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Residential visits – What to plan and prepare before departure

Photo of excited teenage girl carrying a suitcase

Daniel Harvey runs through the list of essential tasks and checks ahead of your school’s next residential visit

Daniel Harvey
by Daniel Harvey

Ask any adult of working age about their school days, and you’ll find that many will recall with real fondness a residential visit they took part in, either in the UK or abroad.

For some, it might have been their first real time away from home. For others, perhaps it was a chance to cement friendships or pursue extra-curricular activities, such as sport or music, with like-minded peers.

One thing’s for certain, however. No residential trip ever takes place without the time investment and efforts of committed school staff going the extra mile to make it happen.

So how should one go about planning and delivering a successful, enriching and rewarding residential visit, alongside all the other things you have to attend to in a normal teaching term?

Forward planning

Key to making the overall experience positive for all involved is thorough planning. This takes time, so start thinking about things at least a year in advance – especially for trips abroad which can be significantly more expensive.

Life is becoming more costly for everyone, and for parents of school-age children, the arrival of the ‘school trip letter’ can be a stressful experience. A long lead-in will give parents time to potentially pay the asking price in instalments, while also giving you the space to sort out the required admin. That said, if you’re using a travel company (more on which later), remember to check that the price you’re quoted won’t change before you’re due to depart.

It’s also a good idea to consider partnering up with another department in the school. This will not just create opportunities to cross the great staffroom divide and make more friends, but also help get ‘double bubble’ for the students and greater economy for their parents.

The potential combinations are endless. Spanish language and art in Barcelona. Skiing and French in the Alps, D&T, German and history in Munich – you get the idea. Real life isn’t conducted via discrete, timetabled chunks. A trip abroad can vividly help students to understand that.

Enlist the experts

These days, most of us are content to arrange our own personal holidays without using a travel agent, by booking flights and accommodation online. There can be the temptation to do this for school residentials in an effort to save money, but using a bespoke school travel company can provide genuine peace of mind, flexibility for those teachers planning the trip and a wealth of local experience and knowledge regarding your destination.

School travel companies can offer advice, book tickets for visits and excursions, and provide help and support if and when things don’t go quite to plan. As anyone who has tussled with a budget airline helpline will tell you, getting students to where they’re going can be stressful indeed – even moreso when you have 30 students in arrivals and only 25 items of luggage.

In this context, at least, effectively outsourcing elements of your planning phase shouldn’t be seen as a sign of defeat. Instead, see it as positive effect that will give you more time to focus on your core job of looking after the children.

Foreign residentials also require an extra level of planning in the form of organising travel documents. Your letters to parents should make it clear exactly what will be required of them and when. It’s a good idea at this stage to double-check the children’s nationality and ensure that no additional visas or other travel documents will be needed.

Parents can sometimes require help and support in this area, so be mindful and sensitive throughout the process. Ask for photocopies of all passport information pages early on, so that you can check how long students’ passports will be valid for. Be aware that the rules around this have changed post-Brexit, so you need to check. Some countries – including Germany, for example – require travellers’ passports to be valid for at least three months after the day they plan to depart. The last thing you want is for a child to be refused entry on a technicality.

Be sure to issue travel documentation reminders to all staff who will be coming with you. A colleague of mine once had to pull out of a skiing trip at the 11th hour, having been unable to locate his passport, causing much unnecessary stress and anxiety.

Special requirements

Another important area to consider when it comes to domestic or foreign residential visits are dietary and medical concerns. More children than ever are now affected by food allergies, and while most school kitchens and restaurants in the UK are well-placed to cater for special dietary requirements, you can’t assume the same applies everywhere.

Using a school travel company can help with this, as they’ll usually insist on the need for UK standards to have been met by any given food venue, thus helping to allay any concerns. Similarly, halal or kosher food may not always be available, so devise a plan for meeting the dietary needs of your group ahead of time if you can.

Indeed, you may decide – especially with older students – that full board simply isn’t the way to go. If you want them to buy their lunch, for example, check ahead of time that there will be affordable food options available to them and make these arrangements clear to parents. Again, any medical or dietary will need to be planned around carefully.

Unfortunately, it’s sometimes the case that complex medical needs may mean a residential trip isn’t suitable for a student to join. While all teachers will naturally want to be as inclusive as possible, the demands of a school trip are very different to those of a family holiday, where parents will be best placed to offer the care required.

As a trip leader, it’s necessary for you to consider the needs of the whole group, including staff, and make decisions accordingly in the interests of keeping everyone safe. That may mean, sadly, that for one reason or another, an individual student won’t be able to take part. If that’s the case, it’s best to be upfront and explain your reasoning to parents at the outset.

What’s the risk?

The final piece of the jigsaw in terms of planning is the completion of a risk assessment. A quick survey of colleagues seems to indicate that just mentioning those dreaded words is enough to elicit a heartfelt groan, but risk assessments are important because we’re working with children.

Hopefully, the various decisions you’ll have made in the course of planning the trip will mitigate against a disaster. Yet as illustrated by the case of the three British teachers recently found not guilty in a French court, following the death of a student in their care during a swimming trip in 2015, the tragically unforeseeable can, and sometimes does happen.

That’s why it’s vital to ensure that all staff members accompanying the trip have had input into the risk assessment, and understand their own responsibilities with regards to it. Remember that it’s a working document, and that situations can change, so don’t be afraid to suggest amending certain elements while you’re out there if you need to. Just make sure that everyone else knows.

So, there you have it – a well-planned residential that works for everyone. Next time – how to lead your residential on the ground…

Daniel Harvey is a GCSE and A Level science teacher and lead on behaviour, pastoral and school culture for an inner city academy

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