School trips: It could easily have been us...

That will have been the first thought of teachers on hearing of last week's coach crash in France. But, says Stephen McCormack, trips abroad should continue because they teach invaluable lessons
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The Independent Online

It was the middle of the night, about half past three in the morning, and I was woken by a sudden jolt. Was it in my dreams, or did the bus in which I was travelling really lurch briefly, then shudder, before the smooth, soporific equilibrium returned? I was one of five teachers on a coach with 42 14-year-olds from my school on our way to a resort just south of Barcelona. We'd been travelling for about 15 hours already, the two drivers taking it in turns to be at the wheel for four hours. We were somewhere on the main motorway heading south through France.

It was the middle of the night, about half past three in the morning, and I was woken by a sudden jolt. Was it in my dreams, or did the bus in which I was travelling really lurch briefly, then shudder, before the smooth, soporific equilibrium returned? I was one of five teachers on a coach with 42 14-year-olds from my school on our way to a resort just south of Barcelona. We'd been travelling for about 15 hours already, the two drivers taking it in turns to be at the wheel for four hours. We were somewhere on the main motorway heading south through France.

The driver now at the wheel had told me that this middle-of- the-night shift was one he hated, and, now, as I peered sleepily down the bus, I could see why. We were still travelling at speed, on a busy-ish road, with lorries, cars and other buses jockeying for position as they all headed south. But the driver was on his own, with nothing to help him to stay alert apart from his own professionalism. His colleague was slumped, dozing, in the co-pilot's seat, and everything else was quiet. This, I understood, was hard, monotonous and draining work, and with what a responsibility!

The trip passed without incident and we all remained impressed by the excellent way in which our two drivers approached, and performed, their tasks.

Fast forward to Thursday morning last week, when, back home, on my way to school, I heard the first radio reports of the tragedy involving the school party from Ayrshire. The facts were still sketchy but the uncomfortably familiar elements were there: night-time... motorway in France... school trip to Barcelona... two drivers. It was impossible to suppress the thought: IT COULD HAVE BEEN US. That very day, at school, a colleague running a skiing trip next year took a call from a parent wanting to discuss the travel arrangements. Both understandable reactions, but probably overreactions. Safety is, rightly, an ever-present consideration on every school trip, but a totally risk-free environment does not exist, and part of education is to introduce children to situations where safety is a key factor, and to teach them how to take responsibility for themselves.

All three trips that I've been on this summer have involved activities with a small element of risk, just like everyday life back home, but all have also involved enormously valuable learning experiences for the kids, which it would be foolish to deny them because of concerns about danger.

Safety measures were, understandably, most prominent at the activity centre in Devon to which we took 60 excitable Year 7s in May. Here, they would abseil down a 30ft wall, get tossed around in the Atlantic waves with a surfboard attached to their ankle, and drive a three-wheeled motorbike around a muddy, rutted circuit. But they never did any of those things before the affable, and very professional centre staff explained all of the rules and safety measures to them.

So, when I first saw an 11-year-old girl dangling upside-down on the climbing wall and heard the beginnings of fear enter her voice underneath her helmet, it was reassuring to see the instructor at the top, herself roped in place, with her hand firmly on the girl's safety rope, calmly and clearly talking the girl through what she must do to regain control, and walk herself down the wall. The look of achievement on that girl's face when she got to the bottom was priceless.

It was also, interestingly, difficult to predict which kids would take to the climbing and abseiling, with the inherent "bottle" factor, and which kids would not. I was pleased to see, more than once, how a pupil viewed as "hard"' or "cool" back in the playground would be outshone on the wall by individuals known, until now, for their shyness or athletic awkwardness. All part of the intangible but invaluable educational benefits of such a trip.

Some schools, though, understandably but, in my view, misguidedly, prevent their students from doing the "dangerous" activities at these centres. While we were there, another school's pupils were kept away from climbing and surfing, and had to make do with nature trails and pursuits on which the feet remained on terra firma.

I was chatting about this to the head instructor down on the beach while we watched a dozen of my school's boys and girls, clad in wet suits and clutching surf-boards, being led into the frothing, pounding waves by their two (inevitably antipodean) leaders for the morning. He said that he found it sad that some schools deprive their pupils of such experiences.

"Look at the safety arithmetic here," he argued. "Twelve kids with two trained surfers and life-savers in the water, plus me, also a trained life-saver, on the beach as look-out and in overall charge. That's a ratio of one to four. When do you ever get that when you go to the beach as a family?"

As we talked, the weather suddenly changed, and turbulent squalls began sweeping in from beyond the headland. The children began to have trouble controlling their boards, which threatened to flip up in the wind. With an almost imperceptible sign to his two colleagues in the water, the head instructor called everyone in. It was now too windy, he explained. He showed the pupils how to store boards safely on the beach, and then everyone went back into the water for some fun and games before being called in to get dry and change.

The writer is a former BBC correspondent and a newly qualified teacher at a Home Counties comprehensive

education@independent.co.uk

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