The thought of taking 30-plus children further than the playground can bring most teachers out in hives, mainly because the bureaucracy surroundingexcursions can be so prohibitive that it's not worth it, or that the media coverage in the event of an accident is too intense.
Earlier this year, though, the Government announced that it was going to address this situation. The "Staying Safe" action plan launched by the Department for Children, Schools and Families makes it easier for teachers to take pupils out of the classroom, with activity centres being able to apply for safety certification.
Mark Bush, the managing director of Travelbound, a company that organises school trips in Britain and abroad, says that there is rightly a large amount of risk-assessment administration involved with trips."But that becomes a burden, as teachers don't have time to do it," he says.
"We live in an environment where everything is monitored, so it is easy to become staid and play it safe when organising a trip. But teachers know that to get the most out of a child, there needs to be an element of experiential and practical learning involved."
Travelbound uses dedicated coordinators who are regional specialists, so they're fluent in the local language and also have an expert knowledge of the destination. "We can also arrange for our local ground handlers to accompany the tour," says Bush.
He thinks school trips are more vital than ever, since children are living in a digital age where knowledge is at our fingertips. "In most households and some classrooms, there is easy access to new technology," he says. "This is why a school trip is beneficial to a child's learning. They're getting back to basics and learning to think for themselves. An educational trip and experiencing through first-hand knowledge will stay in a child's memory longer than copying text from the web."
Bush says that in the current economic climate, the financial safety of going through a recognised Abta (Association of British Travel Agents) and Atol-bonded (Air Travel Organisers' Licensing) school-tour operator is vital. "When you go through unprotected operators or direct to suppliers and book it yourself, there is a financial risk to the school if one of the suppliers goes bankrupt," he says. "While on tour, it is reassuring to have a 24-hour emergency support team in the UK." He also advises finding out when the hotels, coaches and drivers were last audited and asking for risk-assessment advice.
The School Travel Forum, of which Travelbound is a member, is a group of leading school-tour operators that promote good practice and safety in school travel. All full members of the forum adhere to a rigorous code of practice and safety-management standards that meet the requirements of government guidelines and are externally verified each year.
But you needn't go to far-flung places to get the best out of your school trip, says Susie Batchelor, the head of education for Historic Royal Palaces, a charity that looks after the Tower of London, Hampton Court Palace, the Banqueting House, Kensington Palace and Kew Palace. "These stories are fantastic material to engage young people," she says. "We have a wealth of fascinating episodes with which to spur interest, whether it's Thomas Seymour shooting King Edward's dog at Hampton Court or polar bears at the Tower."
The content and style of Historic Royal Palaces's programmes are constantly evolving to match curriculum requirements, and more teachers are making use of its free planning visits and resources on its website. But the core elements of the school trip are the same as ever, says Batchelor. "It's the excitement of a journey and learning in new places and through new experiences, being part of the palace for a day and social interaction with classmates, teachers and other visitors."