What it takes to be a party animal

5th February 1999 at 00:00
Taking a party of school children on a residential trip is 24 hours a day stuff, says Ted Wragg

Off to France with some kids then? Hur hur. It's all right for some!" Nudge-nudge know-alls who think taking a party of schoolchildren abroad is a soft assignment should try it some time. Insomniacs are especially welcome.

My first organised trip with a group of pupils was when I had only been teaching a year. It was part of a massive annual Yorkshire-Lille exchange, which involved transporting hundreds of adolescents on what was often their first trip out of the frozen North.

A kindly veteran took me on one side just before we left. "You can't relax for a second, not until the spotties are back with their parents," he began. "Last year we got them all the way there and all the way back safely. Then, just as we were pulling into Leeds station, a lad leaned out of the window, pointing to his house, and the carriage door swung open. We justmanaged to drag him in by the legs." Gulp. Thanks a lot.

Since then I have run numerous summer schools and trips with thousands of pupils, here and abroad. It is 24-hours-a-day stuff, but very satisfying. Whenever I brief teachers taking parties of pupils away for the first time with my top tips, past experiences flood into the memory.

Make a good start A former colleague regularly took a group of teenagers to the Lake District with never a first night problem. He would ask the bus driver to stop 10 miles short of the youth hostel and they all walked there. Result? Everyone knackered: no fights with pillows, as they all had sleeping heads on them.

Organise something interesting I love running "treasure hunts", trails for children to find landmarks, ask directions, read signs. One popular feature is to visit the Post Office, buy a stamp and send a message home. I once got a letter from a young teacher who had tried the idea successfully, she thought, until they arrived in Dover. "Passports please."

Unfortunately six members of the party had had the bright idea to mail their passports home, to save them carrying it around.

"I see," the customs officer said to the beetroot-faced teacher, "So you got them to send something home in the post, did you madam?" But think of the locals I made the mistake of asking an inexperienced helper to devise a trail. That afternoon the phone rang. One of the questions asked for the date of a 14th-century building in the town centre.

The angry curator had just burned the ear drums of the 15th visiting junior detective to knock on his door.

Keep smiling, even in adversity I once read a big travel company's handbook for couriers. It was hilarious. "Introduce yourself and the coach driver. Stress that he is a very safe driver," it stated.

So couriers always begin, "Hello, I'm Sandy and our driver's name is Juan. Juan is a very safe..." Voice then trails off, as fearsome looking Juan, reeking of the local brand of meths, tests the brakes on a cliff edge.

Try not to be over anxious Anxiety is infectious. The mother of a 14-year-old boy presented me with a huge list of things to which her son was said to be allergic.

As a hay fever sufferer, I know that allergies are a real problem, but the lad seemed healthy enough when we arrived in Austria, though terrified of becoming ill.

Top of his enormous list was grass, a touch difficult to avoid in Alpine meadow s. I kept a careful eye on him, but told him that Austrian grass was harmless. We were both fine all week.

No sex please, we're British Teenagers sometimes believe that sex and shoplifting are fine beyond Calais. Forget it. Both are taboo. One is not a fair swap for the other, so ignore any amateur psychiatrist who believes the two are interchangeable.

Avoid alcohol Even placid pupils can go berserk if they see a school trip as a golden opportunity to discover lager. On an innocuous-looking visit to the local cider factory one teacher briefed the owner very strictly: only a weeny taster. Most children took a tiny sip, grimaced and did not even finish their minuscule glass.

One little herbert, however, collected all the leftovers and sank the lot. It was only when he was spotted shinning along the cider factory roof that the teachers realised what had happened.

Take a rest The biggest problem is that you feel like a holiday when it is all over, but everyone thinks you have just been on one. Ride any gibes and give yourself a break.

If you have done the job properly, you'll need one.

Ted Wragg is professor ofeducation at Exeter University

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