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“The Transformation You See In Pupils On School Trips Is What Makes The Cold Feet Worthwhile”

Whether it’s an afternoon at your local museum, or a week in the wilderness, school trips are a chance for everyone to learn something new

  • “The Transformation You See In Pupils On School Trips Is What Makes The Cold Feet Worthwhile”

After we emerged from the trees, the group had struggled up the rest of the climb. Although it looked straightforward and the crest of the hill was in sight, the undulating hillocks and boggy patches made the rest of the ascent that bit harder.

And it seemed like each climber had individual problems, from stomach cramps which were doubling one boy up every few steps to another whose boots were giving him blisters. However each pupil reached the top, found a spot of soft heather, then collapsed.

While a packed lunch of sandwiches, crisps and cake was being devoured rapidly, I was thinking how best to break it to the group that we still had a bit of climbing to go, when the most reserved member of the group began to talk. Or more accurately, recite a short story from humorist Michael Rosen, that he had memorised off by heart, expressions and all.

So we sat back looking at the glittering Clyde Estuary and were entertained by a story about a holiday in France involving a Renault, a toddler and a ditch.

It is a hard sell, taking pupils out of school for even a day, let alone a week away from their studies, without hard evidence that it will improve school results or classroom performance.

In today’s climate of recording, measuring and evidencing where performance measuring tools are sacrosanct, school trips should be an anachronism.

Thankfully there is a realisation that the unmeasurable benefits they accrue in young people’s lives are worth missing some class work for, even though these benefits might not appear until the young person is a parent themselves and wants to take their children out to experience the environment.

On the other hand, the positives might occur sooner but are too subtle to gauge; a greater sense of self belief from abseiling off a cliff face, or simply finding the right environment to tell a story.

Reveal hidden depths

But the transformation that you do see in pupils is what makes the cold feet worthwhile.

This can happen because the trip brings something out that was already within the child but was never revealed in the structure of a school day, or the pupil discovers something within themselves in the new environment. I have been away with pupils who hate the traditional forms of PE but thrive when asked to swim out to a pontoon on a loch or spend a couple of hours rowing a kayak around a river estuary.

Recently, I asked a particularly truculent student if he would like to come on the next week long outdoor trip I was organising, after taking part in the previous one. This teenager, who would normally rather pluck out his tongue than express something positive to a teacher, blurted out: “That would be brilliant. I’ll ask my parents tonight.”

I can’t pretend it’s all brisk early morning rises and magical learning experiences in the outdoors. The days are long and waiting for a dozen nervous pupils to abseil down an icy rock face in the midst of winter in the Highlands of Scotland can be exceedingly uncomfortable.

The pupils can get a bit frayed through being in each other’s company for too long, homesickness can kick in and planned activities don’t always go to plan but back at school we have a shared vocabulary of experience which can last for years and begins: “Remember when..”

Use your locality

And of course, school trips don’t have to be all-singing, all-dancing overnight adventures. In today’s cash strapped times, it pays to have a look at what is free on your doorstep.

Working in a city, my teacher colleagues and I are fortunate that many of Glasgow’s places of interest do not charge for entry, and as many pupils have bus passes, days out can occur at no expense.

Enthusiastic museum curators breathe life into dry subjects with the right visual aids and recently a group of pupils watched Lord Kelvin’s pitch drop experiment, which began in the 1880s and still rolls imperceptibly downwards today.

Cinemas tend to have rolling programmes of mini-festivals which offer cheap or even free tickets for school pupils, although the attraction for the young people is not always the film.

I was surprised at the enthusiasm of the pupils to sign up to see Macbeth last year, and then how settled the group were during this complex film, when I expected more restlessness. It was only then I realised that they were all either already asleep or in the process of dropping off.

The pulling power of the McDonald’s around the corner from the cinema was a greater draw than The Bard’s finest work, the film an ideal chance for a pre-lunch snooze.

Grow as a teacher

It is not only the pupils who learn. Watching how the students react to a different style of teaching is very informative.

In school pupils always have an escape route out of an awkward educational situation, which can be as basic as walking out of the door, something outdoor instructors don’t allow.

On a winter trip with a dozen streetwise teenagers we walked through the Glen Nevis Gorge to stay in a bothy lacking the basic facilities, such as heating, lighting or an inside toilet.

To add to the adventure, the hut could only be reached by crossing a wire rope bridge suspended 20m above the River Nevis which was engorged with ice water running down from the country’s highest mountain.

Most of the pupils struggled with at least one aspect of all of this but they couldn’t down tools, refuse to continue or even phone home, as we were far from a mobile signal.

I’m sure a few had a long night but they dug in and found a level of resilience from within which hopefully they can call on when things get hard. What I will recall is that is worthwhile to push for more from your pupils when you suspect they are spent as they might just surprise you.

Our shared memory will be the hours long snowball battle under the stars on the untouched snowfall as the arresting sight of the Steall Falls waterfall dropped millions of gallons of freezing water 120m into the river below.

Gordon Cairns is an English and forest school teacher, who works in a unit for secondary pupils on the Autism Spectrum Disorder.

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