Can we have our lunch now, Miss?

Hundreds of thousands of children go on school trips every year, but do they get much out of them? Celia Dodd joins infants on a trip to a Victorian kitchen to find out
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The Independent Online
IT'S THE height of the school trip season. This term, children from all over the country will spend hours travelling in stuffy coaches en route to some worthy "educational" venue, followed by an industrious couple of hours filling out worksheets or pressing buttons or dressing up and asking searching questions like "When can we eat our lunch?"

For teachers, inevitably, trips are a huge headache; a vast amount of preparation and high stress on the day itself. For parents, increasingly, they are a source of anxiety - Are there seatbelts? How many adults are going? What if...? And all for what is often, at the end of the day, a lukewarm response - as in "We went on a long coach journey and then we went to the toilet" from one disillusioned five-year-old.

Can day trips really be worth all this adult effort and angst? After all, these days our child-centred culture ensures that an awful lot of children have been to every single zoo/farm/museum/ interactive experience in the neighbourhood before they even get to school. What can possibly be gained from repeating the experience in a huge and hysterical group? Not much, according to Adam Vulliamy, 11, who is hardly likely to be rushing back to the Natural History Museum.

"Every time we looked at something interesting the teachers dragged us off to one of those exhibits where there's that writing which takes ages to read so we could fill out the worksheet. It was so boring."

But primary teacher Emma Choules, who has organised a huge number of trips, has no doubt about their value: "It is a hassle, particularly collecting the money - our trips always run at a huge loss because some parents don't pay. Then the day itself is very stressful - I'm always absolutely exhausted afterwards. But they are well worth it. In fact, I'd do more if we weren't restricted by the money side."

Today Mrs Choules is taking her class of five and six-year-olds from West Acton Primary School in West London to a Victorian kitchen, where they will dress up as maids and butlers and learn about their ancestors' daily lives.

The outing ties in with this term's topic on kitchens, which fulfils the national curriculum's demand that Year 1 make comparisons between everyday objects past and present.

The hour-long journey involves two long walks, crossing the North Circular (maximum stress) and also a tube journey. By 10 am, waiting on the station platform, the children are already demanding lunch.

When they finally arrive at Gunnersbury Park Museum they are taken into the vast kitchen where a Victorian maid introduces herself as "Vicky". "How old do you think I am?" she asks the children. "Thirty-seven." "No, I'm 14 - what do 14-year-olds do nowadays?' "They go to school." "How many days are you at school?" "Nine." She patiently explains there are only seven days in the week and that's how many she has to work.

The ice breaks as soon as she gets the girls putting on mob caps and starched aprons and the boys pretending to be butlers and footmen. They all immediately enter into the spirit of being Victorian servants who bow and curtsey nervously and fully understand their place in the complex class system.

Everyone gets a turn at something; they beat carpets, carry the coal, bash the sugar off the sugar loaf, and pass round the sticky carbolic soap - "Ugh, it stinks". In the laundry, two little girls work the ancient washing dolly with intense concentration; one of them, Fatima, arrived from Somalia a week ago. You can't help wondering what she makes of it all.

By the end of the hour-long session, even the most reluctant children are utterly caught up in the pretence; "Where's your boss?" they ask Vicky. "Are we going to see your bedroom? Why not?" "Do you ever get to go home to see your mum?" Later, one of the boys admits: "I didn't like being a footman because I was really scared that the boss was going to come down and go all red, like they do in cartoons, and tell us off." Another says: "Working in the kitchen is really hard. It makes your arms go weak."

But despite the children's absorption and enthusiasm, it's hard to tell how much has really sunk in. At such a young age concepts like yesterday and tomorrow can be hard to grasp, never mind a hundred years ago. Dr Jon Nichol, co-director of the Nuffield Primary History Project insists: "There is a lot of evidence to support the fact that a bright six or seven- year-old can grasp the concept of Victorian times - and putting them in a Victorian kitchen, if it's skilfully managed, is probably a very good way of giving them evidence to work on."

But even the brightest West Acton pupils seem a bit hazy, history-wise; "Was that in Tudor times?" one girl asks. "If Vicky's a Victorian maid, why is she still alive?" asks another. "I liked the kitchen but it wasn't as clean as my mum's."

Their teacher, Mrs Choules, admits: "It probably went over a lot of children's heads. I certainly think they know it's in the past, but whether they've got any concept that it's 10 or 100 years ago is very difficult to judge. At the end of the day, all I hope is that they know that that was the past, and that it's different from now. Primary education is so much building on one thing after another that you can't expect it all to click into place after one trip. And in one hour, it's given them something that would take me weeks to get across in the classroom.

When the children are let out of the museum, they all roll down the grassy hill outside shrieking with excitement. They eat their picnics and spend the next hour playing happily under the weeping willows. Fatima, who had barely spoken since arriving a week earlier, surprises everyone by chatting happily.

You can't help thinking that for many of the children, this is the best bit. Mrs Choules agrees: "It's lovely to get the children out of the classroom; you see a completely different side to them. In my view the social side and the change of environment is just as important as the educational bit. I've taken my class on trips which have no obvious educational value, but the children get an awful lot out of just spending time with their friends and enjoying themselves. It's so pressurised in school now.'

So why not forget about the wretched work ethic and just pack the class off to Alton Towers for a day? It's partly because parents, particularly now that they are asked to pay for trips, expect to see an educational element. But it's also true that an educational trip can enhance the curriculum in a way that classroom work cannot - as long as it's good.

But if any trip is to have lasting educational value there has to be a huge amount of preparation and follow up. That is the view of Dr Tim Lomas, a member of the Historical Association's primary committee: "If the coach trip home is the end of the activity, there is something severely missing. The best trips are those associated with careful preparatory work, materials done in the classroom, introductions by the teacher about what they're going to see and problems they're going to have to solve on site - and when they get back some follow-up."

Of course the ideal trip is both educational and fun. But often, particularly for older children, "educational" means traipsing around and filling in a worksheet. Sheila McKinney, a teacher helping on the Victorian kitchen trip, remembers one particularly grim outing. "I once took a class to some Roman ruins where the children had to fill out these dreary worksheets. There was one girl in particular who was so anxious about filling it in that she didn't get anything out of the trip. Worksheets seem to make a lot of children - and teachers - very stressed. There has to be some hands-on."

But is there not a danger that children are becoming so blase about everything being hands-on that they're incapable of making the transition to strictly hands-off? Dr Jon Nichol of the Nuffield Primary History Project is in favour of the hands-on approach, but with certain reservations. He says: "You've got to have some way of engaging the child, of making things concrete and real so you can link into children's minds, rather than just gawping at artefacts in glass cases. The idea is to make pupils think actively and respond.

"But that doesn't have to mean pushing buttons or cutting and sticking - it's a question of what the teacher does and says to get the kids thinking. That is what is important."

10 Top School Trip Destinations

Science Museum, London 318,000

British Museum, London 250,000

Natural History Museum, London 174,000

Eureka! Museum for Children, Halifax 100,000

Ironbridge Museums, Shropshire 80,000

Jorvik Viking Centre, York 57,000

Portsmouth Harbour, Ships & Museum 56,000

Centre for Alternative Technology, Powys 25,000

Stirling Castle, Scotland 20,000

Giant's Causeway, Bushmills, N.Ireland 8,000