours and entered three separate rooms where pupils were sleeping. He touched three girls who were too frightened to call out before a fourth raised the alarm and the intruder fled.

It was the start of quite a week. The man was arrested within hours and kept in custody. We rang parents, and we all decided that it was best for the children to re-establish normality as quickly as possible and continue the week's activities.

All was well until Mick rang me on Wednesday to say that reports had appeared in the French newspapers that morning. Clearly, it was time to ring the county press officer to discuss whether I could buy his services. While talking to him on my landline, my mobile rang with a voice saying the words that freeze the soul as if the shadow of Voldemort had passed over the window. "This is Dave, a reporter on the Daily Mail..." I put him on hold while I signed up with the press officer.

The next day, we were in five national dailies and by lunchtime I had done live interviews for local television and radio. Reporters appeared at the hostel in France. They all made the link with the murder of Caroline Dickinson 11 years ago again on a school trip and staying in a French youth hostel. I'm an English teacher I do words. The press officer did them much better and the story died. The children had a great week, but we all knew it could have been very much worse.

The parents all thought we had made the right decision to stay on. Who knows? It may well have been right for the students, but I am very aware of the pressure it put on the staff, and it was perhaps too much to ask of them. Several parents expressed the hope that it would not put us off running trips in future, and thankfully the press did not take the line of wanting to ban all school trips. Knowing that while all this was happening we also had groups in Norway, Kenya, Thailand and across this country certainly focused the mind.

It also sharpens the political landscape that headteachers and schools now inhabit. Our chair of governors could not have been more supportive. Not a word from other governors, despite being kept in regular email contact. I informed the local authority's trips adviser what had happened, but again not a word from anyone else in county hall. There was a time when the director of education would have been on the phone with words of support and wisdom. There are no apron strings any more.

I was waiting with parents outside school at 10pm on the Friday evening to welcome the trip home. My mobile phone rang. "Rog? It's Gill. We're caught up in a bit of an incident in Gloucestershire on our way back from the narrowboating trip. The roads are in chaos with all these floods. We've pulled into a cafe car park and we're going to sleep the night in the minibuses rather than try to get home tonight..."

And that's both the buzz and the stress of headship: as one story finishes, another is always just beginning.

Roger Pope is principal of Kingsbridge community college in Devon

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