Things will go wrong,” states Richard Bullard, headteacher of Combe Down Primary School in Bath and veteran of more school trips than he can possibly count. That may seem like an overly negative way to start a chapter on how to plan to ensure things go right on a school trip, but any experienced teacher will tell you that planning properly does not rule out mishaps, nor should it be expected to.
Proper planning is about minimising, rather than eradicating, risk and about making sure that the time spent out of the classroom is worthwhile. Bullard is just being realistic – you need to focus on making it a fantastic experience for students.
So how can you do that? From where to go and when, to the possible pitfalls that can occur, this chapter details it all. Who knows? If you follow this guide, you might even enjoy the ride.
Location, location, location
The first thing to decide with pretty much any trip is where to go. And in these times of targets, inspections and stretched timetables, it makes sense for the majority of excursions to have clear links to the subjects you are teaching.
“We link our educational visits to the curriculum,” says Roy Souter, headteacher at Stoke Hill Junior School in Exeter. “Teachers plan the topic first and, as part of that process, identify a visit. For example, Year 3’s topic for this half term was ‘Gardens Around the World’.”
Their “hook” was a visit to the University of Exeter’s grounds (a five-minute walk from the school) to see how a formal garden is set out, while their main visit was to Killerton House, a National Trust property “with an amazing garden”.
Bullard takes a similar approach at his school: “Usually, most trips that I have been involved in have tended to revolve around supporting a particular topic children are doing – for instance, a trip to Nothe Fort in Weymouth to see what life was like for children in the Second World War,” he says.
“You can have an objective like that and then find a venue to visit or you can find a fantastic venue/experience and then decide exactly what you want the children to learn and get out of it. But you need to have some sort of objective, otherwise it’s just a day out that can drift aimlessly.”
However, as we discovered in chapter one, trips don’t always have to have an academic goal: the aim could be cultural or to boost social or emotional capacity in students.
The risk here is that you end up with something loosely fitting the brief, and that simply won’t work. Such trips need to be as well planned for and directed at the core purpose as a curriculum-orientated trip: it’s no good just sticking a load of kids on a coach to the Alps for a week’s skiing.
Preparation is vital
Experienced trip leader Grainne Hallahan, who teaches English in Essex, explains that preparation for such trips can be vital.
“The first time I took students to Beijing, I realised that they didn’t have the basic background knowledge to follow the information and experiences they were having,” she says. “The second time, I decided to organise different activities in the run-up to it, from history seminars and Chinese screen-printing to karate. Not only did it help forge cross-year group friendships prior to the trip, it also made it that much more enjoyable and meaningful for the children when they were actually out there.”
Make it age appropriate
Equally important for these trips is ensuring you have targeted it at the right age group: aiming to bestow some cultural experience on a cohort of children too young to understand what they are being exposed to can be a waste of time for everyone. Likewise, dragging young children for hours by coach can mean the point of the end destination is lost amid the after effects of the journey.
“It’s vital that this is taken into account,” says Jason Gilman-Hughes, headteacher of Oxley Primary School in Shepshed, Leicestershire. “For example, children in Foundation Stage will not benefit from a long coach journey to some far-flung venue – think of the travel sickness and toilet stops. They can get just as much benefit from a visit to the local park or library.”
Stuart Keen, subject lead and frequent trip organiser at Dr Challoner’s Grammar School, in Buckinghamshire, agrees that it’s important to consider, but not be too rigid about, age-related concerns.
“Age-range appropriateness is essential if you wish to maintain engagement, but I’d always suggest aiming high,” he says.
“You never know when you might stumble across a student’s passion or capability in a way that requires a higher level than the base expectation. And it’s always worth making sure your destination is prepared specifically for the ability range you are taking because, sometimes, timing and content based on “age-appropriate” standards can be way off the mark.”
You might also be glad to hear that it’s worth selecting trips that excite you as a teacher. “The enthusiasm and passion of teachers is a driving force behind good learning,” says Keen, who ultimately suggests applying a broad view when choosing your trips.
“Avoid doing something just because it sounds worthy. Avoid doing something just because it sounds fun. On a trip, the best value is a balance of the two,” he says.
Too often, the above planning can have an “average student” in mind. If you have read the book The End Of Average by Todd Rose (and if you haven’t, you should) you will know that is a recipe for disaster.
This sort of planning can be particularly damaging for students with special educational needs and disability (SEND). Nancy Gedge is a consultant teacher for the Driver Youth Trust and is also the Tes SEND columnist. She suggests that visiting a location ahead of time can be hugely useful when it comes to ensuring that it will meet the needs of all your students.
“Museums and places of interest often run teacher events or discounts and, once you’ve checked it out in person, you will be in a better position to assess how accessible the trip is for your students,” she says. “You may need to modify a route, location, number of helpers or timings to ensure everyone gets the most out of it.”
