Whether it’s walking on the beaches of Normandy, exploring the art galleries of Manhattan or brushing up on your Spanish as you stroll along Las Ramblas, international school trips offer students experiences that are hard to replicate in the classroom.
Of course, over the past 18 months, with Covid-19 leading to all sorts of disruption – not least grounded flights and an ever-changing list of viable travel destinations – school trips have understandably taken a back seat.
However, that latest government guidance was clear that, from September, schools trips – including those overseas – should be back on the agenda: “From the start of the new school term, you can go on international visits that have previously been deferred or postponed, and organise new international visits for the future.”
But will schools, teachers, parents or pupils really be willing to leave the country when there are so many rules and regulations to overcome, and the risk of the situation changing overnight?
International school trips: what schools need to consider
Amanda Poyner, deputy head of pastoral at the Lady Eleanor Holles school in Hampton, says we need to remember just how important trips are and how much the school community has missed them during the pandemic.
“The opening up of trips will be a huge benefit to those students that have missed out over the last few months,” she says.
“The experience that they can get beyond what they would experience within the UK, the benefits beyond teaching in the classroom, to be able to see some of those things that they learn about in real-time in the real world – there’s a whole raft of reasons why we do these trips and why we hope to be able to do them again.”
In fact, Poyner’s school is offering an increased number of trips this coming year, with previously cancelled visits bumping up the usual annual offering.
Poyner admits that sign-up hasn’t been quite as strong as in previous years, with parents still unsure whether to part with cash when so much uncertainty surrounds international visits. However, she expects numbers to increase as the situation becomes clearer.
Jane Racz, director of the Turing scheme – the government’s new study-abroad programme – agrees that the experience of travel will still appeal to young people and parents.
“A visit to a partner school overseas provides a unique opportunity for young people to experience another culture, practise their language skills and connect with their peers in other countries,” she says.
“We have received a strong number of applications for the new Turing scheme, indicating there is an appetite for mobility across the world.”
However, while the appetite for international travel may have returned and schools like Poyner’s are taking an optimistic approach to making trips happen, there remain hurdles and complications that mean schools need to be careful when they are planning travel.
As noted, new Covid guidelines from the Department for Education make it clear that schools are within their rights to schedule trips for the autumn term, but this message comes with several warnings, not least that of having the right insurance.
“If you are considering booking a new visit, whether domestic or international, you are advised to ensure that any new bookings have adequate financial protection in place,” the guidance states.
Sarah Brodie, senior policy adviser at the Association of British Insurers (ABI), agrees that having insurance in place is essential but, owing to the pandemic, getting cover against emergency treatment could be “eye-wateringly expensive”.
“Be sure to read the policy carefully so that you understand the scope of cover in place,” says Brodie.
“While ABI members will provide cover for emergency Covid-related medical treatment, policies bought since the pandemic was declared are unlikely to cover cancellation due to Covid, as it is a known risk.”
“As with all travellers, schools should be aware of and follow government advice, including travelling in line with FCDO (Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office) advice to avoid invalidating your travel insurance policy.”
Travelling and traffic lights
In addition to the medical risks associated with travel in the autumn term, schools also run the risk of having flights cancelled or countries becoming no-go destinations at short notice, owing to changing government regulations, or facing quarantine on return.
The DfE guidelines point out that schools, “should be aware that the travel list (and broader international travel policy) is subject to change and green list countries may be moved into amber or red”.
The guidance continues: “The travel lists may change during a visit and you must comply with international travel legislation, and should have contingency plans in place to account for these changes.”
These risks may put off many from running trips next year, given the complications this could bring.
However, schools may also find themselves having to run trips that were cancelled during the past 18 months, as the payments will have been outsourced to travel companies, meaning the money has been spent and the process of obtaining refunds may be complicated, or impossible, if the guidance is that trips can officially go ahead.
As one deputy head in Hampshire explains, unless government action forces cancellations, schools will have little option but to go ahead with rescheduled trips.
“Next year’s trips are all rescheduled cancellations from the past 18 months,” he explains. “If we cancel these trips, the money we’ve already paid will be lost so, despite any reservations, our hands are tied.”
This is something schools will want to be aware as it could lead to some tricky conversations with staff who are required to supervise, or parents who are wary of sending their child abroad but are not entitled to a refund because the trip is going ahead.
Advice for schools planning trips
So, if you are thinking of heading abroad then what are the best plans to put in place? Poyner offers three key tips.
1. Understand the policy
Now, more than ever, it’s vital that schools read the small print when booking travel and insurance. Poyner explains that she has asked for “full disclosure to the cancellation policies from trip providers” and has chosen companies based on these policies.
Trips may need to be cancelled for a number of reasons, including anything from a country being placed on the government’s red list to members of staff needing to isolate. It’s important to see which eventualities you will be compensated for.
2. Involve your finance team
The details contained within insurance policies and travel company contracts can have huge financial implications, so involving someone with a knowledge of finance is key.
“We’ve run everything past our finance department,” explains Poyner, adding that this should feed into any risk assessment made prior to booking trips.
3. Be transparent with parents
“Make clear to parents what the cancellation policies are, because different companies have different ways of dealing with this, so you know we don’t want to be in a position where you are financially at risk,” says Poyner.
These policies will unlikely cover the cost of pupils needing to isolate and not being able to travel, so the implications of this should be understood and explained to parents.
While there is still a long way to go before school trips return to pre-pandemic levels – with a degree of uncertainty leaving some schools reluctant to expose themselves to the risk of more disruption – many schools and organisations Tes spoke to expressed a level of optimism when looking ahead towards the autumn term.
“There will undoubtedly be some anxiety,” says Liz Neil, senior consultant at The British Council.
But she explains that “our experience has been that schools, young people and parents want to make up for the disruption to their education. An international visit offers such a rich learning and cultural experience, I think it’s something people look forward to being able to participate in when restrictions permit.”
Poyner also acknowledges the need for some caution but says that this needs to be weighed up against the benefits of these trips.
“I think we should continue to try to do this because it's a valuable part of what we offer to young people at school,” she says.
“I don't think we want to go too fast with it but, equally, we do want to be positive and there is so much value to be gained from it.”