Out of the ordinary
School visits are in the headlines again, but after years of bad news, the accent this time is positive. The stress is on the educational value of an experience, and ministers have underlined that the actual risk of an accident is very low - and it's even lower for special needs groups where there are high staff-pupil ratios.
Teachers who lead trips are evangelical about the benefits. "Our students develop their self confidence, their belief in their ability to do things," says Colin Dagg, assistant head at St Francis special school in Lincoln.
His enthusiasm is echoed by Brian Salisbury, headteacher of St John's school in Woodford Bridge, on London's north-east boundary. St John's is a non-maintained special school for children with severe and moderate special needs. Pupils regularly go sailing with the Cirdan Faramir Trust, which owns five boats.
FULL DAYS - AND NIGHTS
Last summer, Salisbury took a small group on the Queen Galadriel, which is based at Weymouth. The voyage took them across the channel to Guernsey, then on to Cherbourg. On trips like this the students stand a night watch, taking the helm of a 200-tonne sailing vessel in the middle of the world's busiest waterway.
Brian Salisbury argues that it's the all-in nature of the activity that has the biggest impact. "There's no down-time, they are always on the boat, always in the team," he says.
During the week, the St John's youngsters scrubbed the decks, polished the brass, hauled the sails and secured the lines. They conquered their fears about getting on and off the boat using ladders, and they washed up, dried up, bought their own food and carried it back to the ship.
The Cirdan Faramir Trust is a regular in the Tall Ships race and took more than 1,000 young people to sea last year. More than 95 per cent of trips were charters by disadvantaged groups; many included children with behavioural difficulties.
A sailing trip like this is not cheap: prices start at around pound;53 per head per day. But the trust aims to make sailing accessible, and few clients pay the full cost.
"We have a bursary scheme," says trust administrator Leonie Turner. "A lot of our fund raising goes into making these trips affordable."
The trust cannot take young people with severe physical disabilities, though some sailing organisations can (see below).
For a residential experience that challenges physically disabled children, an outdoor education provider such as Bendrigg, a centre in the Lake District that children from St Francis school have been visiting for 20 years, is ideal.
John Cawley retired as assistant head of St Francis last year. He's still involved with the school and will be visiting Bendrigg again this summer, helping current assistant head Colin Dagg.
"Bendrigg is a superb centre," says Cawley. "The students are buzzing about the trip for weeks afterwards, because for most of them it is a new experience."
He has total confidence in the Bendrigg staff, but taking a group of disabled youngsters on the trip is not easy. It's a massive operation involving care staff, teachers, care ambulances, paperwork, advance visits and reassurance for worried parents.
"People can be overprotective, and a lot of the special needs students are used to having things done for them," says Trevor Clarke, Bendrigg's principal. "What we offer doesn't differ substantially from the programme at any other outdoor centre. But we work hard to ensure every child has a chance to try everything - from caving to rock climbing."
When groups arrive at Bendrigg one of the first activities is usually a walk in the local woods, where there are few footpaths. Wheelchairs are hauled over boulders; sometimes with a ratio of four or five helpers to one student. The same approach is taken to all the activities. Where specialist equipment is required it has been adapted to allow participation by everyone.
It's difficult to appreciate what this means until you see a student with cerebral palsy 65 feet up a rock climb.
"We have no hesitation at all in taking any kind of special need," says Clarke. " All we ask is that people bring their own care staff." For able groups the ratio of care staff to students might be two-to-10, for some children it might be one-to-one.
This ratio does not include the centre's own leaders. Bendrigg's policy is to assign one leader per group; they are then assisted by other specialist staff and Bendrigg's team of volunteers.
All Bendrigg's tutors are trained in many activities, including rock climbing, abseiling, caving and sailing. The centre has its own kit, including waterproofs, helmets, boots and warm clothes.
Bendrigg is a year-round operation. Groups have been out on the lake in mid-January, when they've had to break the ice. "With the right clothing and preparation you can do most of the activities no matter what the weather," says Clarke.
TRIP OF A LIFETIME
Most school trip providers can cater for pupils with special needs in a mainstream class, although they may need to stay in separate accommodation or take a slightly different range of activities. Most providers offer wheelchair access.
For groups of special needs pupils it is best to go to a dedicated provider.
* Bendrigg Trust (www.bendrigg.org.uk) is part of the Adventure for All group of outdoor education centres that specialise in catering for groups with special needs. See www.adventureforall.org.uk for a full list of the centres.
* Cirdan Faramir Sailing Trusts (www.cirdan-faramir.co.ukhome.htm).
* Jubilee Sailing Trust (www.jst.org.uk) owns two square-rigged barques that have been adapted to take young people with challenging disabilities.
* For other organisations specialising in sail training see the Association of Sail Training Organisations at www.asto.org.uk.
* The Institute for Outdoor Learning website (www.outdoor-learning.orgosbindex.htm) lists most UK outdoor education centres and provides brief details.
* The Adventurous Activities Licensing Authority (www.aala.org.uk) inspects outdoor education centres and lists those it approves.