But there are also general points to check that are likely to apply regardless of destination. “If you know your class, it should be pretty obvious if there are going to be any difficulties on a day trip. As a general rule, I would always consider physical access, toilet facilities, picnic places and shelter from the elements,” says Gedge.
“And if you don’t know the answer to something, ask.”
If there doesn’t seem to be anything suitable on offer, “a bit of imagination and adaptation” might make possible what initially may have seemed impossible for a particular student, she says.
“Sometimes, it can be as simple as ensuring that children have the right helpers – some adults are better at interpreting a visit for children than others.”
Finally, she points out that it is possible to ask a parent to accompany their child, if really needed – “but try to avoid it for residentials. It defeats the object of the trip and can cause severe logistical difficulties for families.”
When the sums don’t work
When it comes to the most fun aspects of planning a school trip, let’s face it: sorting out the cold, hard cash is unlikely to be up there. But given that many an amazing trip idea has fallen at the first financial hurdle, it really is worth being aware of the options.
“Balancing the books is almost impossible,” says Gilman-Hughes. “But we carefully work out the costings to cover the vast majority of the expense.
“We usually make a small loss on most trips as we subsidise vulnerable children, using pupil premium funding, for example. We’d never prevent a child from taking part in a day visit just as a result of parents’ inability to pay.”
One option to avoid any financial worries is to try to keep the costs of day trips in particular low, so that parents do have some chance of affording them.
Bullard has the following suggestions: “Transport is always the biggest cost (and is especially cost-inefficient for local trips, as coach companies have a minimum charge) so to try to balance this out, we look to visit places with low or no charges. English Heritage venues such as Osborne House and Farleigh Hungerford Castle are free to visit.
“Becoming a school member of the National Trust means no charge other than the membership fee,” he says. “In addition, our fantastic PTA gives each class £150 a year to use how they wish; sometimes this is put towards a visit or visitor to school.
“We do also fundraise – each year group has a couple of cake sales a year and that money is for the class teacher/year group to use at their discretion,” he adds.
For Hallahan, it’s similarly important to be savvy and make savings where possible.
“Obviously, we rely on the goodwill of staff giving up time for free – and there are ways to get round some of the other costs,” she says.
“You can look at sponsorship to help ease the burden and, for residential trips, there are clever accommodation options – staying with families in your destination country, for example (though be aware that the rules around staying with families have changed, see bit.ly/SchoolExchangeThreat ).
“Youth hostels can also be a good choice – they are usually much cheaper than hotels and they are more understanding with any potential noise.”
Hallahan suggests that if you’re relying on an official package provider, it’s important to find one willing to work with you when it comes to finances.
“Working with good agencies can make a big difference. Some will be inventive with you and think of ways to save money, others will just say ‘this is our package’. You need a good relationship with the travel company.”
Overall, the advice experienced teachers offer is to make savings where it is safe to do so, and have strong links with trip venues and your local community, all of which can help if needed. Many museums, for example, offer bespoke financial packages and assistance with travel – it is always worth asking.
So you know where and you know how much, but you still need to think about when. “Timings really matter,” says Souter. “We try to keep a rhythm to each half term, with the visit playing a central role in the curriculum.”
And our experts raise a variety of additional elements to consider. Gilman-Hughes points out that it’s best to consider work-life balance, especially when it comes to out-of-hours expeditions.
“Staff already work very long hours, so I am cautious about asking them to give up too much of their time,” he says.
Be sensitive to other things going on for your pupils and parents, too, says Bullard. “It’s best to avoid Sats periods, Christmas holidays or any other times when parents’ purses are under strain.”
And consider less traditional timings. “Some schools do their Year 6 residential in the summer term as an end-of-year treat but we find that doing it early in the year – in September – helps to cement strong bonds between the children and teachers,” says Gilman-Hughes.
Having a central calendar of trips is useful to avoid clashes and communication failures at secondary: taking half the year away on an English trip when the science department had planned a week of experiments, for example, would not be well received.
The advice is that, for any potential trip, you need to run the timings past every teacher who comes into contact with those children on your proposed date before you set things in stone.
And now it’s time to talk about most people’s least-favourite part of any trip – the paperwork. It’s an onerous but essential part of the process and, while the precise details will vary, there is one task you cannot avoid: the risk assessment.
Stephanie Keenan, a curriculum leader for English and literacy at Ruislip High School in London, has the following advice. “Risk assessments are a useful way of thinking through a range of disastrous scenarios, from the minor to the apocalyptic,” she says. “Use your school’s pro forma or a previous risk assessment from a similar trip as a guide and simply think through each stage of the journey and activities planned, for example, travelling to and from the venue.”
A trip with multiple activities will have multiple risk assessments, she explains.
“As a parent used to imagining every kind of disaster befalling my offspring since birth, the process of filling in the risk assessment is almost cathartic for me.
