While many teachers nurture fond memories of youth hostels in Europe from their Inter-railing days, mention the native variety and they start talking of freckled-kneed cyclists, communal singing and cold showers. This image of something halfway between boot camp and scout jamboree has a strong hold. But to other teachers, youth hostels spell reasonably priced accommodation and a school-friendly atmosphere.
In the United Kingdom there are three Youth Hostel Associations - one for Scotland, one for Northern Ireland, and one for England and Wales. Between them they offer accommodation from castles to cottages, with purpose-built hostels and converted schools somewhere in between. The locations are equally diverse, encompassing everywhere from the remoteness of John O'Groats to the city landscape of Rotherhithe on the edge of London's Docklands.
There are around 300 hostels to choose from, so before you sit down with a brochure it's as well to know the sort of thing you're after. Scaltback Middle School, Newmarket, has been going to the same hostel, Ilam Hall, near Ashbourne in Derbyshire, for around 14 years. Teacher Lloyd Hughes says: "It's geared up for schools. The children are accommodated close together in small dormitories, so staff don't have to run all over the building to keep an eye on things. The whole group of 40 can eat together, and they provide packed lunches. It's surrounded by fields, so the children can let off steam in a safety."
For two years Ilam Hall was fully booked, and Scaltback had to go elsewhere. Now the school doesn't take any chances, and makes an advance reservation.
Don't assume the facilities will be the same everywhere; many hostels have been adapted from private homes or public buildings. It's easy, looking at the pictures in the brochures, to fall in love with a building, to be seduced by descriptions of Elizabethan manor houses or old mansions, but, as anyone who has been on a school journey knows, the practicalities of beds, hot showers and food can make or break a trip. For example, YHA Winchester's situation is an estate agent's dream. An 18th-century water mill, now owned by the National Trust, it straddles the river just a splash away from the cathedral. However, as the warden points out, the dormitories are large and the facilities very basic, so you'd have to be careful what sort of group you brought there.
Scaltback school makes its own arrangements for activities. The hostel handbooks give basic information about local attractions and possible activities. Wardens usually have a good knowledge of the local area and can put you in touch with instructors and guides. Some also keep equipment for hire at competitive rates. Many hostels have classrooms which schools can use to back up the day's activities.
You can choose your location, then customise the trip for your particular purpose. It's worth getting in touch with local specialist groups. The Geologists' Association, for example, covers the whole of the UK and is keen to establish links with schools. It may be able to put you in touch with an expert who would provide local knowledge and help in return for a small fee and expenses.
The Royal Society for the Protection of Birds has regional offices which may be able to suggest a member to act as a guide, and the Royal Yachting Association has a list of qualified instructors.
Tourist offices are an obvious and excellent resource for local activities. The Northern Ireland Tourist Office has a list of 40 specialist guides dealing with everything from wildlife to historical walks. It also publishes a manual for group organisers, which gives a wealth of useful information and contacts. Blue Badge Guides cover the various regions of the UK and are awarded their qualifications by the regional tourist boards. Contact the Guild of Registered Tourist Guides for a list of members and their special interests.
You may prefer to do everything yourself, or perhaps your purpose in staying in the hostel is to get away from others, not to join them. This is what one school had in mind when it took advantage of the YHA's rent-a-hostel scheme to provide a revision retreat for its pupils. The scheme is available from September to March, when the hostels are less busy. The price is for the building, not for the number of people. At most of them you have to do the catering but there are some where meals can be provided.
There are other reasons when isolation can be an advantage. One London teacher explains: "We took groups to Truleigh Hill in Sussex and Holmbury St Mary in Surrey. Getting there was a bit difficult, but once we'd arrived we were in a shop-free zone. It meant the children concentrated on what the area had to offer and, as there was nowhere apart from the hostel to spend their money, the cost of the trip to parents was lower than in a town. One year we went to a seaside town - keeping the children away from the shops was quite a headache. "
As many centres owned by local education authorities are closing, the YHA is working to fill the gap, and some hostels have developed special educational packages. The YHA will provide speakers for in-service training days in schools to talk about the network of accommodation and advise on where to go and what to do.
Both the English and Welsh, and the Scottish associations publish brochures about educational options - Groups Away and Bring Learning to Life, Bring Life to Learning respectively. Reading them you may wonder why anyone stays anywhere else. The Youth Hostel Association of Scotland offers organised tours based on the environmental studies curriculum for five to 14-year-olds. "We aim to take the headaches out of the organisation for teachers," says school liaison officer June Osborne.
