Cuts put the brakes on school trips

10th June 2011 at 01:00
But some Scottish heritage sites are bucking the downward trend

Science centres are opting to take their expertise into the classroom and boosting their "outreach" work as tighter budgets force school to cut back on school trips, research by TESS shows.

But historic sites such as Culloden, Burns' birthplace museum in Ayrshire and Bannockburn are bucking the trend of a decline in numbers since 2008, when the impact of the economic downturn began to be felt.

Scottish Government travel subsidies for heritage education - part of its strategy to raise young Scots' awareness of their native history and culture - are boosting attendance.

In the past year, education visits to Historic Scotland sites have risen by 9 per cent - from 67,129 to 73,309; Glasgow Science Centre, by contrast, has dropped 3.2 per cent from 62,907 to 60,932.

"There is a bit of price sensitivity for schools at the moment and it's easier for us to go to the school than for them to come to us," says Ian Wilson, communications manager at the Glasgow Science Centre.

Over 2010-11, the centre's touring programme visited 82,400 young people in schools and community groups, an increase on the 2009-10 figure of 61,700.

The allure for cash-strapped schools of an outreach visit is made explicit on the centre's website: there's no need for permission slips; all transport costs are "solved"; all experiences "link to the Curriculum for Excellence"; and costs start from "as little as pound;1.05 per pupil", it says.

The Edinburgh International Science Festival, meanwhile, only operates during the Easter break, but its Generation Science project is the largest school science touring programme in the UK, reaching more than 60,000 primary children.

The figures suggest the financial climate is having a definite impact on children's access to the kind of external experiences that many believe can enhance learning and inspire their imaginations. While many teachers appreciate outreach classroom visits, they also feel that in-reach experiences to centres have added value.

Janette Kean, principal teacher at Westfield Primary in West Lothian and a keen promoter of science in the primary sector, wishes that science centres were able to offer the same level of travel subsidy as some of the heritage sites. Her school, a two-class primary in a rural area, often finds the cost of running whole-school trips to either Dynamic Earth in Edinburgh or Glasgow Science Centre "prohibitive", particularly when entrance fees are counted too, she says. Schools with a high free-meal entitlement cannot ask children's families to subsidise them, she adds.

School Leaders Scotland's general secretary, Ken Cunningham, thinks it is in the interests of visitor centres to design their education programmes to complement the school curriculum. "In these austere times it will protect them and help reinforce their link with schools," he says.

Kathleen Boal, learning manager at the Culloden Visitor Centre, says her venue has done just that. In 2009-10 it recorded 4,500 visits by pupils, rising to 5,300 in 2010-11. The increase is a sign of the centre adapting its education programme to Curriculum for Excellence, she says.

Former secondary teacher Colin MacConnachie, now head of learning services at the National Trust for Scotland, says schools are "feeling the pinch", but that the trust is increasingly trying to push all of its properties' education programmes to be "more curricular-related".

"At somewhere like Culloden or Bannockburn we're missing a trick if we just teach pupils about the battle," he says. "There's a huge potential to deliver programmes on human conflict more widely, and that's where the tie-in with Curriculum for Excellence can really work."

TESS enquiries suggest travel costs are a major factor in schools' choice whether or not to run trips. Aberdeen's Satrosphere Science Centre, for example, has seen little change in its 2008-9 school visitor numbers after Scottish Government funding allowed it to support schools wanting to travel to the venue.

But Stephen Wollard, the Royal Zoological Society of Scotland's education and interpretation manager, said teachers had told him that the increased cost of hiring transport was prohibiting visits to the zoo.

Without a travel discount scheme for transport, it is often parents who end up shelling out - and they are feeling the financial pressure, according to the Scottish Parent Teacher Council's Eileen Prior. "There's been an incremental increase in recent years in requests to contribute larger sums to schools, whether for school trips or equipment," she says.

The head of a school in a deprived area of Edinburgh told TESS that taking her pupils to the pantomime every year was "a great experience for the children", but it was likely to be "their only opportunity, because if they don't go with me they won't be able to go with their parents".

The consensus is clear, however: school trips are invaluable.

"They enhance and enrich the curriculum, bring more fun into the educational experience and, crucially, allow teachers and pupils to see each other in a different light," says Willie Wight, headteacher of Hillhead High in Glasgow.

