"School visits should provide life experiences that children are otherwise unlikely to get and learning experiences that will live with them forever,” says Stephen Eddison, a teacher at Arbourthorne Community Primary School in Sheffield.
How do you ensure that this happens, though? Is the trip itself all that’s required to create this memorable experience? Can you simply keep your fingers crossed that the magic of not being in school will be enough to embed new ideas, thoughts and learning processes upon your young charges? Almost certainly not.
Just as teachers will plan and prepare before the trip, so, too, must the return from a trip be given careful consideration if you want to ensure that the effort of taking a horde of young people away from the confines of the school grounds is not wasted. “Trips should be linked to learning, not just a one-off day out,” says Jamie Sullivan, assistant headteacher at Stoke Hill Junior School in Devon.
It is vital to reflect on what went well and what didn’t, and potentially deal with any incidents that need addressing and any repercussions they might have. A teacher’s work is never done.
Embedded in the learning
Many teachers argue that an effective school trip is one that is embedded in the learning of children for the weeks – if not months – after it takes place.
“For example, we once began the topic of animation with a visit to the @Bristol Science Centre [now We The Curious]. It provided an excellent inspiration for the children and enabled teachers to constantly refer back to a trip and learning experience the children had had,” says Sullivan.
Alice Edgington, head of school at St Stephen’s Infant School in Canterbury, agrees, stating that, for creative writing projects, for example, setting the scene with a visit can bring about fantastic pieces of work. “How can you write a story set in a castle if you have never been to a castle?” she points out.
The focus does not have to be as specific as that, of course. “A few years ago, I took my Year 6 class to a large town to provide them with experiences beyond the coastal locality of the school,” recalls Alice Eschner, the deputy headteacher of a junior school in Yorkshire.
“While there, the children carried out a range of surveys looking at land use in the town centre, and interviewed members of the public about the reason for their visit to the town and the method of transport they had used to get there,” she says.
Eschner then used the information the children had gathered to inform classroom activities, including statistical analysis of the transport methods, comparing the geography of the town they had visited to their own, and using language and ICT skills to write and create a leaflet encouraging tourists to visit the town. These benefits were largely pre-planned but some argue it is important to seize on random events that occur on a trip for post-trip learning, too.
Having said that, it’s worth taking care that the wonder of the trip does not become eroded by related tasks overkill.
“The danger [of planning too much] is that you create a sense of doom in some individuals – that “now we have to write about it [the trip]” feeling.
“I always have some work planned but, invariably, adjust it in light of the event and its impact,” explains Jon Gallop, access to higher education coordinator and assistant headteacher at Bedminster Down School in Bristol, adding that this is something the children themselves can be involved in.
“Negotiating the task on the way back on the coach is also a good idea as [the children] have ownership and can start thinking about it straightaway.”
And, of course, post-event learning experiences don’t have to be classroom based but can also be focused on helping to sustain the excitement that trips often create, as Eddison explains.
“Follow-up activities should be about keeping alive children’s experiences and building on them,” he says. For example, “after a stay at an outdoor education centre in the Peak District, the children came back and applied the skills they had learned to build ‘shelters and dens’ on the school playing field”, he adds.
Of course, it is not just the pupils who learn on trips: staff do, too. A post-trip debrief is vital to ensure you consider what went well and what could be improved next time – something that survival expert and TV presenter Ray Mears told Tes in a recent interview, saying: “[A debrief is] often ignored but you should do this because it’s a good chance to talk not just about what went well but also about any near misses or issues, and it means your risk assessment for the next time will be even better.”
Many teachers agree with this, with several stating that they usually have a debrief in the staffroom focusing on key areas, such as which activities went well, which were a letdown and any pastoral issues that may need further attention.
If this is not a standard part of your trip process, it certainly should be. Having a number of set questions to run through and ensuring that school leaders allocate time for the process are crucial to ensure it is done properly.
The likely result of better, safer trips, with hopefully less planning time needed in future, should be enough to persuade all to get involved.
Of course, sometimes this means admitting getting things wrong. “Students never admit to being tired during the day but I’ve often been guilty of packing too many experiences into a day, from the best of intentions, only to see them wilt during the afternoon,” acknowledges Gallop.
Cast a critical eye
A critical eye should also be cast over the venues you visit and the quality of the information being provided by hosts.
“Guides that you meet at a venue can be a bit of a lottery and you may have to provide difficult but honest feedback to the appropriate agency for the sake of the next group,” Gallop says.
Even basic elements such as transport or pre-trip payments should be scrutinised, as Sullivan notes: “The timings of the day can often be out of your control – and coaches turning up late do not help – therefore we now always phone the coach company the day before to check that we are on the same page.”
And it’s not just trips you organise yourself that need evaluation. For those who work with overseas schools on foreign exchange programmes, it is vital that the same work is undertaken and feedback provided, as James Hayward, from Reepham High School, explains.
“Looking to see how things can be improved should be a continuous process. We will always discuss how things have gone with each other and staff at other schools and see what we can do differently next year,” he says.
“In fact, we sometimes do this day by day on the trip. If something didn’t go well the day before, we’ll discuss what can be done to ensure it doesn’t happen again, so we are continually adapting.”
