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Off Piste! Is it all about Skiing?

The value of education outside the classroom cannot be underestimated.  Whether you are walking in the hills of North Wales or in the footsteps of soldiers on Flanders Fields, the power of that experience is priceless.  I have led trips all over the country and for that matter to the other side of the world.  We always set out with clear ideas of our aims and objectives, but the real outcomes cannot fully be planned for.

It is every parent’s fear to see their child upset and this is also true of a real teacher on a residential trip.  A friend of mine once told me of the dread and fear in a child’s voice whilst high on a mountain.  The student was looking down the valley at the shadow of a cloud moving towards the group.  Her limited experiences and perspective had not prepared her for this understandably frightening occurrence.  When you see the vulnerability in, otherwise, hard to reach students you find your opportunity to change their world.  I have taken some very challenging groups on wilderness expeditions in Scotland.  On one expedition, as we canoed through Loch Ness, I listened to a group of lads discussing the patterns in the heather on the mountainside.  They listened to one another as they had never done in the classroom.  They all had their own opinions but finally agreed that it was an angel. It fills your heart with hope that these ‘urchins’ have such sensitivity and innocence when they are given the chance to be themselves without the constraints of an institutional setting!

I took a group of students on a chance of a lifetime trip to Australia.  The trip was two years in the planning.  The group were carefully selected, each of them for a different reason.  We believed that one girl needed to understand that the she could be who she wanted to be, do what she wanted to do and know that  she did not have to conform to the low aspirations of her family.  We wanted to show her that the world was not that big a place anymore and that she did not have to be a stuck with ‘living, breeding and dying within a two mile radius.’  We arrived in Melbourne late on a Friday night.  The twelve students went off with their host families and I was not going to see them again until Monday morning.  It was a restless weekend.  Monday morning arrived and I was greeted with screams and tears from the aforementioned student.  My heart sank and didn’t know what I was going to have to deal with. When she calmed down and told me about her weekend it was my eyes that filled with tears.  She had travelled to the other side of the world and although she was fifteen years old she had never learned to swim.  Her host family had a pool and ‘as a family’ she was taught to swim.  Her tears of joy and excitement filled me with dread and fear, but very quickly I knew that I was in the right job and I was changing lives forever.

Last year and this year I have accompanied the History department to Ypres and Holland respectively.  In Ypres and the surrounding area we explored the sites, impact and memories of the First World War.  Our students approached this visit with such dignity and grace.  On top of learning through experience, they demonstrated their understanding through anger and frustration at other school groups who were less respectful.  This year on a World War II visit to Amsterdam and a concentration camp in Vught, their comprehension of what this fighting was all about became more heartfelt.  Although the excellent organisation and planning to provide these experiences was clearly visible, once again I was slapped and overawed by the outstanding learning and teaching experiences that followed.  Guided by excellent teachers, the students led their own learning.  The outcome for one group was clear.  They established that it was no longer soldiers fighting soldiers.  It was persecution, hatred and incomprehensible treatment of people!

We live in a society that is moving so quickly and is so consumed with attainment and the material outcomes that children are no longer children and students no longer study.  They are being processed though the education factory and forgetting the joy of real learning.  Educational visits, both residential and non-residential, provide the chance to stop, take stock and really inspire and empower children.

Although I have only spotlighted a few examples, the opportunities for ticking that ‘outstanding’ box are endless.  They cannot all be planned for and even the most organised teacher may miss the point in their planning if they are not prepared to take risks and go ‘Off Piste!’