“I also had to fill in incredibly detailed ones for my previous job in television, involving cherry pickers and pyrotechnics, so for me, by comparison, taking the London Underground to go to a museum doesn’t seem particularly fraught with danger.
“But still, it’s important to think through every eventuality, from a student getting left behind on the platform to a terrorist attack,” Keenan says.
“I’m not being flippant here,” she adds. “Inside every risk assessment you must include what would happen during a major serious incident.”
Know the form
Even when you have thought of every possible scenario, you’re unlikely to be finished, Keenan warns. “If your experience is anything like mine, just as you think you’ve got it sorted and sent, the forms will be returned with amendments you’ll have to make.”
It’s worth remembering that medical issues may also require additional paperwork, especially on residential stays where staff may have to administer treatments.
“If there are any children with particular needs, they will need a separate risk assessment as there may be situations that present greater risk,” says Gilman-Hughes. “Medical forms are needed so that the staff know which child needs which medication, how often and how much. You’d be amazed by how many children this often involves.”
Bullard points out that part of your paperwork process needs to involve passing on the relevant information to anyone else your trip might impact upon, from the school meals service to the Senco or peripatetic music teachers who might find children missing from their sessions.
“And even though you’ll have done your own pre-visit risk assessment, the venue should also provide its own,” he says.
The next phase, he says, will be to sort out the details for parents and guardians, including letters explaining trip arrangements, departure times and pick-up points.
And once you’ve sent them out, you’ll need to collect them back in, in the form of reply slips and voluntary contributions. Then, when all this is complete, you’ll need to update your trip’s pro forma again.
As a secondary practitioner, Keen adds a few additional items to this list, suggesting behaviour contracts, parent/student/staff briefings and a full itinerary and inventory for the trip as further considerations.
And Hallahan suggests optional extras for overnight stays that you might also want to consider, including ordering matching hoodies for airports and wristbands with contact numbers on.
It’s easy to imagine that something could be forgotten with such a formidable list of tasks to tackle, so Souter recommends using a checklist to ensure that all the boxes are ticked.
“This reminds everyone to think about the necessary steps that will make the visit successful and our checklist helps us avoid all the things that have caused complications in the past, like ensuring teachers have rearranged playground duty if they are out for the day and confirming everything with the coach company a week before departure,” he says.
Perhaps, then, it’s unsurprising that the time commitment required for a successful trip can be quite significant.
Gilman-Hughes emphasises that many of these tasks will need to be started several months before the outing takes place – or even a full year ahead when it comes to residentials – although the school has implemented policies to make some aspects of this easier.
“For a local visit, say to a church or park, we already have a risk assessment in place, which staff need to read through,” he says. “We also include a number of consents when we send information to parents each year, including consent to allow us to take children out for local visits for the entire time their children are at the school.
“This means we can get on with these visits easily, though we always let parents know in advance.”
He also points out that moves towards more technologically current ways of doing things can further streamline the process.
“We’ve gone paperless recently, so letters go out on email (apart from those families who don’t use it or lack internet access).
“Payments are done online, too, and they can give consent there as well,” says Gilman-Hughes. “It saves a lot of work.”
Assemble a crack team
On any trip, choosing and preparing your team of adults can also be a vital part of successful planning. “You need a team organising with you,” says Hallahan. “PE staff are often great because they’re used to taking kids off site, but really (as long as you’ve got at least one first aider with you) it’s about who is actually keen.”
Of course, you might well be looking to parents to make up your numbers.
“All of our helpers have to take part in our volunteer training, which gives an overview of safeguarding as well as common-sense tips to make sure the children are kept safe and engaged during visits,” says Souter.
Bullard points to the importance of sharing relevant information with your trip team: “All staff and adults should have each other’s and the school’s phone number and the emergency procedures information in the event of a serious incident,” he says.
“It’s good practice to have as many parents DBS [Disclosure and Barring Service] checked as possible, too.”
And in an ideal world, especially on residentials, there’s a lot to be said for picking a team that will gel with one another, as Hallahan suggests. “You’ve got to spend a week with people, co-parenting with your colleagues and often sharing rooms, so you need to get on. I’ve actually found trips to be great preparation for parenting.”
Knowledge is power
Finally, even in the earliest stages of planning, you have the chance to establish a positive relationship between your school and your trip’s destination.
“Assuming the destination is somewhere that charges a fee, we might expect a programme of agreed activities, led by their staff if required, as well as copies of their risk assessments,” says Gilman-Hughes.
And for Hallahan, it makes sense to take advantage of any opportunities to see facilities and activities ahead of time.
“Some companies will allow you to do everything but the flight for free in advance as part of their service,” she points out.
Souter argues that you should also expect to be given some basic, practical information up front – everything from where the children should leave their bags and coats to details about the available parking and toilet facilities. “They should let us know the content of any workshops to make sure this can be built into the work the children do before and after the visit, too,” he says.
And with all that done, you can now progress to chapter three: going on the trip.