When you book, you receive a resource pack which includes worksheets and information on the places you'll visit. Children can follow in the footsteps of the Jacobites, have an Orkney odyssey studying ancient peoples or enjoy outdoor activities on an Aviemore adventure. All tours can be adapted to meet schools' special interests.
In Suffolk, YHA Sheringham markets itself as a centre for field studies based on "coastal defences, lowland glaciation features, river studies, coastal ecology, salt and freshwater marshes, coniferous and deciduous forests". In Wales, YHA Snowdon Ranger offers orienteering in the Beddgelert Forest, studies of the effects of tourism and industrial archaeology in the Sygun Copper Mines and Llechwedd Slate Caverns.
In Derbyshire, the Peak District National Environmental Education Service and the YHA work together using local hostels and the National Park Study Centre at Losehill Hall to offer residential packages. At primary level, programmes are geared towards geography, mathematics, English and science and are linked to national curriculum attainment guidelines. Children can river dip, study food and energy chains and be landscape detectives.
For secondary and further education students, the programmes include individual project work in biology at both GCSE and A-level, limestone grassland ecology for A-level and role-playing for GNVQ, GCSE and A-level students to understand management of land-use in a national park. Diane Palumbo, sales and marketing manager for groups, emphasises that each package is flexible and can be modified to meet the needs of individual groups. And, as they are staying in hostels in a national park, students are able to use the specialist skills of the park rangers and guides.
YHA Northern Ireland does not offer specific educational packages but its literature details enough facilities and activities to keep the most hyperactive young people occupied. Cushendall hostel, on the Antrim coast, dovetails with the local activities centre. There is sea-fishing and swimming, walking in the glens and climbing the highest mountain in County Antrim. There's also bike-riding and team-building exercises.
On the edge of Glenariff Forest Park and Nature Reserve, the hostel has its own extensive grounds suitable for nature study or conservation work. The hostel is an Open Award Centre for the Duke of Edinburgh Award Scheme.
Although the YHA now has marketing managers, the organisation remains a charity with the aim of helping to "ally, especially young people of limited means, to a greater knowledge, love and care of the countryside, particularly by providing hostels or other simple means of accommodation for them in their travels and thus to promote their health, rest and education".
The YHA is engaged in sharing a resource and encouraging you and your students to get the most out of your stay, and to return, as a school or as individuals - or even as freckled-kneed cyclists.
THE ESSENTIAL ADDRESS LIST
The Youth Hostel Association of England and Wales Trevelyn House
8 St Stephen's Hill Hertfordshire AL1 2DY Tel: 01727 845047 Fax: 01727 844126
The Youth Hostel Association of Northern Ireland
22 Donegall Road Belfast BT12 5JN Tel: 01232 324733 Fax: 01232 439699
The Youth Hostel Association of Scotland
7 Glebe Crescent Stirling FK8 2JA Tel: 01786 891400 Fax: 01786 450198
June Osborne, School Liaison Officer
The Youth Hostel Association of Scotland
12 Renfield Street Glasgow G2 5AL Tel: 0141 226 3976 Fax: 0141 204 2619
Royal Yachting Association
Romsey Road Eastleigh Hampshire SO50 9YA Tel: 01703 627400 Fax: 01703 629924
Royal Society for the Protection of Birds
The Lodge Sandy Bedfordshire SG19 2DL Tel: 01767 680551
The Birdwatchers Yearbook and Diary 1998
Burlington House Piccadilly London W1V 9AG Tel: 0171 434 9298 Fax: 0171 287 0280
City of London Guide Lectures Association
co Paul Taylor, Secretary 34 St John's Court Finchley Road London NW3 6LL Tel and fax: 0171 625 9163
The Guild of Registered Tourist Guides
Guild House, 52D Borough High Street, London SE1 1XN Telephone: 0171 403 1115 Fax: 0171 378 1705357 7866
Northern Ireland Tourist Board
59 North Street Belfast BT1 1NB Northern Ireland Tel: 01232 232221 Fax: 01232 240960
English Tourist Board
Thames Tower Blacks Road London W6 9EL Tel: 0181 846 9000 Fax: 0181 563 0302
Scottish Tourist Board
19 Cockspur Street London SW1Y 5BL Tel: 0171 930 8661 Fax: 0171 930 1817
Wales Tourist Board
12 Lower Regent Street London SW1Y 4PQ Tel: 0171 409 0969 Fax: 0171 287 1761