Beyond school bounds

As the relentless drive to improve grades continues unabated, many independent schools have not lost sight of their primary guiding mission – to develop the characters of young men and women. James Higgins finds out how can trips help teachers nurture the spirits – as well as the grades – of their students

As the new term begins, the minds of many returning students may already have drifted to the prospects of school trips. Whether residential weekends, day-long excursions or the excitement of a flight abroad, these albeit brief moments in the school calendar are a huge opportunity for young people to gain something extra from their compulsory education.

These trips beyond the school bounds break down the usual rules and formats, giving students an opportunity to develop real-life abilities. They can be an opportunity to nurture new-found maturity, decision-making skills and a sense of adventure.

As with all worthwhile things, effort is the requisite to success. Concerns about safety, welfare, insurance and emotional strain mean no school trip is without its challenges. So, is it all worth it?

A note from the experts

In 2015, Dr Simon Beames from the University of Edinburgh and a senior lecturer in the outdoor and environmental education section of the Moray House School of Education and Sport, visited Gordonstoun School in its 200-acre wooded grounds on the banks of the Moray Firth, to learn more about the school’s out-of-classroom learning experiences (OOCLES). As part of his study, Beames surveyed 1,183 past pupils about their OOCLES and reached a clear conclusion; 94% of students said OOCLES have had a positive impact on their personal growth and a further 74% said OOCLES have had a positive impact on their careers.

The school’s motto, ‘Plus est en vous’, which translates as ‘There is more in you’, underpins their commitment to OOCLES. The boarding school’s scholarship and enrichment coordinator schedules trips throughout the year – from national competitions to debating, dialogue and current affairs societies, the entire curriculum is reflected in the timetable.

Lisa Kerr, principal of Gordonstoun School, says there are challenges with adopting an outdoor learning strategy, such as cost and getting the balance of outdoor and academic experiences right, but adds: “This research is relevant for our entire sector. It shows that character can be taught. They learn to just give it a go and not be afraid to fail in front of people, which normalises it.” Boarders additionally benefit from Saturday night social trips which include barbecues, ceilidhs and visits to the cinema or the beach.

The visit to Houston gave 30 pupils an in-depth, week-long experience behind the scenes at one of the key centres for STEM in the world

In his paper – The nature and impact of Gordonstoun School’s out-of-classroom learning experiences – Beames outlines the key elements to successful OOCLES. His findings revealed that expeditions (or multi-day trips) were the most powerful, as they allowed young people to push their physical and mental boundaries. Having a mix of international students was important, as well as unfamiliar challenges with support but minimal direction. Another factor alumni felt important were the opportunities to lead, take responsibility for others or offer service to others.

It is worth noting that conclusions from this study must be taken with a pinch of salt – while the findings were overwhelmingly positive, the respondents ranged vastly in age and these more nuanced views and experiences were teased out in the qualitative aspect of the research.

Fifty-seven percent of students felt the OOCLES positively impacted their academic studies but 43% actually felt they detracted from the crucial business of studying. The link between OOCLES and careers was least strongly felt among younger male respondents (aged 20 to 29). For some, the freedom to choose play meant not choosing work. A key note for any independent school – particularly those with boarding students – is to ensure a healthy balance between freedom and supervision and between OOCLES and classroom time.

Shrewsbury School in Malawi

What should a school trip achieve?

Sam Griffiths, housemaster of Ingram’s Hall at Shrewsbury School, is a passionate advocate of the role of excursions as complementary to the curriculum. In a blog post for Independent Education Today, Griffiths says a sense of adventure runs in the DNA of Old Salopians; the “statues of Darwin and Sir Philip Sidney gaze down ‘Central’ here at Shrewsbury”, their place in history and on campus a constant reminder for current-day pupils of the school’s legacy.

In his blog, Griffiths outlines the many trips the school embarks on during, and out of, term time. Recent trips during the summer holidays include trips to Ecuador, the Galapagos Islands, Guyana and Madagascar. Teachers have also taken students to visit the eye clinic in Malawi which is sponsored by the school. This and other projects are the result of a partnership between the school and the charity Medic Malawi.