However, while teachers will always have their own thoughts, one source of input to the process that is often ignored is students. Some teachers argue that, when given the opportunity, students can provide highly useful feedback.
“We always ask the children about the day – nobody is more honest!” says Sullivan. “If they really haven’t enjoyed part of it, why would other children? Therefore, we adjust the itinerary for future trips.”
Kevin O’Brien, from Thatto Heath Primary School, agrees: “When children have enjoyed and learned, then things have gone well. If they take the experience and bring it back into the classroom learning then the trip has been a success.”
Only the most foolhardy teacher would claim that any school trip comes without risk. After all, trying to transport 20-30 schoolchildren from the classroom to the dining hall can be hard enough, let alone taking them into the big wide world.
Mostly, of course, school trips go off without incident. But this is not simply down to luck. As every teacher knows, preparation for trips with regards to safety should be top of the agenda.
The dreaded phone call
However, it will still not be possible to legislate for everything that happens on a trip and, even if it seems that all has gone well, every teacher dreads the phone ringing during the first week back from a trip with a disgruntled parent at the other end complaining about something they’ve discovered took place.
This sort of scenario is not unheard of. One teacher told us, anonymously, about a time when a pupil became ill on a trip and needed medical treatment.
The teacher had stayed with the pupil in the hospital and got them safely home afterwards without any major incident or the child being unduly upset. The parents were grateful and all seemed well.
However, a week or so later, the tone changed and the parents were blaming the school and the teacher for failing to do enough to look after the child – a total reversal of everything they had said before.
It would be tempting in such circumstances for the school to dismiss the complaint, or even to criticise the parent but, legally, such situations are tricky and schools are right to be on their guard if concerns are raised, says Cornwall Street barrister Jonathan Storey, who specialises in education-related legal issues.
“In general terms, schools should follow their standard complaints procedure, which all local authority maintained schools must have and make available,” he says.
He notes, though, that schools should make sure they understand exactly what the issue being raised is about – and the extent of the criticism.
“It is often helpful to establish whether the issue raised is really a formal complaint or rather a more informal concern,” he says.
Many concerns raised by parents, children or members of the public can usually be addressed satisfactorily without invoking the school’s formal complaints procedure, Storey adds.
“In some circumstances, it might be appropriate for an individual teacher, a head of department or a senior leader simply to look into the issue and report back his or her findings to the person raising it: perhaps accepting that a situation should have been handled differently or apologising for a relatively minor oversight.”
However, if the issue is more serious, Storey says schools need to recognise when the time is right to seek legal help.
This may sound ominous and there may be a fear that involving the legal profession could be viewed as a tacit acknowledgement that the school knows something went badly wrong.
However, Storey advises that, more often than not, legal cases start not because schools admit fault but because they refuse to acknowledge a problem. In this vein, he adds that, although it could seem tempting at the time, staff should never look to cover their tracks or hide information relating to an incident.
Of course, if things do go wrong and legal help is required, many schools have insurance policies in place that can help to cover the costs.
It is vital that, in such a scenario, proper protocols are followed as, otherwise, insurance policies can become redundant.
“Many policies will require schools to notify their insurers of circumstances which could give rise to a claim as well as actual claims.
“Failure to do so could result in insurers refusing to provide indemnity for any claims,” says Natalie Wargent, an associate at law firm VWV.
She adds that it is also worth remembering that school-trip incidents have the potential to become newsworthy, so schools should have plans in place in the event of such a situation.
“In high-profile accidents or incidents, schools may also need to consider the wider issues of communicating with others, such as parents, pupils, staff, governors and the press, in which case, it may also be prudent to seek legal/PR advice.”
This can seem a bit daunting and may be the reason some teachers fear the rigmarole of organising and hosting trips.
But the key to avoiding such incidents is to ensure effective planning before departure, in the form of permission slips and parental consent.
And even if you get everything right, sometimes you will get complaints that you really can’t do anything about: “The best complaint I ever had was that it rained on the trip,” says one teacher. “I’m not sure what the parent wanted us to do about this.”
It makes it all worthwhile
Despite the hard work, school trips remain popular, with teachers always willing to put in the hard work needed to organise inspiring, exciting and memorable trips. After all, they’re not only a rare chance to get out of the classroom but can lead to rewarding moments in a teacher’s career, often from seemingly the most mundane moments.
“There was the child who’d never seen the sea and couldn’t get his head around how big it was,” recalls Eddison. “Another who had never seen a real, live sheep.”
Or it can be something totally unexpected that ends up being the most memorable part, as James Hayward knows all too well after he and his students were stranded in Madrid in 2010 when the Icelandic volcano Eyjafjallajökull grounded flights across Europe. “We ended up having to get a coach to come from Norfolk to pick us up. It was stressful but, as a result, the children got to experience driving across Spain and France, including going to Paris and seeing the Eiffel Tower and the Stade de France.
“They were also interviewed on local radio about their journey back afterwards, so it really became quite an adventure.”
No doubt every teacher who has organised a trip has a few tales to tell, and it’s why, despite the hassles they create, excursions remain a special part of the school experience, whether exotic or parochial.
Perhaps Gallop sums it up best: “Trips and events give us all a head start into our students’ imaginations and, at best, release a sense of other possibilities and wonder.”