A casual visitor to the north Brittany coast in late May could be forgiven for checking which country they are in. Each small seaside town seems to have its quota of teenage Brits identified by luminous polyester and a touching desire to include all bystanders in any conversation - "Do yer wannnan ice cream, Tracey?" Tracey and friend are chatting up the young waiter outside a bar. The patron shrugs. They are noisy, but they do no harm, he says. And it is valuable business for the town.
"It's norran ice cream - it's a glace," says Tracey, providing the educational justification for the whole trip. For these are school groups, staying in hotels for between three and seven days and soaking up as much of the Breton culture as they can in that time.
Phil Broomhead, head of languages at Carshalton High School in Sutton, has been taking school trips to Brittany for 17 years. He has organised two trips this year, one for a small group of Year 9s and another bigger trip for Year 8s.
It's not a languages trip, he says, though they do pick up more vocabulary. It's the socialising aspects of the experience. Getting on with others, sitting down to a meal together.
The opportunity to go abroad was something the first groups Mr Broomhead took in the early 1980s were genuinely excited about. That's less true today, he says. Package tours have opened up foreign travel to a wider market. But not many of his pupils had previously been to France.
Mr Broomhead has used the Hotel Richmond in St Lunaire for most of his trips. It is run by two brothers under the watchful eye of their widowed mother. The Boutreux family is happy to take school groups and is realistic about what les jeunes anglais will and will not eat. Pizza figures prominently on the menu.
They fit in with our plans, says Mr Broomhead. Early breakfasts and packed lunches are not a problem.
St Lunaire is an ideal base. A small seaside resort close to St Malo and the other attractions on the Emerald Coast, it is unlikely to present any illicit attractions to over-adventurous teenagers. The same is true of other centres, such as St Cast le Guildo and St Brieuc.
In St Cast, Lisa Prout is leading a group of girls and teachers from Edgbaston High School in Birmingham. Ms Prout has had a major problem from day one of the trip. She's lost her voice and, as the only French speaker in charge of 43 Year 7 girls, that seems likely to be more than a personal disaster. Her group left Birmingham at 2.45 that morning to catch the ferry. "Quite apart from the extra cost I don't think overnight crossings are suitable for school groups," she whispers.
She enjoys the trips and feels the girls gain a great deal. "But it's a holiday, not a study tour."
EDGBASTON SCHOOL'S TRIP
Day 1: Leave Birmingham 2.45am and arrive in St Cast at 6pm Day 2: Dinard market, then walking the ramparts of St Malo Day 3: The zoo at Chateau de la Bourbansais, then Mont St Michel Day 4: The hypermarket in St Malo. Then the lighthouse at Cap Frehel for lunch and a clifftop walk to the Fort la Latte Day 5: Leave to catch the morning ferry at 9.30am. Estimated arrival in Edgbaston 9pm TRAVEL COMPANIES
Phil Broomhead organises some school trips abroad himself, taking small groups in the school minibus. But he cautions against doing this without experience of leading a group in the area. "You need to have a clear idea of what you are going to do and how much it will cost," he says. "You can't get that from brochures."
Mr Broomhead originally travelled with Schools Travel Service, and has stayed with them through changes of ownership. Now controlled by Shearings, STS offers a package which includes hotel, ferry crossing and travel by coach to and from France and in France with the same driver.
In St Cast, Lisa Prout has had a similar arrangement with Blackpool-based NST. The company provides an information and study pack with activities based on the St Cast resort.
The hotels used by the two groups are secure, with ground floor shutters and single entrances.
NST, tel: 01253 596659 STS, Shearings Travel, tel: 01942 824824 Club Europe, tel: 0181 699 7788 Schools into Europe, tel: 01222 522236. A Welsh company specialising in trips for Welsh schools.
SEE Europe, tel: 01932 820216. Organises non-reciprocal homestays with French families in St Malo or Rennes.
Despite ferry services to St Malo, most groups travel to Brittany via Cherbourg or Caen. The St Malo crossing is a long one and most leaders prefer the six-hour day crossing to either of the other ports. In good weather the group can start their suntans on the upper decks.
Both the cost and the difficulty of proper supervision mean that night crossings are not a popular option for school parties.
Groups travelling independently need to book before the end of December and early advance registration is advisable.
Brittany Ferries' group travel manager Graham Smith says it accepts bookings from mid-October. Registration before that doesn't guarantee a reservation, but it does put people in the queue. Brittany Ferries will allocate groups a lounge area and they expect one member of staff to be on hand. They demand a pupil teacher ratio of 12:1.
Brittany Ferries Group Travel Services, tel: 01705 753033