Schools set to slope off again

Plans for a fixed two-week holiday early in April could revive the school ski trip and boost the family skiing holiday sector. Stephen Wood talks to the operators who might take advantage

Statistics don't get much more remarkable than this. In the 1980/81 season, more than three-quarters of all British skiers were children travelling in school parties. Since then, the schools market has lost 427,000 passengers and 63.5 percentage points of its market share. Last season only a little more than one in 10 British skiers was on a school trip.

Statistics don't get much more remarkable than this. In the 1980/81 season, more than three-quarters of all British skiers were children travelling in school parties. Since then, the schools market has lost 427,000 passengers and 63.5 percentage points of its market share. Last season only a little more than one in 10 British skiers was on a school trip.

Imagine how depressing these figures are for the ski tour operators. Once they had a huge, constant flow of newcomers delivered to the market by enthusiastic teachers and parents subject to various forms of blackmail and peer pressure. Did these newcomers enjoy themselves? Oh yes they did. This is hearsay, I admit: but apparently indiscipline in most of its forms - with alcohol and the opposite sex commonly involved - ensured that the majority of these skiers wanted to come back for more, even if they hadn't yet got the hang of skiing.

Now, tour operators have to rely on their own resources to attract fresh blood. Various inducements have been offered in recent years to beginners; and family skiing facilities have been dramatically improved by operators seeking both to bring young parents back into the market and to hook kids on winter sports well before they are old enough to go on school trips.

What caused skiing to slide so quickly off the school curriculum? Although there were other factors, it was primarily a policy change in state schools which made bunking off in term time unacceptable, unless the trip had a cultural or educational dimension. Private schools could still get away with it, even though fee-paying parents might justifiably feel they were not getting value for money with their children off skiing.

Although the hope - expressed by some in the ski market - for a softening of the state schools' attitude is a faint one, a forthcoming change in the shape of the school year does offer some encouragement to tour operators, as well as promising to make life easier for family skiers. And, almost coincidentally, the Specialist Holidays Group (which controls 40 per cent of the British ski market with its Crystal, Thomson and Simply Ski brands) has stirred interest in the school-trip market with the purchase of The International Academy.

Stuart McLeod, the managing director for ski and lakes at the Specialist Holidays Group, says that there is "no cause-and-effect relationship" between the advent of the six-term Standard School Year and the purchase of the Cardiff-based operator of school trips for skiing and snowboarding, among other sports. The International Academy, he says, "has been bought because it provides two additional strands to our portfolio. We haven't been in the schools market, and it's appropriate for us to be there; and the academy also runs gap-year and career-break courses, mainly in North America, for people who want to become ski instructors. So our operation now runs all the way from family holidays to instructing."

This is not quite '"cradle to the grave"; rather, it's like a car company offering a range of models from a hatchback up to a grand tourer. The school trips are an "entry level" product, and McLeod believes "that if people have a good first experience of skiing they will look fondly on the company that provided the holiday". Also, school-age children have what he calls "pester power: if an 11-year-old boy has enjoyed a school ski trip, he'll start pestering his parents about a family skiing holiday".

Choosing his words carefully, McLeod suggests that one reason the school ski market has shrunk so fast "is that the ski business has not been as supportive to head teachers and group leaders as it might have been. There are challenges, and we should endeavour to support them." The major obstacle to term-time trips, of course, is the requirement that they have a cultural/educational element. This is no doubt why the schoolboy football stars sent on The International Academy's remarkable training holidays to top clubs such as AC Milan and Real Madrid find themselves being dragged around the Duomo or the Prado when they are not kicking balls. It may be just a matter of time before keen skiers start trying to get out of school for architectural appreciation courses on Late Modernism at Les Arcs, Flaine and Les Menuires.

But the ploy probably wouldn't work. Fleur Young is the policy officer at the Local Government Association (LGA) in charge of research for the six-term Standard School Year, whose direct relevance to skiing is that it replaces the "floating" Easter holiday with a fixed spring break in the first two weeks of April. In the discussion phase, the LGA suggested that the final, summer term might be used more creatively, to deter absenteeism after exams. But the idea of children enjoying themselves out of the classroom in term time was not welcomed by educationalists. "We were hammered for that," says Young. "The 'fun' term is how it was referred to." Since then, creativity has taken a back seat.

The LGA has only an advisory role, so local education authorities are free to choose whether to adopt the six-term year, and when. But for the 2004/05 school year nine authorities, mainly in the South-west, will implement the fixed spring break, a week after Easter on April 4-15. Many more are expected to follow their lead in 2005/06.

To have a fixed school holiday unaffected by the vagaries of Easter dates is a good thing for skiing, isn't it? Not necessarily. McLeod doubts that it will have "a massive impact, because it's at the back end of the season, when only high-altitude resorts are fully operational". Andy Perrin, the managing director of the family skiing specialists Esprit Ski, is of the same opinion. He says the fixed break "will enable us to flatten the price curve and somewhat reduce the peaks and troughs. But we don't anticipate a radical difference to our business in the short term."

Perrin says: "It's one of the misconceptions about family skiers that they only travel at the Christmas/New Year, half-term and Easter peaks. We're dedicated to family skiing, and we fill our charters throughout the season. What actually happens is that families with pre-school children go skiing in January and March, and those with older children during school holidays. The new break will make it easier for families with school-age children to go skiing, which is to be welcomed. But until people change their attitudes, focus less on Easter and get into the habit of skiing during the new break, I don't think we'll see a major upheaval."

Crystal (0870 160 6040; www.crystalski.co.uk); Thomson (0870 606 1470; www.thomson-ski.co.uk); Esprit Ski (01252 618300; www.esprit-holidays.co.uk)

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