Trips: why bother?
By the time you read this, I shall have everything crossed. Not just fingers, but toes, eyeballs, the lot. Because this is Challenge Week at our school: we have groups of students on expedition in Argentina and visiting our partner school in Bangkok; the Big Band are in Austria, the walkers in the Spanish Picos and three francophile groups in Paris, Brittany and Cognac.
Students are camping in Cornwall and on a canal barge in Oxfordshire: this week we have 387 students on residentials of one kind or another, and the rest of the school are on daily activities ranging from aromatherapy to sugarcraft, rock music to archery. So forgive me for feeling a little nervous.
We've done the risk assessments, met with the parents, and carried out the recces; the staff are experienced and wise. And yet, and yet - you can prepare and anticipate, but it's the unexpected that can catch you out, and so I shall sleep easier when they are all back safe and sound.
I had a taste of what can go wrong just a few weeks ago. A teacher had taken four students caving on Dartmoor as part of a self-esteem building course. A helper accompanying them had slipped and hurt her back, so the teacher rightly summoned help.
Along with the cave rescue team came an air ambulance, the police, two fire-engines, and a BBC film crew. I spoke to six reporters, and we hit the local TV news and the front page of the local paper.
The helper was discharged from hospital with just bruising, and the teacher did everything just as he should have done. But it could have been worse.
On the letters page of the local rag the following week, a correspondent queried why the students had been in a cave that had "slippery mud and passages that needed to be negotiated".
Now I'm used to hearing that the youth of today lack challenges, that they watch too much TV and play too many computer games, but never that they are exposed to too much mud. The writer clinched his argument with the question, "Why were the students there at all?"
Too easy to answer. I'll ask a more difficult one. Why were the staff there? Why do they take these trips at all?
There are plenty of reasons not to. We live in a culture of blame and an age of litigation. The Government will make sure that its back is covered, so that even the school cat now has to be CRB checked; but if something goes wrong, ministers will look to please the tabloids before supporting the teacher. The unions tell us to stay at home. There are easier ways to get on to the upper pay spine.
Forget the idea that it's a cheap holiday: "Sid, the governors think you're in need of a bit of RR. A week's paid leave in the Dordogne. Just take 30 Year 10s with you, there's a good chap." Staff take the trips - not just teachers but our bursar, teaching assistants and librarians - and live with the risks, because they like being with kids. They like to share their laughs, comfort tears and watch them grow. It's why they work in schools and not the Department for Education and Skills in the aptly named Sanctuary Buildings.
Teachers do not choose their job because they want to drill kids to get an extra percentage point in the next key stage test, but because they want to make life better: and a school trip gives them the chance to do just that.
Our school is not unique; all over the country, staff are taking trips and they are heroes. Yet we do not know how many, because they are not seen as important enough for anyone to count.
So minister, let's have a speech declaring that league tables will have a column for the percentage of students who have been on a residential, and a declaration that there are more ways to enjoy and achieve than can be summed up in a contextual value-added figure.
And potholers might fly.
Roger Pope is head of Kingsbridge community college in Devon