During their most recent trip in 2018, 16 pupils were lucky enough to watch first-hand the skill of the eye surgeons and the life-changing results they achieve. The 10-day trip involves students from Shrewsbury School and members of the Shrewsbury House – an Everton-based youth club known locally as Shewsy which runs in partnership with the namesake school. The trip offers Salopians a chance to mix with young people who may come from a context quite different from their own, despite living only 60 miles north.

They learn to just give it a go and not be afraid to fail in front of people, which normalises it

Shrewsbury School’s running club – the Hunt – and outdoor pursuits club – the Rovers – are two groups that spearhead many of the school’s adventurous activities. In 2013, the Hunt broke new ground when it launched the now biennial tours of Ethiopia and Kenya to train at high altitude. The Rovers, not to be outdone, have visited Peru and organised a ‘Land, Sea and Skye’ expedition around the inner Hebrides. These trips reflect the extra-curricular – or, as Griffiths describes them, ‘super-curricular’ – ethos of the school.

As Beames’ study shows, excursions do not need to be in the wilderness to be a success but organising more complex trips can be a headache for already stretched teaching staff. Whether hiking up a mountain or attending a debating contest, there is no prescribed route to delivering an impactful OOCLE. Offering students independence and responsibility is crucial. As Withington Girls’ School (WGS) in Manchester demonstrates with a wide variety of extra-curricular trips and visits, which include an annual trip to Westminster to visit the Houses of Parliament, Downing Street and the Supreme Court and a recent visit to NASA’s Space Center in Houston, Texas, there are ways to give the curriculum an out-school approach.

The visit to Houston gave 30 pupils an in-depth, week-long experience behind the scenes at one of the key centres for STEM in the world. Pupils heard from Clay Anderson about his experience of spending 152 days aboard the International Space Station, toured the space shuttle Independence, took diving classes with the Neutral Buoyancy Lab and constructed Mars Rover robots.

The trip – with the added complexities of travelling to America and creating a packed itinerary – was arranged by a specialist package trip provider. Vision Education’s varied packages allow schools to buy a crafted experience such as the Texas Space STEM trip without burdening in-house resources.

Shrewsbury School in Guyana

Next steps

The important thing school leaders should not forget is the quality of the experience. Whether sailing around Scotland or diving in a pool in Houston, students grow in confidence, maturity and self-reliance. Whether cooking food in a medical camp in Malawi or building a Rover robot, the skills may or may not ‘map’ onto the curriculum, but they leave breathing space for students to learn something new from school.


2019/20 trip trends

Sue Sharkey, director of Halsbury Travel and former geography teacher, discusses her predictions for the school trip landscape over the next 12 months

As a specialist school tour operator, we help many schools organise their school trips.

Interestingly, there are a couple of key trends we’re seeing for 2019/20.

One of our newest and most popular destinations is the Azores. An archipelago of nine volcanic islands in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean, it’s very popular with geography groups as it boasts similar geographical features to Iceland, but with the benefits of a much milder climate.

As well as the warmer weather, it’s a great alternative if you’ve already been to Iceland a few times and fancy exploring somewhere new, without losing any of the educational aspects of your tour.

While Iceland offers the opportunity to see a country in the making, the Azores offers the chance to see what it might look like in one or two million years, and to study the changing land use.

It’s also often described as one of the best island destinations for sustainable tourism in the world, which is an issue that is becoming increasingly important to our customers when choosing a school trip destination.

Two other destinations that are becoming increasingly popular for 2019/20 are Normandy and Japan. With both the Rugby World Cup and the 2020 Olympics being held there, we’re receiving more and more enquiries for school trips to Japan.

With Normandy the draw is the 75th anniversary of VE Day, which will be commemorated on 8 May, and the fact that we offer self-contained accommodation close to the D-Day Landings beaches.


The print version of this feature was sponsored by Halsbury Travel.