The parents’ guide to school trips

Girl going on a school residential trip
It feels like five minutes ago that you were peeling a tearful child off your leg at the school gates; now it’s your turn to weep at the thought of them going on a residential trip! We answer your questions – and ease your worries – about residential visits. By Lucy Dimbylow

Q. What can I expect from my child’s school trip?

Anything from a daytrip to a museum to a week’s skiing holiday. ‘Primary schools tend to favour places within two hours’ travelling distance,’ says Ian Pearson, general manager of the School Travel Forum. ‘Adventure centres, field study centres, RSPB centres and farms are all popular, although more adventurous schools venture further afield, for example to the Isle of Wight, France, Belgium and Holland.’ Often, schools offer a one-night residential for children at the start of Key Stage 2, and a longer trip in Year 6.

Q. Do school trips really enrich my child’s learning?

Absolutely, says Frances Bartlett, headteacher of Radley Primary School in Oxfordshire. ‘Not only do residential trips provide experiences that we can’t offer on-site, such as canoeing, caving and abseiling, but children are extended in a way that doesn’t happen in the classroom,’ she explains. ‘They participate in team-building activities, develop stronger peer relationships, and grow in confidence before our eyes.’

Janie Burt, managing director of school trip provider JCA, agrees. ‘In our independent survey, 99% of teachers say students are more animated and engaged in learning on school trips than in the classroom,’ she says.

Q. Are school trips compulsory?

In 2010, the Department for Children, Schools and Families called for educational visits to become part of the National Curriculum, but there’s currently no obligation for schools to offer trips – or for your child to go. ‘We work hard to reassure parents and children who are anxious about school trips, so that no one misses out,’ adds Frances Bartlett. ‘If children aren’t happy about going away for a whole week, for example, we can suggest they come for one or two nights. However, if students choose to stay at school, we provide alternative activities for them.’

Q. What if I can’t afford it?

Schools are allowed to charge for board and lodgings for residential trips. They can’t charge for activities during school hours, but most request a ‘voluntary contribution’ of anything from a few pounds for a local daytrip up to hundreds for a residential visit. If you can’t afford to pay, write in confidence to the headteacher; costs can usually be covered in cases of hardship.

Q. Will my child be safe?

‘Schools have safeguarding as their highest priority, and conduct rigorous risk assessments for every activity,’ says Frances Bartlett. They must adhere to correct staffing ratios and ensure that children’s individual physical, medical, social and behavioural needs are considered. They should also hold a pre-trip parents’ meeting where you can raise any particular concerns.

Many schools use either local authority residential centres, which are strictly audited and inspected, or independent providers that have achieved the Learning Outside the Classroom Quality Badge. ‘All Quality Badged centres undergo an annual audit covering health and safety and the facilitation of good learning experiences,’ says Ian Pearson.

Q. Will my child be homesick?

‘Many children have moments of homesickness, and we talk about that possibility before we go,’ says Frances Bartlett. ‘It’s rare that a child is inconsolable, though, but if it happens, we’ll phone the parents and put a plan in place.’

‘Don’t do what I did and pop little notes in your child’s suitcase,’ advises Helen, mum to Mary, 12. ‘It seemed like a good idea at the time, but the teachers almost had to send my daughter home as she was so overtired and my note tipped her over the edge.’

Chances are, though, that your child will surprise you. ‘My daughter went on her first residential at the age of five, and although she was anxious beforehand, she tumbled off the coach at the end saying she hadn’t missed me at all,’ says Sara, mum to Phoebe, nine.

Q. What if I fall apart?

It’s natural to miss your child and worry about how she’s coping, but try to put on a brave face until the coach has left. ‘I always jokingly say to my girls, “I shall be too busy to miss you,” give them a hug and a smile, and off they go,’ says Sarah, whose children Lolly and Bethany first went on residential trips at age five and six.

Many schools prefer children not to phone home, but there are other ways to keep in touch. ‘We have daily phone contact with the group, so parents can call the school if they’re concerned, and we also update our website every day with photos,’ says Frances Bartlett. And there’s nothing like seeing your child smiling out from your computer screen to put your mind at rest.