Education: Tripping to the right sites - fantastic]: School trips can unlock new worlds to children. But careful planning is the key, says Ngaio Crequer

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The Independent Online
Sam, who is seven, says he did not like science 'before'. 'But,' he adds, 'I did not know what kind of things would be in it and that it would be fun. So I have started to like science.'

For Sam, spending the day at the Science Museum in London, the visit had clearly paid off in educational terms. He was in one of the more than 5,000 school groups visiting the museum this year. But how typical is Sam? Millions of children are taken by their schools on day trips to museums, or galleries. But are these trips of real value, or are they just fun days out?

There has been virtually no research into their educational or social value. Neither the National Foundation for Educational Research, nor Ofsted, the school inspectorate or its predecessor, have inquired into this huge industry.

The Department for Education publishes guidance on safety in outdoor activity centres, and on school transport. It also publishes a circular outlining the law on charges for school activities. But it is silent on whether trips should take place, what kind of institutions should be visited, how many trips should be organised, whether the children's ages should be taken into account, but above all on what is the educational point.

Tim Brighouse, Birmingham's chief education officer, was formerly professor of education at Keele University. 'In case studies we looked at, schools got better attendance rates and less truancy when children in year seven had had a residential trip experience.

'I am convinced that a residential experience has a double benefit. There is a bonding that lasts between the pupils and those teaching them. They see each other in different settings.

'It is often an occasion for a kind of leap in learning. There is a sudden vivid experience, a new motivation to learn. This can also happen as a result of other activities, for example taking part in a school play or on a day trip.

'Day trips give you the opportunity often for root learning, seeing something in the relevance of the local community. They enable a young person to see the application of something they have so far only understood in theory.'

Good preparation is seen as the key to getting the most out of a school visit. It is a point Jo Graham, of the Science Museum's education unit, stresses to schools. 'We very strongly suggest to teachers that they make a planning visit in advance. If they have not been before they do not realise how long it takes to walk round the exhibitions.' They also provide a video for schools to show in advance to their pupils.

Sam attends the Holy Trinity primary school in Brixton, south London. Vivienne Wells, his teacher, admits they could have prepared for the visit better. 'We didn't know it was going to be this big. We showed the children the video yesterday afternoon and talked about behaviour. We are looking at transport, bridges and structures as one of our topics and we wanted a hands-on experience. Not many of our children will have been here before with their parents. We hope this will show them that science is fun, but is also practical.'

The children will write about what they saw and did, and try to describe what they think they have learnt.

Richard Burke, head of maths at the Richard Challoner school in New Malden, Surrey, a boys' comprehensive, was bringing 120 children over three days. They had come to the museum as part of a cross-curricular project on the weather, involving the maths and geography departments.

They had come extremely well prepared, with their own worksheet, listing questions for which the answers were to be found in the meteorology exhibition. The pupils also had to get as many ideas as possible to enable them to design and make their own weather instruments.

He and another teacher came on an advance visit to plan their day. 'They are buzzing with ideas because they have been out. Look at the smiles on their faces. They think it is fantastic. We brought some sixth formers to help us. One is doing a design and technology A level, and he has seen something that has solved one of his problems in design.

'There are social aspects, too,' says Mr Burke. 'They see the staff in a different light. They do not think you have a life outside. You talk to them about other things, and they become more confident.'

School trips are a huge industry. About 250,000 children a year visit the Science Museum alone. Most will go on two or three trips a year: biology and geography field trips, art galleries, theme parks, the zoo. For some the cost will simply be the coach fare. But four days in France will cost around pounds 160. A week at a residential centre just under pounds 200.

The school has to pay if it is part of the child's education. They can ask for parental contributions, but they cannot prevent a child going if the parent does not contribute. In practice most parents stump up.

It is costly in time, too. One independent day school from Nottingham spent four hours getting to the Science Museum, four hours there, and got home at 7.30pm in the evening. But no one was complaining.

The question most often asked of Jo Graham at the Science Museum is: do they learn anything? 'We are not here formally to educate. But we do get children motivated, and they become entranced by science. There is no sitting down and telling, it is 'find it out for yourselves'.'

She is a former teacher and understands the needs of both pupils and staff. 'When they come formally to be taught principles they will have a visual vocabulary in their minds. Interactive exhibits are powerful motivators and generate an enthusiasm for science and technology which textbooks are unable to rival.'

(Photograph omitted)