Graham Hart explains the work of a trust that gives advice and the stamp of approval to groups planning expeditions overseas
It was the third day of a field trip with a party of A-level geography students on the Gower Peninsula. The weather was humid and we faced a choice of routes in rejoining our minibus - either a three-mile walk along the beach or a 70-metre scramble up a steep grassy slope.
Succumbing to bravado, I authorised the latter. What I failed to notice was the slope's concavity. With 10 metres to go to the top, grass gave way to rock and one boy slipped. He was grabbed by a fellow student as we all watched, dry-mouthed with fear, as rocks bounced down around us.
Groups who have the foresight to enlist the help of the Young Explorers' Trust - an advisory body which helps youth groups organise safe and responsible expeditions - are likely to minimise the chance of such near-misses. Though not primarily involved with UK-based field trips, their service to teachers, youth group leaders and others has brought immeasurable benefits, not only in safety but in every aspect of expedition planning. Perhaps most significantly it can provide formal approval of an expedition which is often seen by sponsors, governors, parents and a host of other interested parties as a vital imprimatur.
Training is the most important part of its service and the trust provides seminars covering such topics as risk assessment and crisis management, leadership skills, food, insurance and expedition planning.
Publications are essential backup. Its newsletter contains equipment reviews, expedition reports, relevant feature articles and a range of useful contacts. It also publishes a Code of Practice for Safe and Responsible Expeditions which has been recently joined by a companion on environmental responsibility and which has been co-authored by the British Ecological Society.
The trust also acts as a pressure group, making representations to governments and other policy-making bodies at home and abroad, trying to keep the door open for the safe movement of young people to exciting places. It administers awards, prizes and bursaries from many sources - advice on how to apply for these, or how to attract expedition sponsors is freely given.
Many of its services are offered in association with the Royal Geographical Society, the traditional home of British exploration, with which the trust has close ties. But don't for a minute think "establishment". The trust is practical, relevant and always optimistic about even the most ambitious plans. Informal conversations, networking and residential weekends are all part of the service. As Ted Grey, general secretary explains: "We are an enabling body. Somewhere there is someone who knows an area or a subject well and can give a youth group sound advice about it."
Take the Kingsdale School in Dulwich, south London, for example. Paul Scott successfully led a group of 10 14-year-olds to the Himalayas. Physical challenge, cultural exchange and personal growth were all on the agenda, and all achieved. The trip was the first expedition of its kind from Southwark local education authority. "Most important, the Young Explorers' Trust gave me confidence," says Paul Scott. I spoke at length with Ted Grey who not only helped me complete my application form (for trust approval) and was convenor of the screening panel but always ended conversations with an anecdote about his own experiences - sound advice laced with great humour."
While the Kingsdale School trip was for 14-year-olds and a range of learning experiences, the students from Tewkesbury and Churchdown schools will have A-level fieldwork on their minds when they visit Peru this summer. Trip organisers Jenny Gunter and Roger Madge are experienced in taking youth groups overseas but they still find the trust's assistance invaluable. "We needed specific advice on altitude sickness. We received it along with a free medical kit," says Jenny Gunter.
Roger Madge was charged with preparing a risk-assessment document, a vital planning tool for modern expeditions. His work was inspected and approved by a trust panel comprising, among others, two experienced expedition medics. The work of approval was again blended with advice and practical help.
So far this year, the Young Explorers' Trust has received 44 applications for approval, a record number that may eventually involve 180 leaders taking more than 600 young people to locations across the globe. The Himalayas and East Africa are always popular, but this year groups are planning to go as far afield as Belize, the Russian Arctic, Bolivia, Iceland, Ghana and Mexico.
The trust's work is not confined to schools. Organisations such as the long-established Brathay Exploration Group and the Yorkshire Schools Exploration Group are typical beneficiaries and partners in planning and supporting youth exploration.
Ted Grey's enthusiasm is boundless and he is excited about the way the trust - which celebrated its 25th anniversary last year - is spreading its wings. "We have seen expeditions from Duke of Edinburgh Award centres, Air Training Corps and the Army Cadet Force," he says. "I am especially pleased by the growth of groups from within the youth service." He cites an expedition to Uganda by a group of Birmingham youngsters trying to break out of drug-related crime and a trip to Lapland by a special school in Wiltshire. "These represent an opportunity for young people who would otherwise have little hope of such an experience. I am very proud of our contribution," he says.
The Young Explorers' Trust can be reached via the RGS, 1 Kensington Gore, London SW7 2AR. Or by telephoning 01623 861027 (e-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org). Membership costs Pounds 25 per year for schools and other groups, or you can join as an individual for Pounds 15 or Pounds 50 for affiliated trade members