With the UK's economy officially in recession for the first time in 17 years, justifying expensive educational jaunts has become difficult.
According to the Government's 2007 Learning Outside the Classroom (LOtC) manifesto, trips are an integral part of school life. So much so that it has pledged Pounds 2.7 million to help fund them. But even with financial help, schools are still asking themselves whether educational visits are a nice- to-have or a must-have. The reality is that government subsidies may still not be enough to entice families who are struggling to make ends meet. Most schools will ask for a suggested contribution towards trips, supplementing those who cannot afford it. However, despite fundraising events and additional school support, parents will still need to pay set amounts for more expensive residential excursions.
The Outward Bound Trust, which provides outdoor residential courses, is already feeling the pinch. Although the trust can offer bursaries to poorer pupils because of its charitable status, bookings and group sizes are down.
"The credit crunch is definitely starting to take effect," says Kim Parry, the trust's commercial director. "I think we are in the early stages of the economic downturn, given the long lead in times needed for booking residential programmes."
Schools that leave their bookings until the last minute - while in some cases it could save them money - may not be providing families with enough time to save, adds Mr Parry. This means that financially disadvantaged pupils may miss out, and Outward Bound has responded by allowing some struggling schools to pay in arrears.
"Teachers are still committed to out-of-class programmes because they can clearly see the educational benefits," he says. "They're going the extra mile to ensure they go ahead."
Outward Bound costs between Pounds 250 and Pounds 400 per pupil per week - about half the cost of a skiing trip abroad. Foreign visits are suffering the most, especially with the pound so weak against the euro.
Most educational visits co-ordinators (EVCs) will be looking for much more local, affordable options. Schools typically aim to spend about Pounds 6 per pupil per outing, according to data from UK School Trips, a free search engine of venues. Schools embarked on approximately six visits last year - double the number in 2007.
"Teachers understand the importance of educational visits, especially now the LOtC manifesto has given them the green light," says Clare Hunter from UK School Trips.
Ms Hunter believes parents are now even keener to see their children go on school trips because they may not be able to afford the cost themselves. And schools qualify for healthy discounts. Live Nation Theatres, which encompasses 16 venues across the UK, charges up to Pounds 15 per pupil, compared with Pounds 42.50 for members of the public, and continues to enjoy healthy bookings. As part of the package, schools are sometimes eligible for free pre-performance talks plus a range of educational resources and material.
But Stratford-upon-Avon Butterfly Farm, the largest collection of butterflies in the UK, noticed a slight downturn last year after the sharp increase in petrol prices led to some coach companies raising their prices. "Lots of our pre-booked groups were cancelling because of coach costs," says Emma Butt from the farm. "It's a big concern for us."
Naomi Anstice, a teacher from Frodsham Manor House Primary School in Cheshire, hires coaches for Pounds 100 to Pounds 150 per trip, irrespective of distance. She has learnt to avoid booking coaches at busy and expensive times of the day, such as the 3pm school run, but it remains the most expensive part of the whole trip.
One solution is to ditch vehicles altogether. Engaging Places is a new website from the Commission for Architecture and the Built Environment (Cabe) and English Heritage, which encourages teachers to make the most out of local buildings and places, including the school itself.
"There's need to go on long journeys to find places that are relevant for teaching your subject," says Nancy O'Brien, project leader for Engaging Places. "There is just as much on the school's doorstep that can be used as a teaching resource as any traditional destination."
The venues it recommends - everywhere from the school playground to nearby buildings, churches or high streets - have the advantage of being easily accessible and, often, free.
Greentrees Primary School in Wiltshire has already used its home town of Salisbury in many different subject areas. Ray Picton, deputy head, also led a trip to nearby Stonehenge, where Year 5 pupils dressed up, chanted and marched at the site, before completing a workshop with an archaeologist back at school. They then created their own mini Stonehenge models out of Lego, straw and even biscuits. The best designs were displayed at the Stonehenge museum.
Despite frequent trips, Mr Picton still feels schools in the UK are well behind other European countries. "When some of our teachers visited a school in Norway, they found it is the norm there to do a week's teaching in the classroom, followed by a week off-site."
At Frodsham Manor School, every pupil goes to the theatre once a year. There are also regular topic visits that enhance history and drama at nearby Tatton Park, and annual residential trips for Years 2, 5 and 6.
"This is a prosperous area, so the majority can meet the Pounds 15 contribution for local trips," says Ms Anstice. "But even if they couldn't, the visits would still be a priority for us. They make a topic come alive."
The ultimate money-saver is not to leave school at all. Some of the big venues in London, such as the Natural History Museum or the Victoria and Albert Museum, have excellent websites with virtual programmes, plus highly interactive resources. It is an appealing alternative for schools based farther afield.
"While visiting the museum is obviously valuable and enjoyable, the websites can be equally as good value educationally," says Chris Keates, general secretary of the NASUWT teachers' union. "Visits and websites can contribute to learning in distinctive, but equally valuable ways."
However, finding the right balance between the two, and fitting this into your budget, is the challenge.
- Shop around. Take time to compare quotes from different operators.
- Build relationships with local providers. They can let you know about limited special offers or sponsorship deals.
- Book outings well in advance - up to a year - when the best deals are available.
- Demand group reductions on workshops.
- Involve local companies in fundraising events. In return, allow them to advertise in school publications or prospectuses.
- Learning outside the classroom www.lotc.org.uk
- The Outward Bound Trust www.theoutwardboundtrust.org.uk
- Engaging Places www.engagingplaces.org.uk
- Stratford-upon-Avon Butterfly farm www.butterflyfarm.co.uk
- Live Nation Theatres www.livenationtheatres.co.uk
- UK School Trips is offering credit-crunch busting offers on a range of events and venues. For more information, visit: www.ukschooltrips.co.ukcontentcategory3326.