Every now and again my Tube ride to work on the District line is enlivened by children on a school outing.
Presumably they are heading for the Science Museum or possibly the National Gallery. Often, they have different coloured badges stuck to their jumpers. As far as I can work out, if, for example, you are a red, then you’re meant to sit with other reds, and sometimes the teacher barks instructions such as: ‘Could the reds try to be a little quieter please?’, or asks: ‘Blues, how many more stops until we get there?’
This last question gives rise to a piercing shriek as a dozen or so blues shout out their answers, sometimes coinciding with the doors opening at Fulham Broadway, giving commuters just enough time to rush off in search of a child-free carriage.
I suspect that when the children get home and their parents ask what was the highlight of the day, they will have forgotten about the cetacean skeletons and extinct mammoths and decide that getting there and back on the train was by far the best bit.
Even so, everyone — not least the Department for Education — agrees that ‘learning out of the classroom’, as the jargon goes, is a good thing, though there’s no doubt that in the private sector, school trips are another way of persuading prospective parents to pay their deposits. ‘We try to take each child to Venice at least once while they are here,’ has an aspirational ring to it, but heaven knows what an excursion of that kind must add to the fees.
Judging by the little ones on my train, it’s never too early to take children on an outing. My daughter teaches reception class at a primary in Balham and tells me her class has three trips per year, often including a visit to a zoo or farm. Years 5 and 6 spend three nights away at a camp for a range of ‘team-building activities’.
Further along the educational highway, the options get bigger and grander. Last year, 11 Haileybury sixth-formers spent ten days trekking in the Annapurna region of the Himalayas — something that many adults can only dream of. They tackled the Thorong La Pass at nearly 5,500 metres above sea level and, crucially, were largely responsible for the leadership of the adventure.
‘School trips provide a welcome break from the routine and timetable for pupils and teachers. And they are becoming more and more exotic. It will be space travel before long,’ says Claudia Dudman, editor of Independent School Parent magazine.
I can remember only one school outing of my own and that was aged 12 when in my final year at Sunningdale. It made quite an impression but I’m not sure how educational it was. Nick Dawson, the headmaster (whose wrath if we lost a football match made Sir Alex Ferguson seem positively cuddly), was friends with the Hill-Woods, who were in charge of Arsenal FC, and managed to get tickets to the Arsenal vs Leicester City game on 7 May 1966.
The entire First XI headed for London and we had seats on the halfway line. It was one of the best days of my youth, ensuring that forever more the dramas of footie would take precedence over the dramas of the Bard. What’s more, playing in goal for Leicester was Gordon Banks, who two months later would become a World Cup winner.
He let a goal in that afternoon, which meant Arsenal won 1-0. Afterwards, we were allowed to hang out by the main Highbury entrance and I got Banks’s autograph. I framed it and today it has pride of place in the loo of my Scottish cottage.
Trips of the non-academic kind are bound to gain the trust and affection of pupils. That must have been what the first headmaster of Stowe, J.F. Roxburgh, had in mind when he used to take boys to his London club for dinner and introduced them to port, brandy and Turkish cigarettes. Arrest that man!
Stowe’s current headmaster, Ant-hony Wallersteiner, last year planned to take pupils to visit Children in Crisis projects in Kabul, a charity of which he is chairman, but couldn’t get insurance for the trip. But he did manage to organise a New York extravaganza, which included a visit to Christie’s a few days before a big sale of modern art.
‘During that trip I also hosted the annual American Friends of Stowe drinks party, which the Stoics attended,’ says Wallersteiner. ‘Learning to be beautiful, witty and entertaining at a Manhattan cocktail party is well worth a GCSE in Life Skills.’