For Ronnie Summers, head of Musselburgh Grammar in East Lothian, visits to museums, science centres and outdoor education venues "open doors for pupils to places and people they might not have been aware of - and give them experiences away from the classroom that they'll remember years after they've left school".

But however much school heads champion the virtues of trips, making them a reality can be a fraught process, reliant on a fragile mix of parental approval, staff enthusiasm, co-operation from visitor centres, and the availability of suitable accommodation and transport. Negotiating health and safety and risk assessment requirements, particularly now that disability discrimination laws require schools to make trips as accessible as possible to children with special needs, adds a further layer of bureaucracy and stress.

In March 2010, the bus crash involving pupils and staff from Lanark Grammar, in which 17-year-old pupil Natasha Jade Paton died, brought health and safety concerns into sharp focus. The Procurator Fiscal's findings on the accident are still awaited, but in its wake schools in Scotland have been reminded of the pressure they are under to judge risk appropriately.

Despite this burden, Mrs Prior, executive director of the SPTC, says there is a frequent misconception around parents' attitudes to risk. "School trips are definitely something that parents value," she says. "They recognise the opportunity and, as long as the risk and benefits are balanced, they're comfortable."

Mrs Prior is more concerned by the consequences of child protection legislation. The Protection of Vulnerable Groups (Scotland) Act 2007 means local authorities can ask any adults in contact with children in council settings to sign up to a disclosure scheme, with some authorities, such as East Renfrewshire, taking a tougher line than others.

"We have to take a more proportionate view of disclosure," Mrs Prior says. "Children have natural day-to-day contact with people who have not been disclosed and there has to be an element of trust there. We can't have a situation where the system being applied supposedly to protect young people results in their freedoms being curtailed."

Legislation on disclosure has transformed schools' policy on trips abroad. Lesley Atkins, Glasgow City Council's International Officer, says "very few" schools in the city would now organise exchange schemes where pupils stayed in family homes abroad - and if they did, the host family would have to be thoroughly checked in advance through a visit by a staff member.

There is no causal link between child protection concerns and the number of school trips abroad, Mrs Atkins says. Some parents, however, have voiced concerns that the new arrangements mean pupils will miss out on being immersed in family life, the experience most likely to enable them to speak and understand a foreign language.

Closer to home, the cancellation last year of a two-day overnight trip by P5 pupils from a Glasgow primary is perhaps symptomatic of how child safety concerns and practical problems can produce obstacles for schools.

A visit was planned to the Culloden Battlefield and Visitor Centre near Inverness, with pupils staying overnight in a local youth hostel. In previous years, the manager of the hostel had ensured that accommodation for the children was kept separate from members of the public. But the overnight element of the trip had to be abandoned when new staff at the hostel failed to provide the necessary help - and instead, pupils were ferried up and down the A9 to Inverness two days running, leaving early in the morning and returning late each day.

In contrast, Willie Wight's plans for sixth-year pupils to take part in a sponsored parachute jump to raise funds for Hillhead's partner school in Kenya have parents' full backing.

"It would be easy to say, `I don't think I'll bother because there's too much red tape," he says. "But if you believe in the value of this for pupils, you'll jump through the hoops to make sure it happens."


Schools can apply to the Scottish Government for a heritage education travel subsidy. The aim is to encourage visits to heritage sites of national importance in support of Curriculum for Excellence and outdoor learning. All Scottish schools can apply, but priority is given to schools in areas with high indicators of multiple deprivation. Every Historic Scotland site and three National Trust for Scotland sites are eligible for visits. Seventy-five per cent of transport costs up to a maximum of pound;250 will be covered.


New Lanark World Heritage Site: For booked groups as a whole (including educational groups from nurseries to tertiary) there has been a reduction in numbers of 5-10 per cent each year since 2006.

Numbers across National Museums Scotland (National Museum of Scotland*, National War Museum, National Museum of Costume, National Museum of Rural Life and National Museum of Flight) - covering participation in activities rather than just footfall:

2007-08 - 49,359

2008-09 - 41,802

2009-10 - 50,976

2010-11 - 43,926

* partially closed for refurbishment over the past three years

Glasgow Science Centre

`In-reach' education (number of individuals):

2008-09 - 62,300

2009-10 - 62,907

2010-11 - 60,932

OutreachGSC on tour, going out to schools and community groups:

2009-10 - 61,700

2010-11 - 82,400.

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