Stretching their horizons


Nick Parks, an international ski and mountain guide and former head of outdoor education at Marlborough College, discusses how travel can be used across the curriculum and the work of the Stretching Horizons network.

Later this year, teachers and adventurers, travel, legal and safety experts will congregate at the annual Stretching Horizons’ conference, to discuss some of the ways schools can enrich education, mitigate risk and raise funds for educational journeys with a view to changing lives. 

Connecting the classroom to the world beyond can have a transformational effect on students. Educational travel is something that many people feel passionate about and in a time of increasing globalisation, world-experience can have a valuable and lasting impact on young people. 

Whether the journey is a sightseeing break for historical or geographical context, a sports tour to promote friendly competition and teamwork with overseas schools, or helping communities in developing nations, the experiences often continue to shape students’ world-views long after their return home.

The Stretching Horizons overseas educational travel network is underpinned with a desire to celebrate and encourage educational travel. One of its founders, Adrian Ferraro, explained: “Potential is a powerful thing and allowing students to experience life beyond the boundaries of the classroom, the school or the local community is an incredibly useful tool to help them discover their potential.

“I speak to teachers every day who have amazing stories to tell, from the inspirational to the humorous, eye-opening to eye-watering; but all stories seem to have a common thread – travel teaches pupils more about themselves and about the world around them than would ever be possible in the classroom.

“We wanted to bring people together to help teachers create a toolkit for educational travel, from ideas for inspiring journeys for the best educational outcomes through to practical advice regarding logistics, health and safety and funding.”

Running alongside the conference, the Stretching Horizons’ Educational Journey of the Year Award was created to celebrate some of the amazing journeys taken by schools throughout the UK.

The winning school will be awarded with a six-day trip to Morocco for eight teachers, which includes a visit to Marrakech, a camel safari, a night in the desert, a trip to the UNESCO site of Ait Benhaddou, and a day in the life of a Berber experience in the Atlas Mountains.

Graham Derrick, a trustee from national charity Youth Explorer’s Trust, is one of the judges: “The benefits of educational travel are incredibly far-reaching and are almost impossible to quantify. Any adult who has taken a group of young people on an overseas educational journey takes on an awesome responsibility, not only for the day-to-day survival of the young members, but, ultimately, for decisions which they might make in years to come. A celebration of these individuals, teachers and students alike, is something I’m incredibly pleased to be a part of.”

One of National Geographic’s Adventurers of the Year, author Alastair Humphreys, is well-versed in giving talks to teachers and students about his experiences. As a speaker at the conference this year, his aim is to inspire. “I began enjoying learning when I began wandering the world,” he explained. “No longer was I learning stuff simply to regurgitate it in hot exam halls. School on the road is different: the more you know the more you want to know. It is important for pupils to learn about challenge, risk, geography, citizenship, history, cultural awareness, moral and social issues and much more without feeling as though they are learning.”

Another theme integral to Stretching Horizons is enabling teachers to learn from each other and form vital collaborative links, both nationally and internationally. Paul Miller, a teacher at Ashton Park School in Bristol, has taken more than 200 students on expeditions during his career, and has been working with the Maji Safi charity and Inspirations School since 2003 to help transform education for a community in Kenya. 

He said: “The aim behind all of our trips has been to help build an effective learning environment for local Kenyan pupils, so the experiences that this gives our students are in actual fact a really welcome side-effect. 

“The skills that this project gives to our students are far-reaching and not just linked to the curriculum; they have helped to build eight classrooms, teachers’ offices, playgrounds and special rooms for disabled students, which have been key to building skills such as teamwork, collaboration, time-management.” 

The more abstract lessons are no less important, Mr Miller explained: “Empathy grows out of their understanding of the challenges that this community faces, and puts a lot of issues into context in a way that would just not be possible inside the classroom. It also makes them incredibly proud, which is just fantastic to see.”

Fundraising makes the journey a cost-effective educational tool for the students, and has the added benefit of extending the learning benefits beyond the dates of the trip. Mr Miller continued: “I’ve had students who have lobbied local businesses, or who have built their commerce skills by selling at school events. It’s not about getting mum and dad or the school to pay. In most cases, we’ve worked together with students to raise funds for their trip and the involvement of the local community brings a sense of togetherness to the experience. It’s this sort of thing, as well as the actual journey, which helps make a student’s world grow right before their eyes.”

Supporting schools in planning and logistics is another important focus, and it is vital that schools are well-prepared for all aspects of their journey, explained Julian Penney, a risk and travel expert and director of Pharos Safety.

He continued: “It really is crucial that schools are supported in making sure that the risks are managed and balanced by the benefits of the trip. Well-managed risk is a really positive lesson; exposure to a certain amount of risk will help students to build the skills they need in later life.” 

Legal experts can also help schools walk the sometimes tricky line between safety and adventure. “Logistics are the dry-but-necessary part of any trip,” Mr Penney continued. “Planning is the key; not just itineraries but contingency plans, rehearsals for emergency situations and step-by-step guides that are particular to the region that the group is travelling in are all vital.”

Ultimately, Mr Ferraro explained, the network, conference and award all exist to help celebrate educational travel and the work of teachers across the country. “Whether trips are geography, history or sports tours, ski trips, French exchanges or adventurous expeditions, student travel and adventure has the ability to open eyes and nurture our understanding of the amazing world in which we live. A celebration of this is long overdue, and is something we are incredibly proud to be a part of.” 

As for the work of Ashton Park? “It’s on-going,” Mr Miller explained. “We take groups out each year, and each year we build on what’s gone before. The students have helped to grow Inspirations school from 48 students to begin with to more than 500, and by the time the project is finished there will be 800 students. It’s now the third highest performing school in the area.”

The work has also led to Mr Miller’s school being an integral part of the Bristol-Kenya link for the 2012 Olympic Games: “I don’t even think I knew how far–reaching the effects of these trips would be, not just to the students here and in Kenya, but to me and to our local community,” he added. 

“For every story I have to tell, there must be hundreds of others and I’m looking forward to teachers gathering together to share them.”

  • Nick Parks is an international ski and mountain guide, former head of outdoor education at Marlborough College in Wiltshire and one of the founders of the Stretching Horizons network


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