Spain is great, Mum, but Miss is in jail

29th June 2007 at 01:00
There is no shortage of horror stories, but Su Clark explains why taking time out is invaluable - and worth the risks.

Illustration by Paul Bateman

over the past few weeks and into the summer, thousands of Scottish pupils are taking to the hills, rivers, skies and theme parks.

But in a world of media frenzy over tragic accidents and an atmosphere of blame and litigation, schools are becoming increasingly reluctant to back trips. Many have banned exchanges completely.

Most teachers, however, recognise the essential part that school trips - especially residential ones - play in the education of a child, and are still willing to make them happen.

The Scottish Executive provides a checklist for risk assessments, but it cannot prepare you for every eventuality.

It took more than five years for John Smith (not his real name), former principal teacher of art at a secondary school in the central belt, to get over leading a trip to Paris. Until recently, he resisted every temptation to get back on a bus with a bunch of pupils - and not without reason.

Besides throwing coins from the top of the bus at the chic Parisian pedestrians, the children also threw cans from the top floor of the hotel, cleared the whole place by putting a tiny Bob the Builder toy in a corridor light, which led to a fire - and did such disgusting things to younger pupils that Mr Smith almost put some of them on a plane home.

In the end, he stopped them going to Disneyland Paris, the highlight of the trip, and the teachers took it in turns to spend an hour looking after them outside the theme park - just to rub it in.

Every risk assessment includes detailing how you would deal with an emergency, but even contingency plans can backfire.

Stewart Hay, depute head at Anderson High in Shetland, who has led hundreds of trips in his 34 years of teaching, always tells pupils that if they get lost they should get a taxi back to the hotel, where the desk will pay. But it didn't quite work like that on a recent trip to New York.

"Two pupils were distracted by a street vendor selling bags and got lost,"

he explains. "But they got a pedal taxi - not a yellow cab - and the 'driver' suggested a tour of the city. They accepted. So while we were all back at the hotel getting frantic, they had a relaxing and enjoyable tour of New York at our expense."

You can't plan for every contingency, so knowing how to improvise helps, as teachers from Graeme High in Falkirk did when one of their pupils lost a shoe at Alton Towers.

"It's because of this fashion for not doing up laces," explains Stuart Hay, design and technology teacher.

"One of our pupils, whose surname is Barker, had his shoe fall off during a ride and it disappeared into a black hole. We had to cobble together a replacement with a plastic bag and some string.

"For the rest of the day, everyone called him ShoeBarker. Believe it or not, the shoe was returned to him a few weeks later - but not before he'd thrown the other one away."

An essential part of the preparation for going away is drilling it into the children that they must not forget anything. But what if it's the teacher who leaves something behind? Sally Duncanson, a retired Edinburgh language teacher who has led more than 30 foreign trips, left all the passports and tickets to Australia back at school.

"Fortunately, when I noticed, we had enough time to get back to the school and then to the airport. But you know what parents are like - they were all still in the playground chatting and were amazed to see us come back. It was so embarrassing," she says.

Mr Hay, of Anderson High, had a bit more of a problem when he left his backpack on the New York metro - with everyone's tickets and passports inside.

"Some of the pupils were a little distressed because of what one of the passengers was saying to them, so we decided to get off early," he recalls.

"A few thousand pounds later, we were able to get home."

Sometimes getting through Customs can be tricky. Mr Hay admits that in the past he has resorted to using some guile - such as pretending to search a case for a passport he knew was lost, just to play for time until the ferry doors closed.

And poor Mrs Duncanson spent a night in a Spanish jail for allegedly smuggling textiles.

"I was travelling separately from the children, but was carrying the 70 T-shirts with the resort name printed on them. I was carted off to the police station and questioned overnight. They finally let me out the next morning, but the policeman first relieved me of a few T-shirts for his family."

Mobile phones may seem like a godsend, allowing you to contact errant pupils at any time. But many teachers think the disadvantages outweigh any possible benefits. How independent can children really be when they know mum can ring them at any time?

