Tragedies deflect us from our core aims
News of the tragic death of a 17-year-old boy while on a school trip to Ecuador and of the serious injury suffered by a girl, also 17, in a parachute jump organised by her school, is disturbing. One's heart goes out to the families concerned, to their fellow school- children on the trips, and to the teachers, who will be going through their own agonies.
Does the annual toll of children killed or severely injured on school trips not call into question the very continuance of such trips? Can any possible value derived from such outings possibly balance the human tragedies involved of lost children, brothers and sisters?
This is an emotional time to be asking such questions, and it is impossible to know how one's thinking would be changed if it were children from one's own school who had suffered, or even one's own daughters or sons.
The response of increasing numbers of teachers is that they will not take children out on trips. A tragedy, perhaps through no fault of their own, could, in a litigious world, result in them being sued and perhaps the loss of their jobs. The psychological damage could prove overwhelming. Some teachers involved in the experience of a tragedy on a school trip have been unable to face the classroom again.
Nevertheless, I believe that school trips, including difficult and even dangerous pursuits, should continue and, indeed, significantly increase in number - in line with legal safeguards for teachers. Education over the past 25 years has become narrowed down far too much to the classroom.
Academic lessons are obviously the core activity for any school, but schools should be about far more than teaching children from books and computers about mathematics, French or English.
Intellectual understanding of many subjects is boosted immeasurably by school visits. Geography, history, modern languages and art would be far narrower subjects were it not for trips to inspect the landscape, visit museums and battlefields, travel and speak abroad and visit art galleries.
Such experiences penetrate deep into the minds of the young, even those whose behaviour is the most awkward. Many adults would cite their trips out as the most memorable part of their entire school experience. These trips should be increased for all children in the future.
Academic learning, however, is only a part of what schools should be doing.
As important is the development of the whole personality. Children should be afforded opportunities while at school to be challenged and to learn about themselves in testing environments, thereby learning how to manage risk and conquer fear. How will our young people be able to cope with the crises and difficulties they will inevitably face in life if they have never been put on the spot?
Of course, there are risks involved. But proper risk assessments and accredited organisations should ensure such risks are minimised (though they can never be wholly eliminated).
All our schoolchildren should also have an entitlement to spend a certain number of days in the open countryside, in Britain or abroad. The Duke of Edinburgh's award, scouts and guides, youth clubs and other groups provide such opportunities. But they do not affect more than 10 per cent of children at school age. Going on long hikes through the countryside, sleeping under canvas and cooking and eating in the fresh air are profoundly life-enhancing experiences. So too are rock-climbing and abseiling, canoeing and sailing. If children do not participate in these activities while at school, when will they?
The answer is that they won't. Learning about the countryside and the open air, far away from the built environment, is an utter necessity for every single child brought up in Britain. Yes, these plans will result in greater risks to children, though, properly managed, such risks should be minimised. But they will also lead to far more rounded and, I believe, contented young people, who will be far more capable of managing themselves, and taking sensible decisions for themselves and others.
The whole area of school trips is ripe for radical rethinking. Such a rethink must address the whole question as a balance between time spent in the classroom and out of school. To my mind, 10 per cent of the school year should be spent on trips out of school, including at least three nights away for each year 7 to 11. Using the army to supervise these enrichment experiences for the young - not just to provide structure in the lives of young offenders, as Home Secretary John Reid suggested last week - would be a good start.
Anthony Seldon is the master of Wellington college, Berkshire