The number of schools taking pupils on skiing trips has plummeted in recent years. Gillian Thomas asks why, when there are so many benefits to be had.
What better recipe for a school trip than learning a new skill in a foreign country, with plenty of fresh air and exercise? Skiing has all these ingredients, but as a school activity it has been in the doldrums for the past 10 years.
The latest ski industry figures show that 119,000 children went on school ski trips last season, a drop of around 25,000 on both the previous years. Yet in the early Eighties, over a half a million went every year.
Several factors have pushed skiing off the agenda in many schools. An increasing burden of regulations and paperwork for school trips, particularly for health and safety, and the introduction of league tables, has led schools to concentrate on the core curriculum subjects.
Timing is a problem too. The Department for Employment and Education requires that pupils who could not otherwise afford to take part in a term-time trip, are subsidised, but going in the holidays means prices are at their highest. Also, there is a general reluctance among younger teachers to give up their own time.
Many schools were also put off ski trips by cowboy tour operators in the Eighties. Several companies, attracted into the then buoyant market without understanding its needs, went bankrupt, robbing schools not only of their trip, but their funds too.
Around 90 per cent of the schools which continue to favour skiing now take children away out of term time, mostly at half-term. This being peak season, when many families choose to go, the slopes are crowded and accommodation costs about one-third more.
"To get a ski trip off the ground you need a dedicated teacher, an encouraging head, school governors who see its importance and a supportive LEA," says Stuart Thomson, head of PE and outdoor education at Thorncliffe school, a Barrow-in-Furness comprehensive. He has taken groups for more than 20 years.
"We find that skiing is one big learning experience for the children - physically, socially and educationally. They are outdoors learning a sport, interacting with each other away from home and experiencing a foreign culture."
Tour operators, who would dearly like more schools to travel in term time, have begun to offer incentives for those who do so. SkiBound, the biggest schools operator, offers discounts of up to pound;50 per person, while Interski, which specialises in the Aosta Valley in Italy, offers either a pound;50 discount or pound;550 for the school for evey 10 pupils. It also increases the number of free supervisory places to one per seven pupils, though the normal recommended minimum is 10.
Seventy per cent of Interski's bookings are from state schools and most now go in term time.
"We are very aware that teachers have to sell the idea of a ski trip to the head and parents, so we are constantly looking at how to provide a quality package tailored to their needs," said the managing director, Colin McIntosh, a former teacher himself.
"Cost is just one factor. The type of accommodation, the amount and standard of ski instruction, and what kind of evening entertainment is included, are other important considerations for teachers."
The English Schools' Ski Association, formed in 1978 to "enhance the status of skiing in schools", offers advice, keenly priced insurance and also runs competitions.
To help teachers comply with local authority regulations on supervision, the association encourages schools to take an English Ski Council training course. "Organising a ski trip for the first time can be daunting because of the number of regulations involved," said the chairman, Gillian Gilyead. "So we aim to show how skiing can be a very valuable part of a child's education."
Understandably, ski associations, dry-slope owners and tour operators are all desperate to halt the decline in schools ski trips, a major source of future custom.
So in 1998 they formed the Snowsport Forum which has just produced a teacher's guide on the internet. This incorporates the English Ski Council's leaflet, Skiing and the National Curriculum, as well as covering everything from essential behaviour on the slopes to finance.
Most teachers would agree with Ruth House, assistant head of Woolmer Hill school, a mixed comprehensive in Haslemere, Surrey, that ski trips can be stressful, particularly having to be on 24-hour call in case of emergency.
Having organised trips for the past five years, Ruth House remains an enthusiast but advises newcomers to plan meticulously, considering every possible "what if". "Just being up a mountain or sitting in a foreign cafe has its potential problems," she says.
"But the children get so much out of a ski trip," she says. "All the effort is so rewarding when you can see them having such a ball."
Teachers Guide to Snowsportsfree on the internet at www.bssoa.co.ukteachersguide.htm. English Schools' Ski Association (annual membership pound;22), tel: 01442 241183. Interski : Tel: 01623 456333, www.interski.co uk; English Ski Council: Tel: 0121 501 2314.