To an older generation a school trip was something to be endured as much as enjoyed. It meant an expedition to peer at frogspawn in Epping Forest or, for the recklessly profligate, maybe a coach to Skegness. Over recent decades, however, as top schools have raised their fees in line with the international oligarchy’s ability to pay them, school trips have come to resemble the work of chichi travel agents. Designed to build character, they now build air miles.
The trend was already well under way when I was at school in the austere early noughties. Twice a year we went on ‘expeditions’. Some were to the traditional sodden youth hostels in Wales, but there were also such tests of young manhood as ‘swimming in the south of France’ and ‘culture break in Marrakech’. Good preparations for life, if the life you have in mind is that of an ageing gay aristocrat from an Alan Hollinghurst novel. There was one trip to Skegness, but it was to play golf rather than the bracing seaside trials of yore.
At any rate, the real preoccupations on these missions were smoking, drinking and chasing girls. By the time we hit sixth form and went to Florence and Paris for history of art (there’s no art in London, seemingly) we were to be ‘treated like adults’. This meant that the preoccupations were still smoking, drinking and chasing girls, but the teachers no longer had to pretend to care. Bliss for all concerned.
I have since come to realise that compared to what some other schools got up to, these outings were a model of parsimony and restraint. A girl I know went on a three-week creative writing trip to South Africa in her final year of school. This involved lying in the bush waiting for ‘the Muse’, presumably while her parents lay awake at home waiting for the bill. ‘We weren’t allowed our mobile phones,’ she recalls, ‘or any other technology. But it was quite fun. The stars looked amazing. I guess it was quite good value — it wasn’t my money, after all.’
South Africa is a mere hop compared to some voyages. A close relative went on a biology field trip to the Galápagos. ‘It was good,’ he says. ‘A lot of guys got action with these American girls at the hotel in Ecuador. We went swimming with giant sea turtles and sea lions. Then we went to a hummingbird sanctuary, which was cool but this boy killed one by accident and looked like the most cruel man in the world. It was very unlucky. He just spun around with his arm and happened to kill it.’ The boy has apparently made a full recovery.
Even in this era of profligacy, most beanos still require an excuse. Sport and drama have long been the most obvious — especially cricket, which is played mainly in places — aside from England, of course — where it doesn’t rain. But there are other admirable ruses out there. Catherine went on a school camel ride across the Sinai desert ‘for Religious Studies’. ‘I was 17,’ she says. ‘We had to keep loo roll in a plastic bag so as not to pollute. We trekked and slept literally on the sand. No tents. One day we had to go off and meditate. I fell asleep and was nearly left stranded by the camel fleet. It didn’t help that our teacher was nearly 80.’
Other destinations mentioned by those I spoke to included Canada (wildlife), Iceland, Greenland (aurora borealis), New York (culture), China (culture), Japan (singing). The whole globe covered, more or less, by a tiny selection of British schools.
What do the teachers make of all this gallivanting around? They are hardly blind to the cost, and unless they went to Hogwarts, it’s unlikely that they were exposed to the same calibre of outing during their own childhood. Is the modern school trip the independent schools’ version of the spurious ‘conference’ in Hawaii? ‘I think there is this perception that the trips are a big jolly,’ says one departmental head at a top public school. ‘But actually they’re very hard work. You have all these kids running around getting drunk so it’s quite hard to do so yourself.’
Still, it’s hard to see the trend reversing soon. Britain’s best schools represent a large and expanding global industry. School trips, like the Festival Hall-style concert facilities and Olympic-standard swimming pools, are part of the package offered as compensation for the inability to guarantee little Johnny’s IQ. School-leavers have always been asked, ‘Where are you going next?’ It used to be a polite question about university or career plans. Increasingly it is a desperate inquiry about whether they have anywhere left in the world to visit.