Asking the right questions is the key to successful ski trips. Gillian Thomas explains
It had been a good day's skiing for the party of eight to ten-year-olds."I didn't fall over all day!" "We did parallel turns this afternoon". "Wasn't it exciting whizzing past the trees?" The excited chatter of the children from Grange Park preparatory school in north London pleased the teachers, as they all piled into the coach waiting to take them back to the hotel from the ski resort at Pila in Italy's Aosta Valley.
Skiing trips can be fun for children, and their teachers, as long as strict safety guidelines are followed.
Sarah Portsmouth said that this was the fifth time the school had visited Pila. The teachers from Grange Park obviously feel confident about the guidelines at this particular resort.
This was reassuring for the school, particularly after the court case which saw Woodbridge, an independent school in Suffolk, declared 50 per cent liable for a skiing accident. That happened on piste - on the designated skiing path - in Kuhtai, Austria, in April 1996. A a 17-year-old pupil was left paralysed. The school insurers have asked for leave to appeal the court's judgement.
"Pila is a good resort for young beginners as it has plenty of easy slopes and no crazy snow boarders charging about," Sarah said. "The instructors take the children for four hours skiing each day and also supervise them over lunchtime. One pupil is diabetic, but I had no hesitation in bringing her, as I had complete confidence in the arrangements for dealing with any problems."
Tour operator Interski had provided Grange Park with a full risk assessment report beforehand.
"Safety is the major consideration on ski trips and I would only consider travelling with an operator that specialises in schools," Sarah said.
To be willing to organise a skiing trip, teachers must not only believe that it can provide a valuable learning experience. They also need to be devotees with a thorough understanding of the sport.
For maximum safety on the slopes, groups should be no larger than ten.
Professional supervision is essential at all times, whatever the age of the children or their skiing ability.
Four hours of lessons per day is clearly a better option, if more expensive, than the two which some tour operators offer.
But what happens when the class is over?
"Teachers who supervise 'free' skiing need to be suitably qualified," stresses Gillian Gilyead, Chairman of the English Schools Ski Association. "Simply being a good skier doesn't mean you're competent to be in charge of a group of children".
Most LEAs require teachers running ski trips to have obtained a Ski Course Organisers Certificate, after completing a short course based on a dry-ski slope in Britain.
In the Alps, week-long courses for teachers lead to an Alpine Ski Course Leader's certificate. Some LEAs allow a teacher who has obtained this to supervise children on the slopes. Others stipulate that a local ski-school instructor must always be present.
Someone needs to be present at lunchtimes too, to ensure the children eat and rest sufficiently for the exertions of the afternoon. And - most important - to check that they do not wander off to ski on their own.
Sarah Portsmouth said she particularly appreciated the fact that the instructors stayed with her pupils throughout lunch as part of the 'package', relieving her and her colleagues.
Inevitably some ski resorts are more child-friendly than others. School groups invariably involve a large number of beginners. It is more important to have a good range of easier slopes, rather than challenging ones. And the easier to reach the better.
Fortunately, resorts with a high percentage of easy 'green' and 'blue' runs attract fewer speed merchants, and tend to be less expensive.
Safety on the slopes is making North America increasingly popular with schools, despite the cost.
"Resorts there are always aware of the threat of litigation, so they police the pistes intensively, confiscating ski passes from anyone who has been drinking or speeds dangerously", says Tina Crowther of the Ski USA resorts consortium.
"The fact that it is illegal to sell alcohol to anyone under 21, and this is strictly enforced, is another advantage for schools."
As on any school trip, evenings and the danger of unsuitable activities, are important considerations for organisers.
Most tour operators offer an apr s-ski programme as part of their package, with activities like swimming, ten-pin bowling, quizzes and discos.
The location of the accommodation is relevant too. Splendid isolation well away from the bright lights may be the safest option. But children are likely to benefit more from life in a foreign country if they are based in a busier area.
There are some key questions that teachers must ask the tour operator: How many pupils per instructor? How many hours of ski lessons per day? Where is the accommodation and what is organised in the evenings? What are the arrangements in case of injury or emergency? Can I have a full risk assessment?
Similarly there are some key questions that parents are sure to ask: Will my child be supervised at all times on the slopes by a qualified person? What supervision will there be at lunchtimes and in the evenings? What does the ski insurance cover? What are the arrangements in case of injury or emergency? Will I get full written information covering all aspects of my child's trip?
Contact Safety on the slopes is among the topics included in the comprehensive Teachers Guide to Snowsports published by the Snowsport Forum, set up three years ago by Britain's ski associations and tour operators to try to counteract the decline in school skiing. This can be down-loaded free from www.bssoa.co.ukteachersguide.
Hard copies are available from the Snowsport Industries of Great Britain. Tel: 0131 557 3012 Going Skiing, a booklet covering all aspects of organising a school trip, accompanies English Ski Council courses. It is also available separately from the council (pound;10 plus pound;2 pamp;p) at Queensway Mall, The Cornbow, Halesowen D63 4AJ. Tel: 0121 501 2314 Web: englishski.org Email:email@example.com
Interski, Acorn Park, St Peter's Way, Mansfield NG18 1EX. Tel: 01623 456333