When the children from Doubletrees School in Cornwall first went out into the snow in the Black Forest they couldn't understand why they fell over. Then they stood mouths open to catch falling flakes. Giving the children a "snow experience" was just one of acting headteacher Dieter Waitz's objectives when he took a group on a two-week exchange trip to Germany. "There isn't much snow in Cornwall," he says. "I wanted them to experience something new."
Doubletrees is a day school for children aged 3 to 19 with moderate to severe learning difficulties. The 17 to 19-year-olds Mr Waitz took to Germany had a variety of needs. Some were visually impaired, others had behavioural problems and could be violent and aggressive. Some were incontinent, needing to be toileted twice a night. He took children who were autistic and others with Down's syndrome. Some could only walk 200 yards before becoming exhausted. Developmental delay meant some of these teenagers operated at the level of five-year-olds. They needed help washing and dressing.
The children were able to learn cross-country skiing. Their host school, the Friedrich Frobel Schule in Hanau near Frankfurt, advertised in the local press for people to donate equipment - 68 pairs of boots and skis were received.
The video Mr Waitz made shows a boy leaning forward with an expression of intense concentration to watch a fellow student being fitted with boots. There was plenty of practice indoors to help the students to co-ordinate their movements with special socks over the skis. "I chose cross-country skiing because it's safer, cheaper and there's easier access. There are no lifts and they don't go down the piste so fast," says Mr Waitz. "Also it's easier to learn. There was a lot of falling over. At first they could only do 200 metres but by the end of the week they could ski six or seven miles."
Doubletrees students and their German counterparts stayed at an outdoor centre in the Black Forest catering for 250 children. The students became part of a mixed community and, where possible, took advantage of integrated activities such as the disco. They visited the town, ate out in a restaurant and went on mountain walks. Mr Waitz says they were thrilled by the different noises and experiences. Some even picked up a few words of German: "It's a total social and cultural sensory experience. The more we expect from these children the more we get out of them. " The children are exempt from the language element of the national curriculum, but they understood there were people speaking a different language and they had to find new ways of communicating. "They used gestures and odd words," says Mr Waitz.
Doubletrees has fostered its school link for several years. Staff have visited Germany to look at vocational training for students with severe learning difficulties and there have been four exchanges between Germany and Cornwall.
Other special needs schools have chosen different approaches. Sean O'Sullivan, head of upper school at the Frank Wise School in Banbury, has extensive experience in this area. Frank Wise students have visited Florence and Brussels and been on an adventure holiday with PGL in the Dordogne.
Mr O'Sullivan believes in establishing contacts with local people before setting off so that they can check the suitability of accommodation and arrange visits on the ground, explaining that the children are disabled and may need wheelchair access.
"If you don't have someone on the spot there's plenty of room for misunderstandings and plain ignorance." E-mail has made his life much easier, especial for last-minute hitches. On the eve of the Florence trip the airline switched the flight to Pisa. This could have been a nightmare with special transport already arranged, but an e-mail message alerting the local contact meant all went smoothly.
He found transport services in Florence and Brussels through the Red Cross, who put him in touch with local organisations. In Italy the group used a minibus with tailgate-lift free of charge. In Belgium it hired one at the commercial rate. Accommodation costs were kept low by using youth hostels.
By contacting the European University Institute in Florence he organised 10 volunteers to help. What they lacked in experience of working with disabled children they made up for with local knowledge and enthusiasm, often putting in far more hours than their original commitment. A scout group invited the students to an evening of food, singing and games.
The main focus of the trip was on looking at art. "The Uffizi and Accademia Gallerie policy is for groups like ours to visit when the museum is closed to the public. We booked for a specific time and were the only group there. Most of the time people were happy to help but there were instances of attempted theft when the group used public transport. You can't rely on people's finer feelings."
Mr O'Sullivan has plenty of advice for schools planning similar trips, from security to the all-important school video. "Take a substantial, lockable case for medication and both staff and children should have money belts which go under clothes. A mobile phone means contact with school is easy. You need a good camcorder and a plan of what you want to do with it: an edited video of no more than 20 minutes with footage of every child. The experience is the main thing but it's lovely to have the memories." The school is trialling Apple's Creative Studio, a video production and editing package aimed at the home user. "You can get the kids to check over the video, adding voices, music and special effects, so that back in school they are consolidating and building on the experience."
Parents also have their tasks. They should label everything and give staff a comprehensive list of their child's belongings. The children need day bags with their favourite toy or game and room for their packed lunches.
The cost of trips can be prohibitive. Mr O'Sullivan finds some of the funding issues frustrating. "I'd like to see differential funding. The EU will pay for me to go to Germany to set up a link school but then won't fund the kids. I believe children with special needs merit recognition of the high cost of their trips. We have a very supportive parent teacher association. Other schools without that level of support find taking students away impossible."
There must be a high staff-pupil ratio. Frank Wise took eight staff for 14 students. "You can't expect people to throw money at you, but there could be some mechanism where the authorities paid for the staff necessary to accompany the kids." At Doubletrees, one of Waitz's priorities when he organises a trip is fund-raising.
For all the difficulties, Dieter Waitz and Sean O'Sullivan believe the journeys are invaluable. Students can make leaps in their social development. One Doubletree girl chose to stay in a dormitory with German students. She has behavioural problems and only basic language yet she was able to communicate and adapt to the situation. Similarly, one of the German boys took over from teachers and massaged the head of an English autistic girl who was upset and confused at times by the change in her routine.
"You get to know much more about the child," says Mr O'Sullivan. "One aspect of our work is to develop independence, so we start to spot things to work on. For example, a child who doesn't know how to brush their teeth. Academically, we get out of the classroom and use things which are stimulating and different and get students interacting with other people." Both he and Dieter Waitz have seen withdrawn children looking around, aware of new sounds and scenes.
The excitement in these teachers' voices when describing their students' achievements is evident. There's no doubt the distances the children come in their development warrant the miles travelled.