Why school leaders must protect the residential

20th May 2016 at 00:00
A primary headteacher explains the reasons why it is essential for schools to keep running residential experiences, despite the cost and external pressures

IF YOU ask anyone – anyone at all – what their abiding memory of primary school is, you can bet your bottom dollar that their fond reminiscing won’t be about a lesson on long division or some nonsense about fronted adverbials. It will almost always be one of three things: playing for a school team, being in the school play or their residential trip.

I have always been convinced of the value of the last item on that list and believe it is crucial that residentials remain part of the primary curriculum, regardless of budget constraints, fears of risk or looming tests.

My first experience of a residential was as a Year 5 pupil in 1972, when 16 of us went to London for four days. We had our own rooms (!) in a university hall of residence and saw all the sites, including the original amazing Tutankhamun exhibition. I learnt lots in that idyllic week; that if you are hungry, you eat what you are given, that it is almost impossible to run down a steep hill in Greenwich at full tilt without falling flat on your face and that you don’t always get out on the same side of the train that you got in.

This year, I will clock up my 47th residential trip as I take our Year 4 pupils to the Isle of Wight for three days.

Why are residential visits so important?

Many children seem so mollycoddled these days that they rarely have the chance to do things on their own and, consequently, they can become stumped when in a situation that needs some decision-making or initiative.

The increased perceptions of danger in society have led to a lot less risk taking, so taking children out of their comfort zone for a few days is no bad thing.

Residential visits are vital in helping school children develop greater independence, organisational and teamwork skills, as well as an ability to understand others. There are so many life skills to be learned away from home: making your own bed, being on time, making sure possessions are looked after and realising that once pocket money is spent, it is gone. Oh, yes: and that flannels should get wet and underwear does need to be changed.

For younger children, the experience of being away from home, often for the first time, is the greatest challenge of all (for the parents, too) so on most trips I have led, we have devised a programme that will help them to develop the skills mentioned above.

We have a no-contact-with-home rule (to help counteract any possible homesickness) and no electronic devices of any sort are allowed. The children simply don’t need phones or games – they are too busy. Prizes are awarded to the best room based on behaviour, tidiness and punctuality, so the children soon realise that they have to work together and help each other if they want to succeed.

As for the activities: just because something is risky doesn’t mean you don’t do it, so pre-visit risk assessments are vital. On our Isle of Wight trip, the coast-path walks west out of Ventnor and from Watergate to Porth are fabulous and carry an element of risk, but as long as the risks have been assessed, everyone is aware of them and controls are in place, then carry on.

Risk assessment has always been essential, but when I think back to trips 25 years ago where, for example, we set off in a posse of mini-buses with bench seats and no seat belts, it makes me realise how far we have come.

Cost does have to be a factor. I’ve never been a fan of continental trips at primary school. They can be very costly and the children will get just as much out of a trip away from a home nearer home. I’ve visited many wonderful places with children over the years (eg, the Eden Project, the Big Pit, the D-Day Museum) but there are still lots of things that can be done that don’t break the bank and that eases the burden on parents.

Visits to English Heritage sites are free, so why not take advantage of that? My personal favourite is Carisbooke Castle on the Isle of Wight. Getting the children out walking – a novelty for many – is not only free, but also a good option for tiring them out. Children can sketch, conduct tourist surveys or shop surveys as a way of introducing them to fieldwork that they may do at secondary school.

For staff, residential visits are not holidays, and being on call 24/7 with someone else’s children is a huge responsibility. However, they are also hugely rewarding, enjoyable and have provided me with so many unforgettable high points, too: late-night singsongs around campfires, losing all the bags (except my own, strangely...) from the roofrack of a mini-bus on the A48 leaving Cardiff and being told by one Year 4 “I usually have smoked salmon in mine” when asked if he wanted ham or cheese in his sandwich.

With all the pressures on the timetable and the cost and sheer hard work involved in running a residential visit, it would be easy to not do them. But they are not only a rite of passage – they’re also a crucial element of children’s learning. Long may they continue.

Richard Bullard is headteacher at Combe Down Primary School @richardbullard2

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