In the 14th century the company included a Miller, a Knight, and a Wife of Bath; today it's Rebecca, Jamie, Kelly and other Essex pupils who are planning to make the pilgrimage to Canterbury. While Chaucer's diverse band wended their way there to worship at the shrine of the murdered Thomas a Becket, the objective of the 30 Year 10 pupils from Sweyne School in Rayleigh is more mundane: to investigate the impact made by the 2.5 million tourists who visit the ancient city every year.
In preparation for their visit, teacher Dave Nash is finding out what the pupils know about Canterbury. "A man died there, didn't he?" offers a girl at the front of the class. Well, it's a start . . . The group then discuss what questions they should put to the tourists when they accost them with clipboards in and around the cathedral.
The trip is one element in the pupils' GCSE course in Travel and Tourism, a subject that is steadily increasing in popularity in schools, with a GNVQ in Leisure and Tourism also becoming firmly established post-16. That growth could well accelerate if proposals to establish an A-level in the subject, now well advanced, are approved.
Tourism is poised to become the world's largest industry by the year 2000. In recent years there has been a growing awareness of its negative environmental, social, political and cultural impacts, and a slow realisation that the principles of "sustainable tourism" need to be embraced if our most cherished places are not to be "loved to death".
For many teachers and tourism specialists the key question is how far ideas about sustainable tourism are infiltrating the classroom - especially now that sustainable development and the opportunity to explore environmental issues as a theme are enshrined in the revised geography Order.
The development of tourism courses has fuelled considerable debate. Some critics say syllabuses and resources are too much geared to the values of the tourism industry rather than those of sustainability; many teachers avoid the subject because they believe it to be a soft option; and earlier attempts to establish an A-level have proved abortive. Graham Ranger, geography adviser for Derbyshire, is critical of recent material. "Much of what has come out has sustainable tourism in its title, but nowhere else," he says. "A lot of stuff is produced by the tourist industry, and is based on its values, which are about packing as many people into a place as possible, to make money."
What of the teachers themselves? Alison Stancliffe of Tourism Concern, a body which focuses on the impact of tourism in Britain and around the world, recently carried out research into tourism teaching, most of which is done by geography specialists. One startling finding was the level of ignorance among geography teachers about the Rio Summit's Agenda 2l, which calls on governments to ensure that teaching about sustainability is integrated into education at all levels. "Although sustainable tourism is beginning to appear in textbooks, many geography teachers haven't taken it on board," she says. Only 5 per cent of her sample from 141 schools were aware of Agenda 21 and applied it to their teaching, while 38 per cent did not know what it meant.
Her unpublished research also showed that while many schools covered the environmental impact of tourism, few tackled cultural and political issues, at least with the lower year groups. Case studies in textbooks were disappointingly narrow and sketchy in relation to sustainable tourism.
The charge that tourism is a second-class subject is rebutted by John Ward, programme development manager at the Travel and Tourism Programme, an education project run in conjunction with the British Tourist AuthorityEnglish Tourist Board and major travel and hotel companies. "Teachers often see it that way until they start teaching it," he says. "But it attracts students who have rejected other subjects: they're motivated by having to deal with real problems."
The GCSE course being used at Sweyne was put together by TTP and it was first offered to West London schools in 1988; by 1994 some 3,500 pupils in 400 schools and colleges were taking the exam. With a new syllabus coming on stream, the estimated number for 1997 is 4,600 pupils.
Dave Nash has encountered some resistance within the school where he is head of geography. "It's not the kids or parents that need persuading of the value of the course, but the staff," he says. "Some see it as a soft option, but it's not." While steering clear of GNVQ, which like many teachers he sees as an administrative nightmare, he finds he can adopt some of the GNVQ philosophy within the GSCE course. "You can encourage a more independent, adult, resource-based style of learning," he says. His pupils are among the first to tackle the new Southern Examining Group syllabus. Though the coursework has been reduced from 100 per cent to 20 per cent because of Government restrictions, some materials are released to the pupils eight weeks before the exam. "This helps their understanding," Nash says.
When an A-level in tourism was mooted a few years ago, the proposal fell between committees of the School Examination and Assessment Council, but John Ward is optimistic about the TTP's latest proposals, now with the Associated Examining Board: if accepted, the course could be in schools by September 1997.
For teachers wanting to push the Agenda 21 approach, more materials on sustainable tourism are available. Next month Derbyshire LEA and the Peak National Park will launch a new resource pack, which includes case studies focusing on sustainability issues. Meanwhile Tourism Concern, which has a useful quarterly magazine and an introductory resource pack, Be My Guest, is bringing out a guide to teaching GNVQ tourism, documentation packs on the impact of tourism worldwide, and case studies on sustainable tourism for A-level geography.
Further information from The Travel and Tourism Programme, 3 Redman Court, Bell Street, Princes Risborough, Bucks HP27 0AA. Tel: 01844 344208; Tourism Concern, Southlands College, Wimbledon Parkside, London SW19 5NN. Tel: 0181 944 0464
Jonathan Croall is the author of Preserve or Destroy: Tourism and the Environment (Gulbenkian Foundation, Pounds 6.95)