Character Building Or Just Plain Terrifying? Are Residential Trips Really Necessary At Primary School?

13/11/2012 14:49 | Updated 22 May 2015
Character building or just plain terrifying? Are residential trips really necessary at primary school?Alamy

Margate: how could a harmless English seaside town cause one small family so much grief? When my son's school announced that year 3 was going on a two night residential trip to the Kent coast last spring, all hell broke loose. There were tears (Eliott's), convoluted attempts to change his mind (mine) and lots of pressure (the school). In the end, he didn't go.

It all started in year 2. The kids took part in a 'medieval sleepover'; the medieval bit was their term topic, but sleeping on PE mats in the infant hall was authentically ancient.

Eliott hated the school sleepover experience. At the tender age of six, sleeping on the floor with 59 other rug-rats doesn't appeal to every child. We were told by the teachers that he woke up crying twice in the night – something he never does at home. The sleepover was billed as a 'practice run' for a residential trip to Margate the following year; the morning after, Eliott calmly announced that the sleepover sucked and he would be giving Margate the skip.

I thought he'd change his mind, but when the dreaded Margate letter arrived, he was resolute. As a parent, this left me in a sticky situation; I was fine with the cost and, although I knew I'd worry, prepared to tough it out. But if I coerced him into giving it a whirl, and it turned into Medieval Sleepover Redux, could I forgive myself?

In the end, Eliott wasn't the only child with reservations and the year 3 trip to Margate was cancelled due to lack of uptake.

But at the year 4 welcome meeting in September, Margate was on the agenda; the two night residential trip was being offered again in June 2013. Margate-gate was back.

This time around, there was a PR drive; special assemblies, a Margate meeting for parents and a former pupil's testimonial, extolling the virtues of the trip.


A carefully worded letter suggested that if we didn't sign up to Margate, we were diddling our offspring out of their future independence.


At this point, I stopped trying to sway Eliott's opinion and went off the idea myself. Faced again with having to make a decision six months in advance of the trip, Eliott was confused, stressed and upset.

I thought back to my own residential breaks with school. My first was at nine; three nights in Scarborough that felt like three weeks. My best friend smashed my head open throwing me against a bedside cabinet (I told the teacher I fell over putting my socks on – I'm nothing if not loyal). I still have the scar.

On the second trip – camping in the Yorkshire Dales – I fell in a cow pat, caught a vomiting bug and one of my friends had to be rescued from a fast-flowing river. The memories give me the chills.

And on the third trip, staying in an old hall around the age of 12, I laughed so much at lunch that I choked up my orange juice and was the subject of ridicule for months afterwards. Not one of my happiest childhood memories, I can tell you.

So, I've hardly had an illustrious experience on residential school trips. I did have lots of fun, but if I hadn't gone, would I really have missed out?

And as a neurotic mother (aren't we all?) surely the longer you hold out before packing your kids off on a residential trip the better? Accidents always seem to happen when a school is on the move, and what's the point of applying expensive anti-wrinkle cream every night if you're going to send your pre-teen to the seaside and spend an agonising 72 hours wondering if they're going to get lost/drown/get abducted/be buried alive on the beach and so on.

"As a parent, residential trips make me cringe," says fellow mum, Claire Thompson. "What on earth do teachers think the learning outcome will be? Lots of children are emotionally unready for this kind of wrench. My kids loved theirs, but for others, the same trip was hell. And for many parents, the cost was a real hardship. The current system of year 6 residential trips is more than adequate."

But Antonia Chitty says a residential trip in year 5 gave her daughter confidence: "She got loads out of it - doing activities with her friends really built her physical confidence and she tried things she'd never have wanted to attempt before. The cost is definitely an issue, although she got real value from it; but she is a girl who loves sleepovers already."

Lynn Fulford, associate dean at Birmingham City University, says that residential trips can help primary school-age children to develop independence and bond with their peers and teachers in informal settings – but she stresses that they are not a must.

"Parents need to be confident their offspring will be safe, secure and happy away from home, however short a time is involved," she says. "Some children may feel anxious about being away from home overnight and need particular care and preparation.


Parents and schools know best what is right for their children and individual situations – but residential trips do provide a wonderful opportunity for children to begin their journeys as independent people with lives outside the immediacy of their own homes.


That may be the case, but Eliott is becoming more independent; he enjoys sleepovers with trusted friends and family members and attends drama school every Saturday. He's confident in social situations and is already well-travelled.

I couldn't see how Margate would enrich his life, and – after much deliberation - Eliott decided he didn't want to commit. So, for the second time, we declined.

Eliott may regret giving Margate the swerve, particularly when his class is away having fun and he's stuck in a classroom. But if he's going to have regrets, I'd rather they were over his own decisions and not mine. That's certainly a life lesson worth learning.

What do you think about away-from-home trips at primary school? Let us know

Suggest a correction