It is a truth near-universally acknowledged that the fondest memories of school life are not actually formed while in school: they are, more often than not, made on school trips.
At the risk of committing the sin of deploying personal anecdote when discussing macro policy, I was reminded of this a couple of weeks ago while on a family trip to the battlefields of northern France and Flanders. Visiting memorials, museums and monuments, I was struck by just how many were accompanied by poppy wreaths laid by British schools.
It is truly pleasing that there is still a flow of British schoolchildren to these haunting and historic sites, being reminded of the sacrifices their forebears made in the name of king and country, and to witness the futility of (some) wars.
But for how much longer?
As we canter towards “school trip season”, there is growing concern that, for many heads, such trips now fall into the category of expendable. They face the chop as the government’s funding cuts increasingly drive schools into taking a Ryanair approach to their provision. Anything that’s not deemed essential is being driven off the balance sheet.
Let’s be clear: the cuts are real, whatever fatuous nonsense the Department for Education might pump out. The respected and politically neutral Institute for Fiscal Studies has estimated that the most recent funding settlement will deliver a real-terms cut of nearly 5 per cent over the four years to 2019. Unsurprisingly, this is having an impact on extracurricular activities. A survey undertaken last year by the Association of School and College Leaders found that 68 per cent of school leaders said they were likely to scrap trips or visits.
This would surely be desperate news in any era but in 2018, it seems particularly grim.
Brexit signposts one reason why we should feel despondent about the decline of such forays. There are signs that today’s young people are increasingly dislocated. Addled by the internet and industrial decline, this is a generation that seemingly hankers after a sense of place, and a sense of belonging. No amount of classroom history/citizenship/art/music can match actually getting out and playing witness to our collective heritage.
Similarly, and only partially related, the 21st century has ushered in an era of social immobility. One effective thing that schools can try to do about this (although they must not be held responsible for a lack of upward mobility) is broadening the horizons, almost literally, of their pupils. For many poor students, their first experience of life beyond the confines of their locality will be on a school minibus – a moment that teachers know can be transformative.
In these uncertain times, we need schools to be full of joy, not full of accountants counting pennies. We need them to be places where children come to understand who they are and where they’re from: learning to belong. And school visits, be they outward bounds adventures to some rural idyll, history trips to Flanders Field or geography fieldtrips to the Jurassic Coast, play an essential role in that.
To keep this wonderful tradition alive, schools need money: money that’s seemingly not forthcoming from ministers. The government’s farcical insistence that education funding is climbing is increasingly offensive to those struggling to make ends meet at the chalkface of state education.
If school trips become a reserve of independent schools, alongside art and music provision, we will suffer the consequences long after the dust has settled on Brexit, and the National Debt is judged sufficiently pegged back. The young people of 2018 deserve more than no-frills schooling.
Ed Dorrell is head of content at Tes. He tweets @Ed_Dorrell