Headteachers Anne Clarke and Annabelle Guyver analyse the benefits that trips abroad bring to participating pupils and to the staff leading them

In 2004 the DfES produced a document entitled Putting the World into World-Class Education, which is aimed at developing an international strategy for our nation’s children. In the foreword to this policy it states that ‘One cannot truly educate young people in this country without the international dimension being a very significant and real part of their learning experience’.

Unfortunately, in recent years, teachers have been loath to take pupils on visits abroad, following a number of high-profile tragic accidents. But surely visits abroad have a huge part to play in enabling pupils to experience this international dimension.

We both work at schools which offer their students the opportunity to visit destinations abroad, including France, Spain, Germany and Hong Kong. We feel strongly that there are great benefits attached to such experiences.

In order to glean first-hand information from participants in trips abroad, we sent questionnaires to 122 pupils and 22 staff to ask them to list three points highlighting what they had gained from the trip that they were involved in. The questionnaires were then analysed.

For the pupils, the information fell under the headings of:

  • personal and social development
  • skills
  • knowledge
  • curriculum.

and for the staff:

  • continuous professional development
  • teaching and learning
  • pastoral
  • leadership skills.

It is pleasing to report that all the responses from both the staff and the pupils were positive.

Personal and social development

As with many school activities, personal and social development of pupils through school visits was significant. From their responses, it was evident that pupils were excited by the range of experiences they were exposed to by living in a foreign culture, even though this may have been for a short period of time. More adventurous pupils enjoyed sampling foreign cuisine. The majority commented that they had enjoyed getting to know different pupils from within their own school with whom they would not have normally mixed. They also built stronger relationships with their teachers away from the school environment. Several admitted to their teachers even being human!

On a recent trip to Hong Kong, we saw first-hand the effects of undergoing a long-haul trip, which really tested pupils’ stamina. Students dealt admirably with jet-lag, hectic days and an action-packed agenda. They had to share rooms and learn to live and work as a group. When you are so far away from home, one uncooperative member can destroy the group dynamics but, fortunately, this did not happen, as all students rose to the occasion.

Coping in such situations is good for the individual’s self-confidence, self-esteem, and self-awareness. For many it was the first time away from their parents, so they felt they gained in maturity. One pupil summed this up well when he wrote with reference to a visit to Berlin: ‘The trip increased my confidence in dealing with new situations when my parents aren’t there.’

The two main skills pupils had the chance to practice when they were away from home were their communication and interpersonal skills. For those who went to a destination where a foreign language was spoken, there was obviously the opportunity to develop their foreign language skills. Outside of this, however, pupils were communicating with pupils they did not usually mix with and with staff away from the school arena, which provided a very different context. Living in this very different environment gave the students ample opportunity to develop their interpersonal skills.

Those students who went to Hong Kong were given the chance, by the host schools, to participate in lessons, and even to teach English to a class of Year 7 pupils. We witnessed these experiences first-hand and were amazed at how well the students managed the whole experience. They really did hone their communication and interpersonal skills. It was the first time they had been involved in an international context in such a way and they gained a great deal from it. Just learning that they could handle such situations was a great boost to their morale. One student said that she had always thought that she wanted to be an English teacher, but now she was convinced.

It is difficult to sum up all that the pupils will have learned from trips abroad and it is possible that some of the gains will not be realised immediately. Sometimes it is not until events are looked back upon, that the true benefits are realised. Pupils visiting European destinations had the opportunity to practice their language skills with native speakers in. After visiting Spain one pupil said: ‘I heard Spanish being spoken in the actual country which helped me to understand the language better.’ They were able to place their own language learning and knowledge into perspective and context, so gaining a better understanding of what they knew and how much there was still to learn.

The majority of pupils commented on the different styles of architecture they saw and a few even noticed the different types of homes people lived in. They also learned about the history of the countries by visiting various sites and monuments. One student wrote: ‘I was able to visit sites and places I never dreamed I would see beyond a drawing or a map.’

The majority of pupils also commented on how much they gained from visiting art galleries and museums. ‘I could actually see the paintings up close that I have only ever seen in art books,’ said one. ‘It made me appreciate the artwork all the more.’ They gained a perspective into the current affairs of the countries visited. Importantly, because of the nature of our own island perspective, they could come to terms with their own insularity. Most pupils commented about the size of the countries visited compared with life on our small island.

Some students could apply the knowledge gained directly to the curriculum areas studied in school. One A-level student will do her next assignment based on a Hong Kong theme. All the pupils going to France, Germany and Spain are studying that particular language at GCSE level. Those studying the humanities learned aspects of another country’s history and geography and improved their general knowledge, which will have a spin-off effect on all curriculum areas.

Having made the case for sending pupils on educational visits abroad, let’s look at the benefits for the staff who lead such trips.

Continuous professional development

The University of Strathclyde Centre for Lifelong Learning defines CPD as a ‘continuous process of personal growth, to improve the capability and realise the full potential of professional people at work. This can be achieved by obtaining and developing a wide range of knowledge, skills and experience, which are not normally acquired during initial training or routine work, and which together develop and maintain competence practice.’ (www.cll.strath.ac.uk).

Certainly leading visits abroad is outside the remit of a teacher’s routine work. All staff commented in some way about the value of the experience in enhancing their professional development. Comments centred on the gains in knowledge about the planning and organisation of school visits abroad. There was also an acknowledgement of the high levels of responsibility required when leading a visit. One staff member wrote: ‘The visit was well-organised, providing a good example of how to run a foreign residential trip. It was a model to learn from’.

Staff also appreciated the enhancement of their own knowledge provided by the opportunity to visit a different country and experience the sites and culture. In this respect the comments resonated with those of the pupil

For language teachers the benefits to learning were self evident. As one teacher wrote: ‘It reinforced a total belief in the absolute importance of taking young language learners to the target language country.  It completely enhanced the worth of the classroom both before and after the trip.’

Other subject teachers commented that they found the pupils had increased levels of interest and enthusiasm and this impacted on their overall learning back at school.

Staff felt they developed a better rapport with their pupils away from the formalities of school structures. They were impressed by the improved behaviour of some pupils and were able to see them in a more positive light. This view was mirrored by the pupils, who felt that they had built closer relationships with some of their teachers. One or two teachers realised that some of their pupils are actually human too!

All the trip organisers felt they had improved and developed their leadership skills through the management of a team of teachers and support staff. Good organisational skills are necessary both before and during the trip, as such visits require a huge amount of administration.

Other participants commented that the value of teamwork was heightened by being in another country and out of their comfort zone. A great deal of responsibility rests on the shoulders of the staff who lead these trips and, for some staff, it can be the first time in their careers that they have experienced this. In itself, this is good preparation for a future leadership role.

As headteachers, we both support educational visits within our own schools. We know that a huge responsibility rests on our shoulders as heads and the safe return of pupils is of paramount importance. We can then think about what the educational benefits have been. Having carried out our limited research and accompanied a recent visit ourselves, the evidence to support a programme of educational trips abroad seems to be overwhelming. We both wish to ‘put the world’ into a ‘world-class education’ and give our schools an international perspective.