It's 10am on Monday and 30 excited Year 2s are gathered in their classroom awaiting the start of their adventure. They may be only six and seven years old, but they are about to embark on a five-day school trip more than 100 miles from home.
After collecting pocket money and medicines, we make the final checks on equipment and the fresh food arrives to join the other supplies. It's a daunting task catering for 30 hungry children for five days, but shopping was great fun. A train of trolleys at the checkout was loaded with 25 packets of cereal, 10 large cartons of milk, 15 loaves of bread, 20 cartons of orange juice, large tubs of butter, plus jam and honey. More bread and milk will be bought during the week but that's breakfast sorted.
Other food comes from wholesalers via our canteen, or from local butchers and greengrocers, including about 200 pieces of fresh fruit. Children's eating habits vary but we cater for all needs: these Year 2s have a liking for toast, which means about seven loaves a day.
With the minibuses loaded, it is time to depart. Children wave excitedly to parents who wave back anxiously. Some parents hold back tears - this is the first time most of the children will be away from home without them.
The children are much too excited to be upset. We talked about it with them in advance, telling them it was natural to be homesick. But any worries are overcome with sensitive handling from the staff and the comforting presence of the cuddly toy the children are encouraged to bring. The Bradwell Bear also has a prominent place on every trip.
The journey is uneventful, punctuated by regular: "Are we there yets?" with the children singing songs and playing cards. It takes about three hours to get to our destination, Hathersage Youth Hostel on the edge of the Hope Valley, Derbyshire. For security, the school has exclusive use of the hostel during the week.
Arrival is a challenge: unloading the trailer when the children are keen to explore their new base. We organise them into small groups so they can share with friends and despatch them to their rooms. There's a visit to a nearby park before an evening meal, then it's time to settle down for the night. Despite the excitement of being away, they are all asleep by 11pm and do not stir until 7am the following day.
Tuesday morning sees the children tucking into a cooked breakfast, a real novelty for some. We become adept at catering for many tastes and preferences.
The day's activities include a visit to the Peak District Mining Museum and Temple Mine in nearby Matlock Bath. The children enter Temple Mine, which originally mined fluorspar, feeling really important in their yellow hard hats. They are intrigued to hear how the miners wore a cloth cap with a candle on the peak. They enthusiastically explore the narrow mine shafts and have fun scrambling through the passages. They love the small hand pump they can use to control the flooding and examine mining tools and equipment.
Then there's the museum shop. A new skill for many of the children involves working out if their pocket money will match what they want to purchase.
The following day we visit the plague village of Eyam, where the children learn how the rector, William Mompesson, and his supporters controlled the spread of the plague in the 17th century by asking villagers to quarantine themselves. The memorials in the church and the village fascinate the children. Later, we go to Treak Cliff Cavern and learn about the Blue John stone and stalactites and stalagmites, although the children are more interested in the story of Gertrude, the witch, who had once inhabited the cave.
The amount of post each day causes much excitement. In the parents' meeting before the visit, we encourage mums and dads to write to their children during the week. This is a new experience for many, who ask what to say.
The children receive correspondence from their parents, brothers and sisters, as well as grandparents.
As we suggest, the letters relate ordinary events, such as what is happening at home. Many contain drawings from younger siblings along the lines of: "this is a picture of you in a mine". It appears many parents are redecorating the children's rooms. One letter from an older sister says: "I thought it would be nice without you around, but I really miss you and it is very quiet here - there is no one to fight with over the TV programmes."
We encourage children to send postcards home, talking about places they have visited or how they enjoyed splashing about in puddles.
Evenings involve staff-led songs, storytelling sessions, or playing board games. The children also write diaries, which will form the basis of study books they will make back at school.
The final day in Derbyshire is spent exploring Dovedale. The children love the walk along the riverbank between Ilam and Milldale. We value the opportunity to talk with the children in a more informal setting.
Friday dawns and it's time to pack up the minibuses, check nothing is left behind and head for home. Back at school, smiles and hugs greet the children as they step off the buses. A babble of voices can be heard as the young travellers tell their families tales of their trip. As for the staff, our thoughts turn to home and a relaxing weekend before beginning the follow-up work on Monday
John White is headteacher of New Bradwell School, Milton Keynes
A TOUCH OF CLASS
Taking six and seven-year-olds on a week-long school trip may seem bold, but at New Bradwell School we believe passionately in the educational value of first-hand experience.
Our school, just outside Milton Keynes, has developed a series of residential visits for all its pupils from Year 2 upwards. Years 2 and 3 usually spend five days based at a centre in Derbyshire, while the older pupils go camping. We have our own camping equipment and three minibuses and trailers to transport the children.
Our programme starts with nursery children in the school grounds and goes on in reception and Year 1, with visits to the local church, studying Victorian streets, half-day museum visits and day trips to a farm and steam railway.
The natural progression for Year 2s is the chance to go on a short residential visit. This develops in successive years and culminates in a trip to France in the last term of Year 6. We believe our children gain tremendously, not only in experiencing a new environment, but by helping each other, developing greater independence and becoming more responsible for their belongings. Friendships blossom and children have the chance to bond as a year group.
It helps them get on better with other children in their class. There is more sharing, more understanding of other children and a greater appreciation of what their parents do for them. A lot of parents say they seem quite grown up when they come back.
Observing the children outside the classroom helps the teachers understand them better. They get to know them very well and the pupils also see the teachers in a different light - they're not just people in the classroom.
Most Year 2s have the maturity to go on a visit like this. The reaction from some other heads is that it's too early, but we've been doing this for 20 years and it is one of the more rewarding visits we do. It is like an awakening: they become much more aware that there is a world out there to explore. They're never too young for that spark to be ignited.