Look before you leap

28th October 2005 at 01:00
School trips enhance not only the educational side of pupils' lives, but their emotional and intellectual growth too. With the correct planning, there is no reason to be afraid to take your charges away. Virginia Hunt reports

They used to be part and parcel of every child's education. But a series of high-profile tragedies, coupled with the risk of litigation, has seen doubts raised over whether school trips and outings should be allowed.

Even though you are new to the job, it may not be long before you are asked to organise or supervise a school outing.

Most teachers acknowledge the benefits of trips, in enriching the curriculum and supporting academic and emotional development. And, perhaps, just as importantly, a well-organised trip can be great fun. But these days many teachers shudder at the prospect. Not even reassurances from Tony Blair that outings are character-building have convinced some that they are worth the risk.

Several publicised cases have highlighted the potential problems of taking children outside the school environment. Some are tragic accidents, but where incidents could have been avoided lessons have been learned.

In September 2003, geography teacher Paul Ellis was jailed for a year for manslaughter when a 10-year-old drowned in his care. Max Palmer died after plunging into a pool at Glenridding during a visit with Fleetwood school, Lancashire. A report into the incident found Ellis, 42, had made "serious errors of judgment", the main cause of the tragedy.

In another incident, in July 2003, Alex Foulkes, 17, drowned on an expedition after ignoring teachers' advice and taking a short cut. The inquest returned a verdict of accidental death.

However, such incidents are rare. With one fatality in an average 10 million pupil visits in 2003, it's clear that more children are likely to die in road or domestic accidents than come to serious harm on a school outing.

And what could be more rewarding than seeing the look on a child's face the first time he or she sees a giraffe, or picks up frogspawn from a pond?

But if you are asked to organise or supervise a trip, should you agree to do it? Not even the teaching unions can decide on the right answer. The National Association of Schoolmasters Union of Women Teachers advises against members organising trips, fearing litigation from parents.

Earlier this year, at its annual conference, the Association of Teachers and Lecturers demanded the Government create a "no-fault compensation scheme" for parents to claim damages without ruining a teacher's career in a court case. However, in general, the union is in favour of school trips and is currently updating its guidance for members.

The National Union of Teachers believes there are educational and social benefits in taking youngsters out of the classroom but stresses that teachers should follow guidance.

One teacher, Heather Petty, recalled the look of wonder on a young child's face who realised for the first time that donkeys are not purple after all.

She said: "It made me realise how much you take for granted about children's prior knowledge and experience. This little girl was amazed to discover that not all donkeys looked like Eeyore."

Andy Bond, who works in an inner-city primary school, said a visit to a farm helped a group of children discover the difference between a horse and a cow. "I was shocked that eight-year-olds had such a lack of what I saw as common knowledge," he said.

Introducing new experiences, such as a play or concert, teaches children how to behave at events and can spark new interests. One boy who'd been to St Paul's Cathedral with his class was so inspired that he went back in his holidays.

Another teacher, Claire Bond, feels the timing of residential trips is important. Taking a class away in September, for example, can forge good relationships for the rest of the year: "You see children conquering their fears and have life-changing experiences. The hardest part is when parents won't allow their child to participate, they feel left out and it's harder to follow up in class."

Trips are hard work to organise and supervise, but the value of the experience can far outweigh potential problems.

PLANNING AND ORGANISING YOUR SCHOOL TRIP:

* Consult government guidelines on school visits. Go to http:publications.teachernet.gov.uk for more details.

* Follow school procedure. Give your line manager a copy of your plans.

* Book well in advance. Join the mailing list or teachers' network. These often run special teachers' events and offer preferential booking to members.

* Try to visit the location or venue beforehand to check out any potential risks, as well as the eating and toilet facilities.

* Write to parents, outlining the main details. Get written consent with up-to-date contact numbers for pupils.

* Use reliable companies for residential trips. Many belong to the School Travel Forum, whose members are licensed and regularly inspected: www.schooltravelforum.com

* Have clear aims about what you want the children to gain from the experience.

* Plan your route and decide on transport. Ensure coaches or minibuses meet safety regulations and enquire about any discounts. Allow extra time for possible hold-ups and dawdlers.

* Be aware of group dynamics with pupils and adults. Buddy up younger children, where partners take responsibility for each other.

* Have the right child-adult ratio for your age group. With a mixed group, try to have one adult of each sex. An experienced colleague should accompany you in your first year.

* Remind pupils to bring sensible packed lunches. Inform external caterers of special dietary requirements, including allergies.

* Make sure the cost of the trip can be met as you can only ask for voluntary contributions. Suggest payment by instalments for those who cannot afford it.

WHEN IT ALL GOES WRONG:

* Olivia Shaw, 11, from Melton primary school, in Suffolk, was left behind at a service station in France when her coach drove off without her during a school trip in September. Education chiefs launched an inquiry and Olivia was later removed by her parents from the school.

* Two teenagers from the Kings of Wessex CE school, in Somerset, were ordered home from a school trip in Geneva, Switzerland, after being found in a brothel in August this year, having also been on a drinking spree.

* Autistic pupil, Geraint Fowler, 13, from Trinity Fields special school, near Caerphilly, was left alone at Barry Island in south Wales for two hours in July after teachers left him behind. He was later found safe, playing on a beach.

* A group of teenagers from Robert Gordon's college, in Aberdeen, was left stranded in the Cairngorms in June, wearing just their pyjamas, after their tent was flooded by a nearby river in bad weather. They were later praised by police for keeping calm.

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