It's lunchtime. A dozen blue canoes meander round the bend in the river and make their way to the bank. Each is crewed by three or four children who remove helmets and buoyancy aids before attacking the salads, French bread and fruit that has been laid out for them. Overhead a brilliant sun burns in an azure sky and to either side the limestone cliffs of the Ard che gorge provide a backdrop. PE teacher Kelvin Binns balances a well-filled baguette while pouring a cool drink. He is the party leader. It's hell, but someone has to do it.
This is a PGL activity holiday in southern France and the group, from Henbury School near Bristol, are some of the 100,000 guests that PGL will host this year at its 25 centres. Henbury has been taking groups with PGL for 10 years. While the Year 9 group are in France, a Year 7 group are staying at one of PGL's UK sites.
"It's normally organised as part of a school activities week," says Kelvin. "The trips broaden childrens' minds and help them become more independent. "
The southern France trip involves a split-site holiday, with three days on the Mediterranean and three days in the Ard che. On the Med the pupils experience windsurfing and dinghy sailing before transferring north for a two- day expedition down the Ard che gorge. In the evenings a programme of sports quizzes and discos is organised by the PGL staff. Pupils pay about Pounds 275 for the holiday and the teachers go free.
Stephanie Reid (13) is sharing a tent with Genna Blake (14). Both are enjoying the trip with the canoeing being a highpoint. Pressed to think of a lowpoint the pair came up with:"Getting up in the morning" (Stephanie). And "The Disco didn't go on long enough" (Genna).
For their teachers the lowpoint was the journey down, "close contact with excitable Year 9s for 13 hours". Henbury staff were Year 9 tutors with Kelvin as the year head, a staffing formula that was intended to make the most of the opportunities for developing relationships and understanding which the trip offered. A free place was offered to parent Marion Lee, whose daughter was initially aghast at the prospect "but warmed to the idea".
PGL was founded 40 years ago when Peter Gordon Lawrence started canoe camping trips for small groups on the River Wye on the English-Welsh border. Peter led the groups himself and called the company PGL Voyages. A coal lorry was used to transport canoes and equipment back to the start point at Glazebury.
The first schools brochure was published in 1960 and soon the company was specialising in schools holidays. Peter says: "The schools market was easy to focus on, clearly defined." Through the Sixties and Seventies development was rapid. "We simply didn't have enough beds to put the people into", and the search for accommodation led to the purchase of Boreatton Park in Shropshire.
From its earliest days PGL had a French dimension, first on the Rhone and then the Ard che, but the basic product remained the same - camping, canoeing and sailing. In the past 10 years a series of outside pressures have restricted the company's business by 25 per cent. The Eighties recession was followed by teachers' action. In the Nineties these pressures closed two activity holiday providers, one of which, Quest, PGL acquired.
The 1993 Lyme Bay accident, when four teenagers drowned on a canoeing trip during an activity holiday, led PGL to invest large sums in additional training for its staff. It is widely recognised in the industry that the Lyme Bay accident was a result of poor management at a rogue centre. But the result has been an Act of Parliament specifically to regulate the industry and a new inspection authority to oversee safety. The company maintains that PGL staff were fully competent before Lyme Bay, but the emphasis now is in the provision of the paper qualifications that the new inspection authority (AALA) is looking for.
Overall the commercial schools market is worth around Pounds 100 million but there are relatively few large companies. Most providers operate single site centres. PGL's main competitor is Acorn Venture, which has nine centres in the UK, France and Spain, including one on the Ard che.
Acorn was started by ex-teacher Andrew Gardner, who went with his school to the annual camp at Tal y Bont in Wales and was "struck by the tremendous benefits both for the kids and the teachers".
Andrew left teaching and set up the company, which in the early days simply provided equipment, allowing teachers to organise the actual camps themselves. Today, Acorn runs "villages" of modern tents and, as with PGL, Acorn staff take care of the activities and the supervision, leaving teachers free to manage the educational side.
More recently the existing providers have been joined by Superchoice, a Pontins-owned company which operates centres on the Isle of Wight and in Dorset. Pontins has invested heavily in Superchoice and its Isle of Wight camp can accommodate up to 600 children at a time. Superchoice groups are accommodated in cabins and chalets and the emphasis is on the activities rather than the outdoor experience.
This kind of teacher-led activity holiday is a very British phenomenon. European visitors are often amazed to discover that children go on this kind of trip in term time.
Within the UK some people question the educational validity of such trips. It is said the experiences they offer are widely available and precious school time could be better used in the classroom. Acorn's Andrew Gardner rejects that view. He believes that the residential experience is the key. "Pupils and teachers develop a better understanding of each other on trips like this. " The English Outdoor Council supports that opinion. In promoting 1997 as the year of Outdoor Education it argued: "Challenging outdoor experiences promote the development of communication, problem-solving and decision-making skills which have currency across a range of occupations."
More teachers are turning to a specialist provider rather than trying to organise trips themselves. This reflects the workload in schools, but it is also a reaction to the need to ensure safety for pupils and peace of mind for teachers. PGL and Acorn depend on repeat business, which is a great incentive to get the experience right.
Teachers thinking of booking an overseas activity holiday would be well advised to consider that European regulations on accommodation, safety and vetting of instructors are nowhere near as comprehensive as UK practice. Good operators will allow inspection visits and operate their European centres to UK standards. Both PGL and Acorn follow this policy, following safety standards on the Ard che far in advance of those required by the French authorities.
Back in the Ard che gorge the students from Henbury School have polished-off the lunch and are badgering the instructors for permission to swim. Permission is granted on condition that buoyancy aids are worn, and two instructors take canoes onto the water to supervise the group. Kate, interviewed through mouthfuls of French bread, reckons the holiday has been "really good - I'd like to come again. And the teachers have been great - like real people."
* Acorn Venture, Worcester Road, Hagley, Stourbridge, DY9 0NW. Tel: 01562 882151 * PGL Adventure Holidays, Alton Court, Penyard lane, Ross-on-Wye, Herefordshire, HR9 5NR. Tel: 01989 768768 * Superchoice Adventure, 191 Freshfield Road, Brighton, East Sussex, BN2 2YE. Tel: 01273 676467 * To check whether centres operating in the UK have a licence contact: Adventurous Activities Licensing Authority (AALA). Tel: 01222 755715
* 'The idea is for staff to get closer to the kids'
Keith Wakefield has been a PGL customer for 21 years. His first trip was in his probationary year and he has since taken children, from St John's Church of England Middle School in Kidderminster, to several PGL centres in the UK.
The first trip was to a tented site near Llangorse in Wales, and more recently the school has been using a PGL-owned farmhouse near Hay-on-Wye, which Keith reckons is a "lovely area - the farmhouse is ideal for us". Keith is very positive about the benefits the trip offers: "Kids are put into an environment where they have to make decisions for themselves. The quiet ones come out of their shells and some of the rowdy ones can bottle out of activities - losing their street cred in the process.
"The whole idea is for staff to get closer to the kids and that has real benefits in the classroom when we return to school."
Keith feels that much of the success of the experience is due to the young instructors, who are very enthusiastic "with a lot of energy".
Over the years he has seen the quality of the instruction improve and he has no qualms about handing over his Year 7 to the PGL staff.