Taking a short taxi ride out to the Blairvadach Outdoor Centre from a nearby train station, the driver, who had lived in the area all his life, told me about his school trip there many years previously – of sleeping in a dormitory a few miles from his own bedroom.
At the time of our in-taxi chat en route to the centre – which is about an hour’s drive from Glasgow – his daughter was, in contrast, over a thousand miles away on her school excursion to the south of France.
But France, or anywhere else in Europe, is pretty tame compared to what other schools have to offer. Recently, schools in Scotland have transported their charges to Tanzania, Thailand, Ecuador and the Galapagos Islands, as the humble high school challenges Thomas Cook for exotic excursions. None of this comes cheap – the latter tour for pupils from one Scottish school reportedly cost a staggering £4,700. This would account for a fifth of the gross income of a parent on the average Scottish salary, if they were to pay the full amount.
And many families feel they have to forgo their annual holiday to pay for one child to go abroad. The demands on the haves and have-nots going on an expensive trip will easily expose any wealth inequalities school uniforms are supposed to hide.
While a lot of pupils raise funds towards these big-ticket prices, might not there be a better use of someone’s charitable donations than allowing a group of untrained and inexperienced teenagers to build orphanages thousands of miles away? However, at least offering practical support to impoverished communities overseas can be viewed as a learning experience – it would be hard to convince anyone that attending a Broadway show or Disneyland Paris is in any way educational.
So why do schools do it? Could it be because it makes them more attractive to prospective middle-class parents than other schools in their area? Parents may not be able to differentiate between which school has the best-equipped science department when they are considering a placing request, but they do know that offering the chance to go to South Africa is rather more prestigious than a trip to South Wales.
For the staff, organising and going on a school trip is not an easy option. Collecting and then making sure the medicine to accompany each child is still within date is laborious, for example, while chaperoning excitable teenagers around a foreign city puts even the most laid-back member of staff in a state of permanent hyper-vigilance. However, it is the closest a teacher gets to a perk within education – an all-expenses-paid excursion somewhere sunny often during term time is quite a nice way to spend your working week.
Yet while trekking through Cambodia’s lush green forests might foster leadership skills, build resilience and be a memorable experience rolled into one expensive package, so might building a raft on the shores of the Gareloch to launch into the Firth of Clyde.
As more and more adults choose to spend their earnings on experiences rather than material things, perhaps schools should look for trips to more humble locations – and let their pupils enjoy trips of a lifetime in the future, after they have lived a little.
Gordon Cairns is a teacher of English in Scotland