The fine art of taking a trip
Young people remember the excitement of school journeys long after more mundane aspects of school life have faded from their minds.
When Mike Sugden, headteacher of St Mary's and St Benedict's RC Primary School near Preston, meets ex-pupils in their teens and twenties , they often ask: "Do you remember when we went to Boreatton Park?"
Mr Sugden has taken a group of around 40 Year 6 pupils to the PGL adventure centre near Shrewsbury every year for 15 years, and is going again next summer.
What he particularly likes about PGL is the staffing ratio. "We always take at least two male and two female members of staff, but our staff are additional to the highly trained PGL staff, who take complete responsibility for the children from when they get up to when they go to bed at 9pm."
Relying on a tour operator certainly takes the pressure off teachers, who are finding they need more reassurance than ever when organising trips, says Martin Hudson, a director of PGL and chairman of the British Activity Holiday Association (BAHA).
"In these litigious times, I think it's reassuring for teachers to know that we work very closely with insurance companies and have well-established systems in place to deal with accidents and emergencies.
"Considering children are safer on a school trips than they are at home, that aspect of school travel gets a disproportionate amount of publicity.
But it should give teachers confidence to know that they are backed up by the contacts and experience of an established school travel company."
Of course, school tour operators can go bust, as Top Class Travel did in 2001. Thirty-nine schools would have lost their deposits if NST, the large Blackpool-based operator, had not stepped in.
But, in general, the business is well-regulated. Air tour companies must by law ensure that deposits are covered (Top Class Travel had failed to disclose that it was no longer backed by the Association of British Travel Agents) and since 1992 package tour companies have been regulated by the EC Package Tours Directive.
But schools should always phone ABTA to check a company's credentials.
British activity centres (but not those abroad) have to be licensed and BAHA also has its own system of inspection. There are now around 25 school travel agents in the UK and more than 30 companies (not counting LEAs) run activity centres.
According to Richard Brierly, founder of the School Travel Forum (which represents the interests of school tour operators) around 40 per cent of schools now book their journeys through commercial companies.
In response to growing concerns about parents' unrealistic expectations of 100 per cent safety, STF has drawn up a "contract of understanding" between teachers and parents which states that while teachers will do everything they can to ensure their pupils' safety on a trip, absolute safety can never be guaranteed.
One reason commercial companies give for advising teachers not to arrange foreign tours independently is that, while abroad, a school is subject to the laws of the host country and you need to know what these are.
"Our people are trained in safety and they know the destinations inside out. They have checked that the hotel facilities and coach companies are suitable for schools and they have the ability to respond professionally and quickly to a major or minor incident," says Mark Sanders, managing director of the Cambridge branch of NST.
It specialises in long-haul trips to India, China, Russia and the USA. "We take care of the practical, educational and cultural side of the trip, so teachers can concentrate on interacting with their pupils in a relaxed fashion," says Sanders.
Nevertheless, many teachers do like to organise their own school trips, especially to UK destinations. The new DfES directive that every school should have a designated educational visits co-ordinator has long been adopted by Copthall Girls' Comprehensive in Mill Hill, north London and, for the past 15 years, former deputy headteacher Margaret Thomas has done the job.
"We use commercial companies for foreign trips, but when it comes to the UK, I've gotit down to a fine art," she says. Among several field trips and journeys she continually adapts and refines is a popular Year 7trip to Yorkshire.
The six-day package, including coach travel, hotel rooms in Scarborough, all meals, daily excursions and entry fees, costs around pound;170 per pupil. (This compares favourably with pound;129 plus VAT for a Monday to Friday visit - not including coach travel - for a primary group at PGL's Boreatton Park activity centre).
"What I like about organising it myself is that you are absolutely in control and can cater for every eventuality. Our party of around 120 children and 12 staff has sole occupancy of the hotel so we can set the rules.
"You do need expertise and I certainly agree with anyone who says that organising a school trip is a minefield, but if you do it properly you get something that no company could offer - at a better price," she says.
NST Travel Group
Tel: 01253 352525
BAHA Tel: 01932 252994
PGL Travel: Stand SJ28