Are students learning anything from school tours?

 

From Premiership football matches to theme parks and European capital cities, some 80 per cent of second-level schools now organise an overseas tour for students. But do they have any educational value?

Watching Damien Duff flank the left wing, gazing at crocodiles through safari binoculars, sitting where the Twin Towers once stood or clinging to the edges of a 100mph rollercoaster all now form part of the increasingly popular school tour. City breaks, the ski slopes and tours which dip into the world of celebrity sports and provide high-energy activities are in vogue with Ireland's increasingly demanding teenagers.

Four out of five Irish secondary schools now take students on a tour overseas, pushing up the school tour market by 10 per cent every year. Even primary schools are venturing abroad for tours where they can become an "artist for the day" in Paris or London.

Such is the importance placed on the annual school trip that schools now market their tour destinations when trying to attract first-year students.

As a break from trawling museums in Paris or learning how to find your feet on the Austrian ski slopes, most schools booking with travel company Celtic Horizon Tours are choosing a two-night trip to the see a match in the English Premiership, with the added option of training at the Bobby Charlton Soccer School.

On the weekend of April 15th, 30 Irish coaches will travel to the UK with Celtic Horizon Tours to watch Blackburn versus Liverpool and Bolton versus Chelsea, according to tour co-ordinator John Downey.

Premiership trips are the third most popular school package with NST, a specialist group tour operator with a market share of more than 30 per cent of the school travel business in Ireland.

At the peak of the Beckham and Keane era at Old Trafford, interest in Premiership packages intensified, says Paul Hackett, managing director of NST. "The whole thing just took off three years ago and absolutely exploded. Because it's a weekend trip, it doesn't interfere with school time and most importantly, the teachers and kids like it . . . all the kids want to see either Manchester United or Liverpool and we get them the tickets for the sides' home grounds."

The impact of low-fare airlines and the opening of new routes has introduced schools to new cost-effective options, while the increasing number of flights from regional airports has made air travel more attractive and accessible to even more schools.

However, the question immediately arises as to whether tours to Old Trafford or Alton Towers "provide a significant benefit in the educational, intellectual, cultural and social development", in accordance with a circular issued by the Department of Education to the management bodies of all post-primary schools in 2004.

The department circular states that a school's board of management should ensure that the tour is an extension and reinforcement of classroom activities and should be planned in consultation with parents.

As the educational merit of seven days on the ski slopes or two days at a theme park may become increasingly difficult to sell to a board of management, tour operators are designing packages which relate to the school curriculum with a prescribed amount of fun.

NST's "school tours with a twist", which include three elements - "the history twist", "the cultural bit" and "just for fun", are expected to become the norm in future years.

A six-day trip to Berlin, for example, will cover one aspect of the history curriculum - "dictatorship and democracy in Europe, 1920 to 1945" - mix in cultural sites such as the Charlottenburg Palace and provide top-up activities such as ice skating and boat trips.

With Group Travel International (GTI), eight days in China is a package which schools are now expressing an increased interest in, while school rugby teams are choosing three-week trips to Australia, Africa and France. "It's a bonding issue," says Derek Keogh, managing director of GTI.

One school which has continually prioritised education and culture since it started bringing classes to Russia two decades ago is Loreto Grammar School in Omagh, Co Tyrone.

Eugene Grimley, a retired teacher in the school who is still organising the Russian tour with NST after 20 years, has not tired of introducing students to Moscow, St Petersburg, the Russian language and culture.

"You have to put the risk behind you when you go, you can only worry when something happens, but you have to be prepared," says Grimley. "I wouldn't do a tour for the sake of touring because you can end up with more discipline problems. When we go to Russia, the students are almost afraid to step out of line because they are no longer in their comfort zone. Students who go to the UK are more comfortable and tempted to do things they wouldn't normally do."

Transition year is often perceived as the opportune time to travel abroad because it is indeed a transition phase between studies and exams, and a time when classes bond through project work and extra-curricular activities, according to Hazel Nolan, president of the Union of Secondary Students (USS).

She concedes, however, that some students take advantage of being in a foreign country and removed from the glare of their parents.

"I have heard some horror stories in cases where schools go somewhere new every year and the teachers aren't familiar with the city and haven't done enough research. There was one tour where the school ended up in a hotel next door to a club. Let's just say that despite the fact that they were abroad for cultural reasons, the most culture those students experienced was from inside a bar," she said.

In other instances, boys' and girls' schools were booked into the same hostel, students bought alcohol in a local off licence, drank it in their rooms and kept sending the empty bottles down to reception in a lift.

Hazel stresses, however, that such students are in the minority because of the rigorous planning of teachers, the maturity of students and the meetings between parents and teachers prior to the trip.

With tour costs ranging from €300 for a trip to a Premiership fixture, €1,000 to go skiing or €2,000 to go on an African safari, the pressure on parents to finance the luxury of a tour abroad is intensifying, according to Barbara Johnston, spokesperson for the Congress of Catholic School Parent Associations (CSPA).

"The cost of sending your child away for five days can add up to what it would costs a parent to take them away for two weeks on the family holiday during the summer," she says.

The demands on parents to fund increasingly expensive and extended tours will now only stop if parents start saying no to the demands of their children, says Johnston.

She adds that in her own experience as a parent, schools are conscious of informing both parents and students of the rules and sanctions regarding consuming alcohol and misbehaving on a trip.

"The tour abroad is now a part of school life. If I was a teacher, I would be watching the students like a hawk . . . I don't think there are any legal implications for the schools once teachers are there acting as a parent would."

Following a significant number of complaints regarding alleged illegal operations comprising school tours advertised in schools and organised by the school, teachers must now organise school trips abroad through a travel agent or tour operator.

Expect the school tours market to boom.

Top 10 trips for 2006

1. New York

2. Berlin

3. Krakow and Warsaw

4. Budapest

5. Paris

6. London

7. Rome and Florence

8. Barcelona

9. Russia

10. China

*NST recommendations