It's a full-time job having fun

25th September 1998 at 01:00
Teachers leading trips know adventure means attention at all times, says Gerald Haigh.

Rod Steward, now a headteacher, remembers the first time he took children on a residential trip abroad. "I was in my early twenties, and I was in charge of 84 children and 12 adults."

The trip did not start well. "We got to Ramsgate to find the hovercraft wasn't running because of the weather. So we went to Dover and crossed to Dunkirk. The coaches were waiting at Calais. We got to the hotel at midnight instead of 2pm."

Once, "a wheel came loose on the coach in the middle of France early on a Sunday morning. We had to keep the children entertained in a wood by the side of the road, on a hot day, for eight hours. I invented a game called 'find the 20 franc note'."

Eventually they reached their adventure centre, where the exhausted, hungry and tearful children were met by hyperactive camp counsellors dressed as North American Indians, ready to take the children on - you guessed it - a woodland walk.

Mr Steward tells stories well, complete with mimicked voices and body language. His account of the sudden appearance, during a boat trip, of a naked male water skier could win an award.

At the time, of course, none of these happenings seemed particularly funny. Running any school excursion, whether a day outing to the local wildlife park, or a big residential trip abroad, brings with it a particular sense of responsibility. "There's no let up. You are on duty 24 hours a day. You're heading off problems, fielding questions, sorting out difficulties."

There are children who don't like the food ("My dad says they eat horses in France"), who find ants nests in their luggage, who lose their money, who reveal previously unknown medical conditions, who cry in the night .

And there is the fear that no matter how careful you are, a child can get hurt. Mr Steward describes watching children on canoes, or abseiling, with the weather deteriorating, all the time filled with tension and willing the instructors to end the exercise. "You have to trust them," he says.

But when a child does have an accident, it is as often in mundane circumstances. Mr Steward had a child fall off a wall and knock herself unconscious during the taking of a group photograph. A child from a neighbouring school was struck by a rock, pushed from above by youths, during a picnic in a Derbyshire dale.

It all adds up to continuous pressure, and Mr Steward recalls that when he returned from that first trip as leader, he was utterly drained. "It just saps you. I locked myself in my flat for three days. I just wanted to enjoy the sheer luxury of nobody talking to me or asking me anything."

These days, too, there is a proper increase in emphasis on caution and safety. Twenty or 30 years ago, even junior school children on trips abroad or to the seaside would be allowed lots of freedom to wander - "Meet under this clock at five".

Now, though, they are usually kept in groups with lots of adult supervision. Arguably - as commentators such as Diana Lamplugh and Dr Meyer Hillman of the Policy Studies Institute have pointed out - this can make children more vulnerable by taking away their street wisdom.

Adventure holidays now very properly make extensive use of helmets, safety ropes and close and qualified supervision. Is risk-free adventure real adventure?

"I remember standing with East London children by the sea at Swanage on a stormy day," Mr Steward says. "These were kids who had probably never seen the sea, and the waves were actually breaking over them and soaking them. They were loving it. You can't buy that experience. But these days I wouldn't have had them on the promenade at all in that weather."

He is one of many teachers who take pleasure in seeing young people marvelling at new places and experiences, realising that children can be good and funny company, and that "difficult" children can become eager and co-operative in different surroundings.

"When they hit the new place, and you see their reaction, all the hassles seem insignificant."

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