Is a school trip worth the hassle?

1st December 2017 at 00:00
School trips can be hugely beneficial, despite the costs involved. Their effectiveness depends on three key elements, researchers say – the venue, the social interactions involved and the pupils' learning

It’s the start of the year and you are doing your long-term planning. You think you have it sorted. But then the headteacher asks if you have remembered to include time for the mandatory visits to the Houses of Parliament and Tate Britain. You look at her incredulously: “Seriously?” Your school is 300 miles from London.

But she hands you a bit of paper. “It’s mandatory,” she says.

You might think that such a situation would be unlikely. But in the Netherlands, this is the reality for teachers. Earlier this year, the nation’s new coalition government announced its intention to introduce mandatory visits for all schoolchildren to the Dutch parliament and the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam, home to a large collection of Rembrandt’s paintings. Essentially, the Dutch MPs had decided to make school trips – or, at least, two trips in particular – a compulsory part of the curriculum.

In the UK, things are going in the other direction. Heightened funding restrictions and staff shortages mean there has never been more pressure placed on organised school outings.

And given that trips are “nice to haves” rather than “need to haves” in terms of curriculum requirements in this country, school trips are in danger of being downsized or lost completely.

Not everyone would be sad to see them go. As one school leader puts it: “I’m broadly in favour of them, but I’m not persuaded it would be the end of the world if some didn’t happen.”

So who’s right? Have the Dutch seen some evidence of the value of school trips that we have not? And are some school trips better than others? Let’s find out.

The research

Most teachers will tell you that, despite the huge headaches they can cause, the overall benefits of school trips are huge, ranging from exposing children to new experiences – which can increase interest and engagement in subject matters – to cultural enrichment that pupils might not otherwise get at home.

While some may question these claimed benefits, there is plenty of supporting evidence out there, according to Marc Behrendt, adjunct assistant professor at Ohio University, who wrote a paper entitled “A review of research on school field trips and their value in education” for the International Journal of Environmental and Science Education. “Why do I think field trips are important? I base my knowledge on four learning theories,” says Behrendt.

“Looking at this simplistically, we learn from experiences and add to knowledge gained from previous experiences (Piaget); the higher quality of the experience, the greater the learning (Falk and Dierking); after an experience, the learner needs time to reflect, think about and then test those thoughts, which leads to a new experience and learning occurs (Kolb); and, finally, interest in a subject will lead to motivation and desire to learn and to continue learning (Hidi and Reninger).”

This isn’t just theoretical. Behrendt has witnessed at first hand how field trips can motivate children, boost morale and provide supporting evidence for classroom-based learning.

“I have seen students who, in my classroom, earned poor grades, were unmotivated and rarely participated, but on a field trip they were interested, participated in activities and, in one case, her entire attitude and level of effort changed as she discovered a love for botany,” he explains.

Like Behrendt, Dr Lee Elliot Major, chief executive of the Sutton Trust, trustee of the Education Endowment Foundation (EEF) and co-author of the Sutton Trust-EEF toolkit on what works in schools, views trips as beneficial.

“We know that factors outside the school gates can make a real difference to attainment,” says Elliot Major. “Our own research has shown how poorer children were more likely to get good grades if they had visited museums, galleries and went on outings with their families or schools.”

That’s not to say that all school trips are created equal. Some offer greater academic benefits than others, believes Elliot Major.

“It’s likely that relating excursions directly to learning in the classroom, for example, by giving pupils a memorable experience to write about, will bring the most gains,” he says.

Behrendt believes some learning environments create better results than others. For instance, he argues that a trip to a zoo can be too regimented whereas a trip to a biological field station is less rigid and allows children to focus on their own interests.

“A walk in the woods near the school may be incredibly rich if the students are allowed freedom to explore,” says Behrendt.

“It is all about the experience, which can be broken down into three aspects: the physical – the venue, the equipment; the social – what interactions are allowed; and the cognitive – not only what is being taught but students’ previous experiences that come into play.

“The potential quality of a field trip can be estimated by examining the purpose, the three aspects of an experience and the preparation efforts by the trip leader.”

Measuring impact

The purposes of a trip can obviously vary. For some, it is purely academic gains that are sought. But increasingly, and in tune with the government’s social mobility agenda, the measure many prefer to use is cultural capital.

Julia Vincent is headteacher of Warblington School, in Havant, which recently sent a group of children to visit Tate Britain and the National Portrait Gallery, not necessarily to increase grades in art but simply to allow the children to experience something that would usually be out of their reach.

“Teachers reported that the students were humbled by the grandeur of the buildings and got the wow factor of seeing a famous painting up close,” says Vincent.

“Many had not been to London before, so seeing Trafalgar Square was a highlight.”

Often, school trips provide the only opportunity for some children to experience museums and cultural institutions because their parents are unable or unwilling to take them. So something like the Science Museum, which may be academically useful, is also culturally useful, says Beth Hawkins, the museum’s learning resource manager.

All school trips “are beneficial as they add tremendous value to a young person’s understanding of the world”, she says.