"I can't stand them," says Mrs Duncanson. "I've had pupils away on trips to Germany phoning their parents from the wine cellars, telling them they've been tasting wine, and the parents getting furious. Yet isn't it all part of learning about the culture?"

For Mr Smith, his five-year hiatus from trips meant he was ill-prepared for the mobile phone onslaught when he finally took a group to New York last year.

"The pupils were phoning me from their hotel rooms to ask stupid things such as when was dinner or where were we going next. I'd finish talking to one, then another would ring me. They were only along the corridor." He is still fuming now. "When I got home, I had a pound;50 phone bill."

Trying to keep costs down has become a big issue on trips. Yet there is increasing pressure (possibly from teachers as much as pupils) for schools to aim for more exotic places to inspire pupils, many of whom have been on frequent family holidays abroad.

"It is different from going away with parents, so any residential is worthwhile, but many pupils have high expectations," says Fiona Keating, depute head at Perth High, which is currently organising a work placement trip to China for its senior pupils.

"We've had pupils go to South Africa and other places that are more dangerous, but it also gives them better experiences," she says.

Exchanges are the other option, but with stringent Disclosure Scotland laws looming over schools, these are dwindling.

"It's a real shame as staying in a hotel isn't the same as living with a family, entrenched in their culture," says Derek Curran, head at Forrester High in Edinburgh.

He admits it is difficult to guarantee a good placement. At his last school, one visiting pupil was placed with a family who were in the middle of moving house and he had to sleep surrounded by boxes.

Hotels can make trips prohibitively expensive, while exchanges are too onerous. So some schools simply opt out altogether.

"You have to weigh up the odds," says David Dempster, depute head at Boroughmuir High in Edinburgh. "I've had letters from parents saying how delighted their children were with their trips, and how they couldn't possibly have gone there as a family because of the cost."

Just getting out of school, so that teachers and pupils can meet on a different level, can be valuable - and means children whose parents can't afford a residential don't lose out. Lochgelly High in Fife opts for alternatives.

"My catchment area has too many parents who couldn't afford to pay, so we have day trips to complement the curriculum," says Carol Pryde, headteacher.

"But even then we have our excitements, such as the little boy who decided to make a dash for it at Camperdown Park in Dundee and had the whole school running after him like the Pied Piper."

Larbert High in Falkirk offers its junior years an opportunity to go away in May as part of its rewards system. This year, children went to New York, Spain, London and Italy.

But it also recognises the financial pressures on families. If the school feels a pupil particularly deserves a trip, but comes from a situation where it would be financially prohibitive, it will help out. However, it cannot do this for every child, so it also runs a week of free activities for those who stay behind, including horse-riding, go-karting, trips to Blackpool and in-school crafts.

"We make sure there is something for every income bracket," says Evelyn Roxburgh, a teacher in the pupil support department and member of the school's activities committee.

And trips aren't meant to be fun just for the pupils - teachers should have some good memories too.

Mr Smith has one, at least, from his Paris trip. The bus was broken into and lots of things were stolen, including the driver's passport and ticket.

But it wasn't all bad.

"We were taken to the police station in the middle of the night. My colleague found the blue light under his seat and persuaded the policeman to put it on.

"We went through the streets of Paris at breakneck speed, with other motorists climbing the pavement to let us pass. It was brilliant," he says.

"It took us less than 10 minutes to get there, but half an hour to get home."


The trip should have educational aims

Child protection procedures must be in place

A written risk assessment should be filed with the appropriate person and safety measures must be in place

Teachers should have received appropriate training

All group leaders should have experience of supervising the age group

The group leader should be competent to instruct the activities and have knowledge of the location or centre

Group leaders should be allowed adequate time to plan and organise the trip

Non-teacher supervisors must be appropriate, possibly even vetted

The staffpupil ratio must be appropriate

All consent forms must be signed and the local authority informed where necessary

Medical needs must be considered and adequate first aid must be available

Transport or travel arrangements must suit the age group and distance travelled

Travel times out and back should be known, including pick-up and drop-off points

The group must be contactable

There should be a contingency plan in place for any delays, including a late return home

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