In the bad old days, a school trip meant a two-hour coach ride to a Roman ruin accompanied by an unappetising packed lunch in a plastic bag. In short, it wasn’t much to write home about. If you were lucky, there were forays into Europe toe-curling French exchanges and choir trips to Italy, where you quickly learned that the combination of Benetton mini-skirts and blonde hair had a rather exciting effect on the locals.

These days, it’s all very different, and schools are constantly looking for ways to deepen their pupils’ experience of the world. They actively encourage teachers to be as imagin-ative as possible, and, as a result, the variety of trips and tours on offer is nothing short of outstanding. Obviously, cultural and language-orientated trips to Europe are still valued, but, nowadays, they’re coupled with philanthropic visits to the developing world, mountaineering expeditions to out-of-the-way places and musical and sporting tours that rival those of Britain’s national orchestras and teams in scope.

Prep schools are getting in on the act, too. The head of Geography at Hazlegrove Preparatory School in Somerset, Fran Barnes, recently took 37 11-13 year olds on an expedition to Iceland. While they were there, the group climbed an extinct volcano and enjoyed first-hand experience of waterfalls, blue lagoons, crevasses and outwash plains. Mrs Barnes says: ‘As we walked away from a waterfall, I asked them to look back and see the hard rock above and the soft below, and one of the girls turned to me and said “Now it all makes sense”. You simply don’t get that kind of learning experience in the classroom.’

At Westbourne House School, near Chichester in West Sussex, a cricket tour for 13 year olds of KwaZulu-Natal near Durban in South Africa gave 16 of them a real insight into life in the country, because they stayed with local families while they were there. The team played seven games of cricket on the 13-day tour, but it was the other experiences that proved the most valuable. Head of Games Kevin Smith, who lead the tour, comments: ‘We did a presentation to the rest of the school when we got home, and it wasn’t until we got to the 16th boy that we realised we hadn’t talked about the cricket.

It was all the other aspects-staying in a Zulu camp, surfing, visiting a crocodile farm and the new Moses Mabhida Stadium in Durban-that added so much more. Some of the children are still in touch with the families they stayed with.’ Interaction is important, and schools are keen that their pupils shouldn’t be passive observers. Mowden Hall School in Northumberland sends its entire Year 7 (children aged 11 and 12) to a château in France for the autumn term, where they’re immersed in French life, take all their lessons in French and mix with children from neighbouring French schools. There’s also a feeling among schools that their visits should be reciprocal.

The Dragon School has taken groups to work with street children in Calcutta, Rio and South Africa, and welcomed children from all of these places back to the school in Oxford. Danny Gill, the Dragon’s director of social impact, explains: ‘We’ve wanted to create a legacy from these trips.’ And they seem to be succeeding. One Old Dragon who visited South Africa on a school trip in the 1990s has set up a charity in the townships, which Dragon pupils visited this year.

In 2009, eight Bedales students visited a school in Shanghai, attending lessons and visiting families, and hosted a group of Chinese students who came back to visit them. For Ampleforth College, it was a trip off the beaten track to Romania and Transylvania for pupils who visited schools that, like theirs, had connections with a monastery. Part of the trip involved following the Bishop of Transylvania on an almost four-mile devotion from the Franciscan monastery to mass. One of the teachers who accompanied the group wrote: ‘The experience of being a part of such a fervent, patriotic and large crowd is one that will last a lifetime for students and teachers alike.’ These days, philanthropy often plays a big part in trips abroad.

At Downe House, Berkshire, each boarding house has forged links with schools and organisations in the developing world, including India, South Africa, Kenya, Botswana, Malaysia and Malawi. The houses collect money or equipment throughout the year, and small groups of girls have visited and taught in the schools. Of one such trip, Downe House pupil Rozel van der Spuy wrote: ‘Visiting the slums in Delhi was an unbelievable experience, and I was struck again by how little we appreciate the small things in life, such as running water or the opportunity to go to school. India surpassed all my expectations and gave me memories that I will never forget.’

Rather than always seeking what they can learn from the world, some tours involve taking skills and specialities from the school to a wider audience, either in Britain or abroad. Stowe’s headmaster, Anthony Wallersteiner, says: ‘Our musicians travel widely, and have been to Los Angeles and New York in the past 12 months. The beagles go on more holidays than I do.’ Simon Dearsley, head of Music, is behind this push to take his pupils’ abroad: ‘These are iconic places, and the experience transforms children musically and personally.

Our strings group played at the Thai Inter-national Dance Fest, which had 250,000 people attending each day. You don’t get that in a church in Suffolk.’ Last year, a group of Bedales students performed at the Edinburgh Fringe, and art students at Bryanston, Dorset, exhibited beside Lucian Freud and Howard Hodgkin (both Old Bryanstonians) at a gallery in London’s Cork Street.
Schools have always been interested in testing pupils’ physical endurance, but whereas before, this might have taken the form of orienteering on Dartmoor, nowadays, expeditions are more likely to take place in Tibet or Peru.

If a school is lucky enough to have a Bear Grylls-type teacher on its staff, there are seemingly no limits to the places they will go to. Ed Russell teaches Theology at Eton, and is heavily into mountaineering. ‘The trip to Everest base camp is the most straightforward one I do. The biggest is happening this August: I’m taking a group to Greenland, where we’re hoping to scale some unclimbed peaks. Very few people have ever been there, and the population consists of a small Inuit village of 200 people, so it’s extremely remote.’

Parents quaking in their boots will be reassured to hear that these trips are aimed at the GCSE age group and older, and involve two years of preparation. Dr Russell confirms: ‘The highest they climb is about 6,000ft. With schoolchildren, you’d be pretty foolhardy to go above 20,000ft.’ So now, the only alarming thing about all the trips on offer (apart from the cost) is that your child will probably leave school better-travelled than you.

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