Study tours could be the perfect way to see the world without breaking the bank, says Madeleine Brettingham.At this time of year most of us fantasise about jetting off to far-flung places. But sadly, serious travel costs serious money. And not everyone can afford the luxury of a gap year.
However, if your boots are made for walking but your wallet isn't, there are ways of seeing the world without breaking the bank. Study tours provide the perfect way to experience another culture without spending a fortune, and buff up on your subject knowledge to boot.
Just ask Fiona Hallhouse. The 51-year-old geography teacher at Clifton College in Bristol spent nine days in the US, courtesy of Team, the European Atlantic Movement, an education foundation, on a whirlwind tour of Washington that took in the State Department, the Supreme Court and local schools.
The pound;300 fee for the trip was paid by her school, and the rest of the pound;1,000 tab was picked up by the foundation.
"It was intense, exhausting and action-packed," says Fiona. "But I would definitely recommend it to anyone."
A high point was visiting the State Department, which is responsible for keeping the President informed of world events. "There was a phone line that went straight to NASA. It was like the bat phone. I couldn't believe it," she laughs.
Barbara Harper, 56, head of history at Leicester Grammar School, was also on the tour. It was certainly a culture shock. "One thing I was struck by was how scruffy some of the schools were," she says. "Teachers wore shorts and flip flips, and the head wore tracksuit bottoms."
But their visit to Jamestown, home of the first US settlers, has provided her with invaluable material for the classroom. "I have brought back plenty of stuff for our head of politics too. It is great to be able to use that extra knowledge to discuss the Iraq war and American foreign policy."
Those who are keen on following in her footsteps will be pleased to hear that Team is not the only organisation to offer cut-price or even free study tours for teachers. The Japan Foundation, environment charity Earthwatch and the League for the Exchange of Commonwealth Teachers all offer cheap trips on the understanding teachers' enthusiasm for their topic will filter down to children.
Ruth Jamieson, head of geography at Parmiter's School in Watford, spent a week on a conservation project in Abergavenny, thanks to Earthwatch. "Work was intense during the day and the summer evenings were spent chatting into the night. It wasn't one of the most exotic trips, but for many of us it was meaningful as it gave us a different perspective on our local area."
She was even given a grant of pound;250 to establish an environmental project back at her school. "It made us feel we could change things, and this has been the most important thing I have brought back."
However, for those who have their sights set on more far-flung locations, the Japan Foundation's annual trips could have more appeal. Teachers are selected based on their experience and the quality of their lesson plans.
Eric Trump, 38, head of geography at St Philomena's Catholic High School for Girls in south London, took a two-week whiz round Tokyo, Hiroshima and Kyoto on this year's tour, and although the costs ran into quadruple figures, the trip cost him nothing, with the Japan Foundation picking up the bill.
"Because of the distance, expense and difficulty of the language it was unlikely to be somewhere I'd visit on holiday. There aren't many perks in teaching so an opportunity like this was too good to miss," he says. During his trip he stayed with a Japanese family and visited four schools in Kyoto. "Japanese teachers are very formal and on-message so you have to read between the lines. But, despite that, their education system was not the yes-sir, no-sir experience I'd expected. We certainly saw children playing up. Even in front of the headmaster," he says.
The high-point was a visit to the Vocational Museum in Kyoto, a state-of-the-art facility including a TV studio, animation studio, hairdressing salon and functioning kitchens.
"They are having problems with school-refusers because pupils see their parents dealing with stress and long hours of city jobs and think: 'I don't fancy that'. The Vocational Museum is a way of persuading children that work can be fun," he says.
If you are the independent sort and would prefer to organise your own trip, there are opportunities to win grants from bodies such as the League for the Exchange of Commonwealth Teachers.
They oversee ideas-gathering trips to areas as diverse as America and Africa. Their most recent tour took a group of teachers from Newham, at the heart of the Olympic regeneration zone in east London, to see how schools in Sydney, Australia, had benefited from the world's biggest sporting event.
"If you have been working on a project for a long time and want to find out about good practice elsewhere we'd encourage you to get in touch," says Anna Tomlinson, the league's chief executive. "You don't even have to know where you want to go. Just come to us with some ideas. We're looking for some lateral thinking. Something that will make a real difference to education in this country."
The Teachers International Professional Development programme, which is funded by the Government and run by the Specialist Schools and Academies Trust, the British Council, and the League for the Exchange of Commonwealth Teachers, also offers trips abroad, but most are doled out by local authorities. Contact your local authority's TIPD co-ordinator for more details.
WHO CAN HELP YOU TO EXPLORE?
Exists to promote links with Japan and offers yearly two-week tours of the country in December. The group visits schools and government institutions, plus some tourist attractions and is escorted by an interpreter. There is no cost to the teacher.
Team (The European Atlantic Movement)
Organises regular subsidised trips to Brussels and America, costing pound;50 and pound;300 respectively. Teachers visit government departments, sites of historical interest and stay with an American family. They are currently recruiting for their next European tour, at Easter next year.
League for the Exchange of Commonwealth Teachers
Several free visits to countries including Kenya, New Zealand and Canada are organised every year to promote sharing ideas. There are also funds available for groups of teachers who would like to suggest their own research topic.
The environmental charity funds about 20 places for teachers every summer for projects in countries including Scotland and Estonia. The scheme is open to primary teachers and secondary geography and science teachers.
The Government-funded Teachers' International Professional Development programme gives away hundreds of free places a year through the British Council on trips to countries including Ghana, the Ukraine and Norway to find out more about their education system. They are allocated via local authorities. To find out more contact your council's TIPD co-ordinator.
Specialist Schools and Academies Trust
If your school already has a partnership with a school overseas you may be able to visit for free courtesy of the SSAT to forge links.