But such cultural excursions are not without their problems, says Mark Enser, head of geography at Heathfield Community College. They usually mean a lot of expensive travel for rural schools far from a metropolis, where cultural institutions tend to congregate, says Enser.

He argues that the idea of organising a trip to increase cultural capital is seductive but “the problem is that parents almost always have to pay. This means that the pupils who most need to have their cultural capital increased are excluded and you end up taking those pupils who often receive these experiences anyway.”

Local trips ‘more inclusive’

Enser usually arranges local trips, which he claims are much more inclusive and allow children to practise the geography that they have learnt in class.

“It is very much field work rather than a field trip,” he says. “So we go to the coast to measure the impact of coastal defences or study the variations in quality of life in our local area.”

He argues that it is in these local, curriculum-tied trips that more benefits can be found, rather than something purely designed to be “fun”.

It’s a view Hawkins subscribes to. “A trip should always link to what is being learned or discussed in school,” she says.

“That might be broader than a specific curriculum topic to include a PSHE [personal, social, health and economic] or SMSC [spiritual, moral, social and cultural] focus,” she says.

On the flip side, Vincent argues that even events such as ski trips, which have very little curriculum relevance, can be beneficial as they challenge children to work outside of their comfort zone.

“They build teamwork, relationships and the importance of following an instruction in a potentially hazardous situation. Most students find such a trip challenging in various ways, but because they are well managed, they grow personally from the experience,” says Vincent.

Clearly it’s a contentious issue, as Katie White, a teacher at Kingsbridge Community College, in Devon, acknowledges.

“If they [trips] are properly linked to the curriculum and/or have an obvious cultural or learning focus, then the benefits are manifold – especially for kids in rural areas or from deprived backgrounds where they have not been exposed to such things by their parents.

“However, schools need to strike a balance whereby extracurricular activities are available for all and whereby you don’t get into a situation where there are so many school trips going out that too many lessons are missed and not caught up,” says White.

Where the debate falls into a more one-sided affair is when talk turns to trips for those struggling in school, be that for SEND or behavioural issues. There are a wide range of excursions and expeditions targeted at this demographic and the evidence shows that they are achieving impressive results.

‘We can make a real difference’

A good example of this is Jamie’s Farm. It currently operates from two locations, Hereford and Bath – with a third farm opening in Monmouth shortly – and was founded in the mid 2000s to target two distinct groups: children who are either poorly behaved and at risk of exclusion or those who are referred for being disengaged to the point that it is affecting their results.

“We have got an approach in terms of how we work with kids that we feel can make a real difference,” says Jamie’s Farm programme director Jake Curtis.

“We call it ‘family farming therapy’ with legacy follow-up. This isn’t just a petting zoo. Kids come here to do real jobs with real outcomes.”

In addition to a week-long residency at the farm, the programme keeps in contact with children long after they’ve left, including arranging a school visit about six weeks after the end of the residency to find out how they are progressing. The outcomes that the programme has achieved to date have been incredibly impressive.

“In the academic year 2015-16, 82 per cent of kids who were at risk of exclusion [and then participated in the programme] were no longer at risk of exclusion six weeks on,” says Curtis.

“Our metrics show that 60 per cent of kids who weren’t on track with core subjects were [on track] six weeks on [from visiting the farm] and about 70 per cent of young people said their self-esteem was boosted six months on from Jamie’s Farm.”

The British Exploring Society (BES) has achieved similarly impressive results. The charity runs youth development programmes that include an overseas expedition element to places such as Iceland and Africa.

Participants have to take part in training beforehand and then there is time set aside for a reflection on and translation of learnings afterwards.

“If we are working with a young person who is subject to multiple exclusions and is in a pattern of making bad decisions and has a bad friendship group, they need to be completely taken away from a lot of these norms to drive behavioural change,” explains Honor Wilson-Fletcher, chief executive of BES.

The society’s programmes cover a wide range of topics, including healthy living, sexual health, learning to use new technology and basic skills such as how to interact with adults. “Quite often, the young people won’t have interacted with adults in the way they do on our programmes,” explains Wilson-Fletcher, adding that the change in young people who attend the programme can be dramatic.

In addition to achieving positive mental health outcomes, attendees typically progress to further education, training and employment, with “each young person we work with becoming an amazing community champion”, she says.

A question of cost

The reason some will argue against even these trips, though, is cost. In a school environment of tight budgets and tighter time constraints, every interaction of a child has to be maximised and every spend scrutinised – for some teachers, school trips just don’t stack up on those two measures.

But advocates implore these doubters to meet them on the middle ground.

Not all trips have to be expensive, as this guide will show later (and, thankfully, organisations such as Jamie’s Farm and the BES offer heavily subsidised or free places). And they admit that schools need to be choosier about what trips they plan and more effective in how they conduct them.

“The teacher or leader needs to have a purpose for the trip, the venue needs to be checked out in advance, students need to be oriented prior to the trip, chaperones need to be oriented, and the teacher needs to be prepared to provide time after the field trip in order to discuss and reflect on what was experienced during the trip,” says Behrendt, when asked to list the key ingredients for a successful outing.

How can you ensure you get all of these elements – and more – right? Read on and all will be revealed.


Simon Creasey

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