War and peace on the school history trip

21st April 2006 at 01:00
Take five teachers, a humorous bus driver, 38 S4 pupils, a journey from Forres to Hull, an overnight haul on the ferry to Zeebrugge, a hectic few days in Belgium and France and, abracadabra, you have a school history trip, the aim of which is to understand and empathise with the intricacies and horrors of the First World War.

Newspapers, understandably, headline the tragedies which happen on trips and also there is a plethora of anecdotal evidence suggesting that kids often get hold of alcohol and teachers are apparently unable to stop them from drinking it. Last year my friend's daughter went on a school trip which resulted in half the pupils being banned from future trips because of alcohol consumption. These were second-year pupils in a big city school.

What's the key to success? Obviously, a high regard for health and safety is crucial, not only because we live in a litigious society but because, in loco parentis, we dread tragic events. Another important ingredient is the quality of the accompanying staff. You need teachers who can tread that fine line between being human and approachable and yet command respect, and who will work together as a team.

You really shouldn't go on a residential school trip if you don't have a sense of fun. The team leader must certainly possess all these skills and also be as well-organised as ours was. In addition, she was highly knowledgeable on the historical aspects and did a good line in stand-up comedy which had us all howling in our seats when she took the microphone.

Thus the framework was created for a successful trip. The pupils were well-briefed in advance that any serious misdemeanours would see them deposited on the first available flight home with an accompanying teacher and their parents billed for the cost. There would be no relaxation of school rules just because we were abroad. It all worked extremely well and we were delighted when the owner of the hotel complimented our pupils in writing on their behaviour.

I saw no glorification of war on the route we travelled - the Flanders Fields museum in Ypres, the Tyne Cot cemetery containing the bodies of so many Commonwealth dead, the stark simplicity of the German cemetery at Langmark, the Last Post ceremony at the Menin Gate and the poignancy of Notre Dame de Lorette, last resting place of thousands of French soldiers.

What strikes forcibly is that death does not respect nationality.

The most moving part of the visit for me was the Thiepval Monument to the missing, on which are listed the names of almost 73,000 soldiers. One of them is Ewen Fraser, a private in the Cameron Highlanders, who died on September 3, 1916. He was my grandfather's brother and I have to admit I was not prepared for the emotion of the experience. Some of the pupils also had relatives whose graves we stood at in silence, and remembered.

Having previously taught English, I am familiar with the evocative poems of the Great War. Visiting the trenches casts a new light on Wilfred Owen's words: "Our brains ache in the merciless iced east winds that knife us."

Nor can you fail to be moved by the words of John McCrae when you stand in the very places that inspired him to write: In Flanders fields the poppies blow Between the crosses, row on row."

Maybe our Standard grade history pupils will achieve better grades because they have experienced history in ways that they simply can't from textbooks alone. That would be brilliant. Young people often get a bad press. But I saw our pupils visibly wrestling with the huge implications of what Owen called the old Lie: Dulce et decorum est Pro patria mori."

Modern life teems with much trivia. This trip was a cathartic and thought-provoking journey.

Marj Adams teaches religious studies, philosophy and psychology at Forres Academy.

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