Class Action: when parents' fears stand in the way of a child's school trip

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 27 January, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 27 January, 2013, 2:40pm

My daughter is going on a five-day school residential trip this term. Her best friend's parents will not let their daughter attend even though she desperately wants to go. I feel sorry for her as most of the other children in Primary Six are going. I think her parents are being overprotective, but they are adamant that they don't want her to go. How can they be persuaded?

Day trips and residential trips or "camps" are increasingly being used by schools to extend and enrich the curriculum. It is entirely natural for parents to be anxious, especially about the residential trips, which take their precious offspring away from home for several days. Some parents feel out of control if they are not there to supervise their children personally outside the relatively safe school environment. In fact, some parents are more nervous than the students themselves. Others, however, are delighted at the prospect of a few days of freedom.

You haven't mentioned the specific insecurities these parents have, but whether it is a cultural trip or an adventure camp, local or abroad, no trip is ever completely free of risk. However well planned, accidents can happen.

The key is careful preparation. Be assured that schools take the health and safety of students very seriously. Many teachers are first-aid trained nowadays, and the risk assessments they conduct are extensive, taking careful consideration of any potential hazards and how they can be avoided. Usually, trip leaders organise a pre-trip visit so that facilities, activities and staff are thoroughly vetted and checked.

Camps are generally held at sites that routinely provide all the basic requirements. Qualified professional instructors often lead adventure-type activities such as high rope courses, archery and rock climbing. The team of school staff will usually include experienced teachers and often a senior manager. Many schools mandate a generous ratio of adults to children, and group sizes tend to be even smaller if the trip is abroad. These adults include responsible parents who are suitably briefed in advance.

Has the school offered to run an informational meeting for parents? This can go a long way towards putting parents' minds at rest; the more they know about the itinerary and supervision arrangements, the more faith they have in the whole operation. You could encourage these parents to have a word with the teacher in charge to ask questions and voice their concerns.

It would be a great shame for your daughter's friend to miss out on a potentially life-changing experience. These trips are invariably worthwhile, and this type of learning experience cannot be replicated in the classroom. New relationships can also develop with peers who did not previously bond.

Children get to see their teachers in a different light, and, crucially, teachers get to know students out of the school context in ways that can highlight strengths they were not aware of, helping to build a more rounded relationship and thereby enhancing classroom learning. Some students can both surprise and impress when provided with different physical, mental or social challenges. Others are totally predictable.

Independence is a vital life skill, and residential camps are an ideal vehicle to develop it. Students are expected to manage their belongings and display responsible behaviour in new contexts and situations. It is wonderful to witness some students grow in confidence, and they are not necessarily the ones you would expect.

Even pupils who find the whole experience challenging usually learn a great deal about themselves and co-operating with others. The learning curve can be huge. I have seen nine-year-old children who were unable to dress themselves before one such experience.

Primary school children are not generally allowed to take mobile phones or contact parents in other ways, as this tends to create more problems than it solves. Some children who are perfectly happy can become homesick if they hear a parent's voice, and the few who do have that problem can usually be chivvied along by teachers and friends. Being away from technological distractions is good for pupils, and banning mobile phones levels the inequality for those who don't have them. Sometimes leaders will e-mail all parents at the end of each day to keep them informed and put minds at rest or use another electronic platform accessible through the school website.

Parents, for their part, should give detailed medical information and any dietary requirements. They need to provide contact details in case of an emergency to make sure they can be contacted immediately.

Some parents doubt their children can survive without them. For many children, it's actually just what they need. Being away with friends in a new environment can be exciting and enlightening, and parents should recognise the benefits of that.

Julie McGuire teaches at a Hong Kong primary school