Sports tours abroad can provide great learning experiences - and not just on the pitch. Phil Revell pulls on his football boots.
When Carre's grammar school pupils pile in the bus for a sports fixture there's no knowing where they could be heading. The boys have left Sleaford, Lincolnshire, for tours all over Europe and played more European venues than some Premier League soccer sides.
"Holland, France, Germany, Malta," reels off Carre's head of PE, Colin White, who organises the trips. "We tour on a regular basis; we've made 10 trips abroad."
A number of companies offer specialist sports tours for schools, usually in half-term breaks. There's a common format to the trips. A five-day tour involves morning training and afternoon sightseeing, with matches being played in the late afternoon. Some tours involve tournaments against other schools and offer specialist coaching as part of the deal.
Last October half-term Colin had planned a trip to one of the temples of continental football - Barcelona. He booked with Pavilion Tours, who specialise in this kind of tour. The group was due to fly but at the eleventh hour the airline taking them went bust and Pavilion staff were unable to find a replacement. "So they offered us two 49-seater coaches, which were in fact quite superb."
From the school's point of view, what mattered was that the company was able to retrieve the situation, which underlines the main reason for using a commercial provider on this kind of trip. There's so much that can go wrong, from the tournament details, to the hotel booking, to the rest day sightseeing. Very few teachers would want to take on responsibility for so much.
Beverly Kinder, of Priestnall school in Stockport, Cheshire, has been running hockey trips to the Netherlands for four years. Her secondary school uses ETS, part of the NST travel group.
"For me it's worked every time," she says. "ETS know the Dutch clubs, the transport is laid on, the administrative side is easy and the company is very helpful."
ETS tours involve coaching sessions followed by matches against local club sides. "Plaing against foreign opposition is important because the pupils know the Dutch are very good at hockey," says Beverly. "Individual skill levels improve and so does confidence. Kate Walsh, in the current UK squad, is one of my ex-pupils. The school trip was the first time she went abroad to play hockey."
ETS have centres at Noordwijk aan Zee and Valkenburg, near Maastricht. "Last year was the first time we'd been to Valkenburg," says Beverly. " The children that had been to both preferred it, there was more to do."
Graham Atkinson, who teaches at Ramsey grammar school on the Isle of Man, also used ETS to take a group abroad. They faced a daunting 26-hour journey to Noordwijk but Graham maintains that the experience was well worthwhile, and not just because of the sport. "It's great for an island community," he says. "Some of the children had never been off the island before.
"Our girls in particular had wonderful contact with local sports clubs. One or two of them have made enquiries about coming to the Isle of Man."
Colin White believes that the pound;340 each the pupils paid represents good value. "It was a pity about the flight, but I've no complaints," he says. All that remains is to work out where to go next year. Dynamo Kiev anyone?
* Accommodation on this kind of trip is usually in good hotels, with apartments where pupils are grouped in fours and fives. Carre's Barcelona hotel was in a resort an hour's drive from the city. It had a swimming pool and soccer training facilities close by.
ETS, 65 London Road, Stapleford, Cambridgeshire CB2 5DG. Tel: 01223 723460. Tours to the Netherlands, Spain, USA, Canada, Barbados and South Africa.
Pavilion Tours, Lynnem House, 1 Victoria Way, Burgess Hill, West Sussex RH1 9NF. Tel: 01273 505033. Tours to Spain, Greece, France, Portugal, the Netherlands, Italy and USA. Both ETS and Pavilion will take mixed groups.
Club Europe, Fairways House, 53 Dartmouth Road, London SE23 3HN. Tel: 020 8699 7788. Tours to the Netherlands.
Not all companies offer foreign opposition, so do check; most schools agree this is important.