Curriculum field trips - It's time to boldly go ..

17th April 2009 at 01:00
Taking pupils outside the comfort of the classroom can be a daunting step for some teachers, says Carolyn Fry. But field trips provide unique opportunities to apply learning to the real world

While you read this, three polar explorers will be battling their way on foot across disintegrating Arctic sea ice in temperatures as low as -50 degC.

The aim of the 1,000km trek to the North Geographic Pole by Pen Hadow, Martin Hartley and Ann Daniels, is to gather data on the thickness of the sea ice and determine its lifespan in the face of warmer global temperatures from climate change.

It's a good example of how traditional data-gathering geographical fieldwork, of the kind pioneered by Robert Scott and Ernest Shackleton, is as relevant as ever in the modern world.

Many questions facing policymakers today - from how best to prepare for the impacts of climate change to what are effective methods for managing migration - can only be answered with solid data and the knowledge to interpret it within a global context. Field trips, undertaken as part of structured geography learning, provide just such skills by enabling pupils to observe how the world works in real-life situations.

However, just as demand is increasing for graduates who understand how humans interact with the environment, so the amount of fieldwork being taught by geography teachers is dwindling.

Teachers say this is because of rising costs, a perceived high risk of accidents and the increased bureaucracy needed to fulfil health and safety requirements. One paper published in the Royal Geographical Society journal Area studied the decline in fieldwork at six state secondary schools in a northern English city. It found these schools were also fearful of litigation.

One teacher said: "They cannot guarantee that you won't be prosecuted if anything goes wrong. The amount of times things will go wrong are tiny. But frankly, I don't want to spend five years in jail for a child not doing as they are told."

The probability of a fatal accident on a school trip in the UK is small; approximately one child dies for every eight million pupil visits. By contrast, road accidents account for 600 child fatalities a year. Although there is no minimum time requirement for fieldwork in geography lessons in the UK, it is considered an essential part of all national frameworks for ages three to 19.

The statutory geography curriculum for key stages 1-3 expects pupils to participate in "fieldwork investigations outside the classroom"; GCSE pupils have to "acquire and apply techniques of enquiry - including fieldwork"; and those studying for AS and A-levels must "undertake investigative work and use primary sources, including fieldwork."

Ofsted recently published the findings of geography surveys it carried out between 2004 and 2006 to identify causes for the decline in fieldwork and found the schools that used outdoor teaching effectively made fieldwork a key part of what they taught. However, these schools were in the minority. In Geography in Schools: Changing Practice, it reported that two-thirds of the schools visited did not meet statutory requirements for fieldwork. Inspectors noted that in the secondary schools where it was a strength, it was significant in pupils' views of the subject and the career choices they made.

One reported that fieldwork was a key factor in why 44 per cent of their cohort coming up to KS4 chose geography.

The Government launched its learning outside the classroom initiative in 2006 with the aim of ensuring all young people had chances to participate in high-quality outdoor learning experiences. It set out to improve academic achievement, develop skills and independence in a widening range of environments and provide the opportunity to take acceptable levels of risk.

However, Ofsted's 2008 report Learning Outside the Classroom found only six of the 27 schools it visited to check on progress had any knowledge of this initiative. Those schools that did have some strategy in place for outside learning benefited, it concluded.

"When planned and implemented well, learning outside the classroom contributed significantly to raising standards and improving pupils' personal, social and emotional development," said the report.

Ivan Mulinder, deputy head and head of geography, has successfully reversed the decline in geography fieldwork at his school, Cranbrook College in Ilford, Essex. The school is an independent boys' school with about 220 pupils aged between three and 15. When he joined the school just over a year ago, the amount of fieldwork being undertaken by geography pupils was negligible. Since then, he has introduced day visits for each year group, as well as offering foreign residential visits to France and Morocco.

"I've always believed fieldwork to be essential," he says. "A lot of schools might be frightened of sending pupils out because of health and safety, but I think fieldwork is fundamental to geography teaching. We have to go out. As long as it's planned well in advance I am prepared to take the risk."

