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School trips and excursions are seeing a sad decline, with excessive paperwork, lack of time, and a risk-averse culture to blame. In the United Kingdom last year, 43 percent of teachers surveyed by the Sutton Trust said they had made cutbacks to ‘school trips and excursions’, and this applied to both domestic and international school trips. In 2017, the number of under-16 year-olds that took part in an overseas school trip of up to two weeks was just 326,107, compared with a somewhat more impressive 592,279 in 2014. Coach bus and school bus rentals are seeing a decline nationally, with the UK new bus and coach market having fallen by -5.6 percent in 2018, and the country’s top attractions are also noticing the change: management from The Globe in London said it had seen a seven percent drop in education visits over the past year. Lack of staff and lack of suitable funding are generally cited as the main reasons behind the decline, but today’s culture of blame is also hugely responsible. The truth is, teachers and schools are growing increasingly afraid of leaving school grounds for fear of attracting a lawsuit, should things go wrong in any way.

But studies have shown field trips really can impart valuable lessons on students. A study from the University of Arkansas recently found that field trips of a cultural nature – as opposed to reward or incentive-based field trips to places like amusement parks or sporting events – offer students, and in particular, disadvantaged students, an incredible valuable opportunity to add measurable depth to their education. The study, which evaluated 10,912 students and teachers at 123 different American schools, evaluated the students’ knowledge and measured their critical thinking, historical empathy, tolerance, and sustained interest in visiting art museums, following a number of field trips to local museums. The results showed that the students who visited museums were more likely to express tolerance and historical empathy, and this was particularly pronounced in children of disadvantaged backgrounds.

“Enriching field trips contribute to the development of students into civilized young men and women who possess more knowledge about art, have stronger critical-thinking skills, exhibit increased historical empathy, display higher levels of tolerance, and have a greater taste for consuming art and culture,” the authors of the study wrote in Education Next, before urging schools countrywide to reconsider slashing cultural field trips from the curriculum, as has been a growing trend in recent years in order to balance budgets and deliver more in-class learning. All this aside, field trips can be costly, wasteful, and at times – dangerous.

Just last week, 37 school students were hospitalised with injuries after their bus rolled during a field trip near Safaga, Egypt. In 1991, two students at Everett’s Cascade High School in Washington died when they were separated from their classmates and guides during a hike on nearby Mount Dickerman. Days later, their bodies were found at the bottom of a steep ravine. In 2011, a chaperone accompanying a field trip in the U.S. was identified as a wanted felon by another parent, who recognised having seen him on the show “America’s Most Wanted”. Last month, a British teenager died after falling from a building’s seventh floor while on a school exchange trip in southern Spain.

While the purpose and intent of school excursions are to add value to students’ lives and enrich their learning experiences, sometimes they can go wrong, with potentially fatal consequences. Ensuring the safety of students, teachers and chaperons during group travel is absolutely critical for schools – particularly in this new landscape of lawsuits and reputational risk – and there are several key steps to doing this.

Firstly, ensure the adult to student chaperone ratio is sufficient. There should never, ever be less than two adults per group, and if you can’t quite rally up enough teachers, simply seek support from parents of the students. You will find they are more than willing to participate and help wherever they can, particularly if it means keeping school fees down through not needing to hire additional teaching staff. Remember, if the trip is mixed gender, there needs to be one adult for each sex. If a student is taken ill or something happens and one teacher needs to support that student, it means there is at least one other adult able to look after the remainder of the group.

Secondly, have a quick inspection to check that everything looks okay with the vehicle you are using for transport. This can be as simple as checking that the car or bus’s wheels look sturdy and full of air, that no suspicious looking backpacks or bags are lurking near or inside the vehicle, and that the bus driver seems approachable, sober and composed (as opposed to possibly under the influence of alcohol or drugs, or acting strangely). In foreign countries, this is even more important, as the general rules regarding alcohol consumption and driving are not quite as rigid as those in the United Kingdom or the United States, for example.

Always opt for the safest route, wherever possible. For example if your student group is journeying to South America, don’t choose to travel through the Darian Gap for educational purposes or experience. Nor would it be advisable to travel via roads well-known for being incredibly dangerous, such as Russia’s Trans-Siberian Highway, Nepal’s Zoji La Pass, or even Britain’s most dangerous road, the A537 from Macclesfield to Buxton.

Ultimately, the best approach is to take no shortcuts to ensuring student safety when travelling in school groups, either domestically or internationally. The lives of each and every one of those students are quite literally in your hands.

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