A declaration of independence
School trips could be considered just another financial burden for parents but they have many benefits and can be a hugely positive influence on pupils
THE recession has meant radical cost cutting in many households and school trips are just one of the casualties of the bust. The Irish National Teachers' Organisation confirmed that a number of schools last year and this year didn't organise school trips to avoid putting additional financial burden on parents.
Now that it's back to school time, parents will be facing these demands again. Luckily some new initiatives may make school trips more affordable and keep everyone happy.
Adrienne O'Hara, commercial director of NST Group Travel Specialists, explains: "It has been a mad few years for the travel industry with the recession and firms like Budget Travel going bust. Then this year we had the volcano and everything ground to a halt.
"Our numbers are down but it is a robust industry. In the good days we were carrying around 500 groups a year but now we are down to around 400," says Adrienne.
The recession has impacted on parents and they are questioning the cost of school tours.
"Parents are looking for value for money now -- and they're right! I understand where they are coming from," she adds.
There has been plenty of controversy over the years about the cost of school tours.
"There are fewer trips like soccer tours being booked and the ski trip has fallen off the face of the earth. They can cost €800 to €1,000 for a week. Parents are looking at the cost and asking where is the value in it," Adrienne says.
"It is curriculum-based stuff that has held up and home destinations have become popular too. We do historic trips to Derry for two nights, for example, and that is doing well.
"You find that parents may not have been able to afford the big family trip abroad this year, so they're happy to send their children away with the school."
However, the recession has driven down the price of the average trip by up to a fifth.
"In 2007-2008, the average price of a tour abroad was €570 and in 2009-2010 it is around €500," Adrienne explains.
"Air fares make up the most of the cost. They are 30-40pc of the cost of the tour but flexibility with days will reduce prices. However, schools are tied as they can only travel in out-of-term time, which is peak time."
A directive from the Department of Education recommends that schools book trips through tour operators.
"About 10pc of schools will organise the school tour themselves for the more simple tours," according to Adrienne. "We are insured and bonded if things go wrong, which is important with the way things have gone the past few years."
Schools have set up saving schemes for children so the school tour doesn't put too much financial pressure on children.
"It can be difficult for parents if they have two or three children in school so it can be easier to save over the year. We provide savings cards like the old post office cards, so children can save money when they have it."
Grainne Quinn is managing director of Budget School and Group Tours and as a mum-of-two sees the benefits of going on the trips.
"As a mother I see the benefits of going on school tours, such as bonding and better relationships with their teachers.
"A lot of children when they go on holidays with their family go for a sun holiday and they spend a lot of time by the pool.
"On a school tour they get to see things they wouldn't on a family holiday. Educational tours are a marvellous opportunity for children," she explains. She also feels teachers who bring children away on tours don't get enough credit.
"It is no mean task chaperoning a group of children around. I take my hat off to the teachers who do it as they give up their own free time.
"I know one teacher who has been bringing classes on school tours for 20 years now and she brings a fold-up chair with her and sits in the hotel corridor at night keeping an eye on things," she says.
When it comes to paying for the tour Grainne understands the pressures.
"With our two children we told them that we would pay for the school tour but that they would have to save up their own spending money."
The school tour is also a way to keep students in line.
"Some schools use it as a way to keep students on track for the year, telling pupils that if there are two strikes against them then they're not allowed to go," Grainne says.
Mary O'Rahilly is assistant principal and music and classical studies teacher at Notre Dame girls' school in Churchtown, Dublin.
"I have been a teacher here for 11 years and pretty much every year I have taken the classical studies school trip."
When it comes to cost, Mary thinks Italy provides great value. "We go to Italy where it is so cheap to travel. It is very easy to keep the costs down and we are always looking for value for money for the students."
The number of students who travel varies each year. "We can have over 40 students or as few as 15. We always have a ratio of one to eight teachers to students," she says.
The school has a payment plan in place for parents. "We start preparing for the trip a year in advance. Parents pay a set amount at intervals throughout the year."
Mary has no doubt whatsoever of the benefits of school tours.
"The benefits are multi-fold. The students experience cultural diversity and bond with each other.
"As a teacher you are limited in how much you know someone sitting behind a desk. It is nice to find out what they're like and what they are interested in," Mary says.
"Many of the students would not have travelled on their own before so it gives them great independence and freedom," she explains.
"We do something from early in the morning to late. We do a walking tour of Rome starting at 8am and finishing at 7pm, which includes a guide of the Pantheon and some shopping time."
When it comes to problems, Mary has had very few.
"We have been very lucky and haven't had many problems. I book with Budget School Tours. There is security in the fact there is someone else there sorting things out.
"I wouldn't like to be stranded somewhere with 40 kids and have to try to sort it out," she says.
"I have never regretted going on a tour. I love to travel and I love introducing other people to travel. It is fun and enjoyable and everyone gets something out of it."