Mr Mulinder, who has been a teacher for 17 years and ran similar field trips for 12 years within the state sector, says teachers who cite cost or health and safety reasons for not doing fieldwork are simply making excuses. The day trips he runs include visits to the Science Museum in London to study tectonics, the Royal Botanic Gardens at Kew to learn about ecosystems and climate, and Walton-on-the-Naze, Essex, to analyse coastal processes. If the school is able to use its own minibus, then visits are generally free; if he needs to hire a bus, there may be a cost, but it's usually no more than Pounds 20 for the day. "I get the headteacher's verbal consent first and then cost the trips and do the preparation work," he says. "The next stage is to get written approval from the head. Then I complete the risk assessment and compile emergency contacts."

For foreign visits, Mr Mulinder uses the services of an external fieldwork specialist called Discover Ltd, which is responsible for the risk assessments. The trip to France's Cevennes National Park costs Pounds 400 and includes a day-long river study, tourism-related investigations and an urban land use analysis.

The Morocco itinerary costs Pounds 700 and includes visits to Marrakesh and the Atlas Mountains. "Pupils went on the first trip to Morocco organised by this school in February," says Mr Mulinder. "In Marrakesh we made a land- use map and discussed whether the city was typical of those found in less economically developed countries - which it isn't, because it's grown up around a historic centre. Then we did a river study in the Atlas Mountains and studied how the Berber people live and farm. One pupil described the visit as `a trip of a lifetime', and another as `an amazing experience that couldn't be put into words'."

Not all schools or parents have the resources to send pupils on such far- flung visits, but that doesn't mean pupils can't undertake quality fieldwork.

Martin Crabbe, head of geography and sustainability co-ordinator at Glebe School in Bromley, a secondary where pupils have moderate learning difficulties, has developed a programme of activities for pupils to carry out in the school grounds.

"We aim to improve sustainability locally," he explains. "For example, we have a small garden in which the pupils grow plants. Some are used in food technology classes and we hold a farmers' market as a joint venture with three other special schools."

Sophie MacDowall, head of geography at Guildford High School in Surrey, also advocates using school grounds for fieldwork. "For one exercise we place thermometers and wind vanes at different places around the grounds," she explains. "Pupils have to locate the equipment on a map and take readings. They then assess whether there are differences in the records gathered and, if so, discuss why."

Help is at hand for teachers wanting to develop fieldwork programmes, be they local projects or major foreign expeditions. The Department for Education and Skills recommended in 2002 that all schools should have an educational visits co-ordinator. Their role is to ensure field trips meet school requirements, assess the competence of prospective leaders, make sure parents are informed and give consent, provide advice on health and safety issues and make emergency procedures.

It's also, of course, possible to undertake some virtual fieldwork. Google Earth enables pupils to "fly" anywhere to view satellite images, maps, terrain and buildings. It's a good way to show places that cannot be visited, such as Antarctica or the Arctic. Web technology also means pupils can virtually follow in the footsteps of data-recording explorers and adventurers as they make journeys across the globe.

A browse through Pen Hadow's Catlin Arctic Survey website, for example, provides pupils with the location of the team, records ice thickness in the vicinity and the explorers' heart and respiratory rates as they battle across the ice. Mr Hadow, who is 47, says the ice survey will be his last major Arctic expedition.

But who will follow in his footsteps? It won't be the pupils who are confined to the classroom, but those who get their hands dirty and are lucky enough to learn through fieldwork.

Fieldwork resources

- Royal Geographical Society courses

For information on courses held at the Royal Geographical Society and Google Earth training, visit

- Free London travel

Pupils from London schools may be eligible for the school party travel scheme. This allows free travel on the Tube, DLR, bus, tram and National Rail services within Greater London to visit places of educational and cultural interest, provided the trip supports teaching as part of the national curriculum. Visit

- Keeping safe

For information on health and safety on educational trips, visit

- Far-flung fieldwork

For more information on Discover Ltd's school visits to France and Morocco, visit

- Wide-ranging advice

Geography Teaching Today's website,, has 225 pages, video clips and online interactives providing advice and support on health and safety, key locations and techniques. The latest section,, focuses on undertaking fieldwork near water.

- Geographical Association

The Geographical Association has a range of resources covering fieldwork. Visit It also runs the worldwise challenge, in which pupils complete a series of quizzes and activities for the chance to take part in a weekend of free fieldwork activities. The association will be launching its new manifesto, A Different View, at its annual conference in Manchester on April 17. Visit

- Outdoor learning

The Learning Outside the Classroom website,, has advice, continuing professional development training modules, case studies of good practice and links to additional resources.

- Explore the Arctic

You can follow the progress of the Catlin Arctic Survey at

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