Memories are made of this
Despite negative publicity surrounding school trips, Bromsgrove School continues to offer more than 200 out-of-school activities a year. Delyth Draper explains measures the school has put in place to ensure safety, such as risk assessment training for pupils.
As last term drew to a close, I addressed our 14 year-olds at their assembly with the words of Mark Twain: "Twenty years from now you will be more disappointed by the things you didn't do than by the ones you did."
It seemed a fitting way to start the Easter holidays, for over the next three weeks Bromsgrove School had no fewer than six trips out involving 170 pupils and 25 staff.
There were three language exchanges, a drama trip to New York, a Combined Cadet Force (CCF) adventurous training camp to Snowdonia and a gold Duke of Edinburgh expedition to the Lake District.
Last year alone, well over 200 activities left the school campus, not counting sports trips. They are wide-ranging, from half-day visits to local museums or evening theatre, to day trips to London or to a trade fair for our young enterprise pupils to sell their wares.
Despite the litigious society that we find ourselves in, Bromsgrove has also continued to offer adventurous activities.
Everyone in Year 9 has a summer camp in the Forest of Dean. This summer 27 pupils will go out with World Challenge Expeditions to Thailand and Cambodia.
I accept that we are lucky - Bromsgrove is an independent school in the heart of the Midlands with committed staff and, on the whole, supportive parents and enthusiastic pupils.
However, media articles feed off the negativity and cynicism surrounding this whole area.
Last year The Daily Express published a piece titled 'Why should we risk the lives of our children on a school trip?', utterly ignoring the fact that hundreds of trips pass off daily without a single mishap.
The author clearly had no idea of the paperwork involved on a school trip these days or the quality educational experience that the vast majority provide.
Revising school policy
Legislation has, quite rightly, been tightened following several tragedies and near-misses.
With the DfES continually strengthening guidelines and offering support and training for educational visits coordinators (EVCs) within schools, any trip departing from the gates must surely be safer and of better quality than ever before.
We welcomed the ground-breaking Health and Safety of Pupils on Educational Visits published in 2001; there is nothing in it that a parent and child should not expect of a school.
At Bromsgrove we revised our trips policy two years ago. Every member of staff will tell you that it is time-consuming.
However, every single one would also tell you what a necessary part of the planning process it is, how much confidence it gives them and how the calibre of their trips has improved.
They are also encouraged to review their trips on return and make changes to risk assessments whilst it is still at the forefront of everyone's mind.
All staff are made to feel involved on a trip too. If they feel ownership of the paperwork and have a specific focus, they carry out their roles much more effectively.
They do not feel that they are merely fulfilling staffing ratios.
At Bromsgrove, two of us are responsible for checking the paperwork and granting permission for visits to take place. The deputy head is the EVC and I act as assistant EVC with particular responsibility for outdoor pursuits trips.
We meet every Monday morning and challenge each other on the paperwork, checking that risk assessments and all of the necessary paperwork is in place.
Before residential UK and overseas trips, the EVC briefs all pupils and staff with particular reference to child protection and health and safety. Our school health and safety officer and transport manager check and sign all requests for trips.
It is a lengthy process but one which has now settled into the everyday routine of the school life and is seen as a necessary evil.
In our staff training given on the subject last year, the emphasis was very much on duty of care for pupils whilst on a trip, staff vigilance and the need for on-going risk assessments whilst on the trip itself.
Last year, for the first time, the school employed an external adviser to look at paperwork for a particularly adventurous trip abroad. His expertise enabled the group leader to see potential hazards and alter plans.
Pupils determine risk
We now actively encourage our pupils to write their own risk assessments before trips, so that they feel ownership. Our Year 9 pupils all undergo some risk management training sessions and it has worked extremely well.
We no longer get pupils questioning why a decision was made - they have been part of that process and are able to see why a particular decision has been taken and accept it.
The drive for many of our trips comes from the pupil body itself, through their ideas and instigation, and they are involved in the detailed planning of some ventures.
Bromsgrove may have more support than some, but in any school, the value and principles behind school trips are the same. We are all in this profession to move young people forward and present them with opportunities they might not otherwise have.
Leadership, self-esteem and self-confidence develop far quicker and those that return from such an experience show greater willingness and commitment within and for the school.
Education should offer something for everyone - not all learn well in a classroom.
Kinaesthetic learners gain huge benefits from being able to see, touch and experience something in real life. They hold on to that experience, remember and learn from it.
Similarly, because a trip is not the everyday norm, pupils tend to concentrate better and demonstrate a renewed interest in a topic.
Our adventurous trips break down stereotypical barriers too; our girls climb the same mountains as the boys and complete physical challenges. They are encouraged to help one another and recognise one another's strengths and weaknesses.
And, how else do we educate the current generation about environmental awareness and citizenship?
It is not only the pupils that gain. The greatest staff-pupil relationships are forged outside the classroom. Pupils see staff in a different light and it strengthens that staff member's role in the classroom setting.
Pupils leave school remembering these experiences. My memories of secondary school are not of sitting in a classroom; they are of sailing on the Welsh coast, walking in Snowdonia, the German language exchange.
At a recent school reunion, what did we talk about? Our sixth form biology field trip and our Duke of Edinburgh expeditions.
To take that away from this generation would deprive them of their basic right for opportunity and experience.
There is risk associated with any activity, but it is how teachers are supported and trained in managing that risk before and throughout that determines a visit's success.
As Theodore Roosevelt said, "The man who never makes a mistake is the man who never does anything."
© 2013 Association of School and College Leaders