Boldly going

By | 16 October 2013

Travel, they say, broadens the mind. I’m not so sure.

Last year, on a lofty roof of the Alhambra, absorbing the stillness and the colour and the sunset and the sheer, overwhelming power of the history in the stones, the peace of the moment was wrecked by a clatter and squawk on the ancient staircase and a dozen young people erupted on to the roof. They whooped and they hollered and they yelled their delight at each other and they were clearly on a school trip.
Effectively they drove us off the roof. Who could bear it? It was like a drunken party arriving into a cathedral – though I don’t think they had been drinking and I don’t think any of us, history freaks or not, had imbued the Alhambra with any kind of religiosity. But you get what I mean. Here was a building worth reverence, completely and utterly ‘Wow!’-worthy.  And here was a bunch of young people who could just as easily have been in McDonalds for all the heed they paid to their surroundings.
With the total concentration of youth, they were completely self-absorbed. A guess at the age group? About 15. And what matters to a 15-year-old? Sadly, I think history and culture and any sense of connectedness to a different world from their own are pretty far down the list. I suspect at the top of the list is how they look, how popular they are and what their current rating is with the opposite sex.
And why not? These things make the world go round, and perhaps the young are justifiably more interested in what the world holds for them, how they will find their way in it, what tools (looks) and skills (social and intellectual) they will need, than they are in any relics, stupendous or not, left behind by a world which is long gone.
I was fascinated by the fact that these were Spanish youngsters – I had a sense of the universality of what I was seeing. I might once have thought it was just British children, self-absorbed and fairly resistant to the influence of any foreign experience, especially those engineered by their school. The Alhambra taught me otherwise: here, there, probably everywhere, you cannot be too ambitious about a school trip, its effects and its value. You may be wasting your time, banging your head on an aged wall in the hope that your young charges will have the same experience as the one you planned for them, or even the same as the one you enjoy. The future is a different country, and the young are its citizens. I loved the Alhambra – I almost wanted to hug it; they wanted to hug each other, celebrate how many steps they had managed to climb – Spanish equivalents of ‘OMG!’ – check their hair and take a million photos  – of themselves and their mates – on their phones.
So why bother with school trips at all? What madness possesses hard-working staff with families of their own to trek the world with other people’s children in tow and on their consciences?
There was a time when a group would travel to France or Germany and scatter to various homes when they got there, so that the pupils – usually in the GCSE years – could hone their skills for the up-coming oral exam, before modern language GCSEs became an endangered species. With one daughter who ventured, under her school’s alleged supervision, to a remote farm near Carcassone, got bitten by the farm dog and was convinced for a fortnight that she had rabies, we never sent another child on such a hazardous excursion. Two weeks in a foreign land, with complete strangers and – then – no mobile phone? I think not. I’m for CRB checking every step of the distant way.
More often, in all fairness, school trips now keep students and staff together (almost) every step of the reasonable way. In a funny way, that defeats one of the purposes – surely? – of travel.  See, breathe, live a foreign land, a different culture? Unlikely when you stick with your buddies like a mini-army on the move. Presumably zero language exercise – and who would care about that these days? – but even more important, more time and space for the group to develop its own identity, layered over the individual egos and personalities which are a teenager’s first interest. Think sports teams, and I remember our second daughter, who toured Canada with her school lacrosse team. Canada! When it felt really far and really exotic and people weren’t just going for the weekend to propose at Niagara Falls. She still has bonds with ‘the lacs girls’, forged in the different, parallel universe of being with friends but not at home with parents – not unlike her comparable bonds with the university ‘lacs girls’ with whom she also toured.
Sports tours are not about foreign travel or languages or culture or even winning: they are about the team, the mates, the bonding experience. They will remember it for the rest of their lives, and talk about it at reunions in 50 years’ time – “You had to be there!” Come to think of it, not unlike an Ashes tour of England or Australia.
Probably the most commonly undertaken school trips these days are to battlefields or to Auschwitz, part of the national determination not to forget, no matter how difficult remembering may be in multi-national, European Britain. Every teacher I have ever met who has participated in one of these trips – and often head teachers make it a regular part of their own calendar – has absolutely no doubt that they are life-changing for all their young charges. More important, they are utterly convinced that the experience will never be forgotten. The brutal reality of those rows of graves, the evidence of the trenches and desolate battlefields, and poppies, or sight of the concentration camp gates and the grim details of the statistics of death – these things make an impression on young minds. They remind a cheerfully innocent generation that man is capable of unimaginable inhumanity, and it happened just a whisker away from our time, to our parents, grandparents and great grandparents.
Teaching English, most of my school trips involved theatres. You’d think they would be an easy ride – bus there, enjoy, bus home, bingo. But I nearly gave it up for life when one freezing December night in deep country a young man got off  our bus at his home, expecting his mum to meet him, while she stood ten miles away at the school, waiting to ask me, “Mrs Moriarty, what have you done with my son?” Nightmare. It was, in fact, quite quickly and happily resolved – she drove home and found him on the doorstep. I knew there was a good reason to invent mobile phones.
But you will understand why my jaw dropped when some years later a young member of staff asked permission to plan a school trip on the Trans-Siberian Express. How could I say no?
And they had a wonderful time.  Or so they tell me. . .
This article originally appeared on the Independent Education Today website at

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