International trips are a wonderful opportunity for students to learn in an immersive and meaningful way. It’s all very well to read about the tech companies of Silicon Valley, the stunning cathedrals of Europe and the breathtaking views at the top of Machu Picchu. However, it’s something entirely different to talk with the founders of the tech companies, stand in awe inside one of the great cathedrals and hike from the early hours of the morning to a remote village at altitude 2,430m and watch the sunrise.
Our lives are shaped by these experiences and nothing that you read or even see in a picture or video ever comes close to the experience of standing in that place and being there yourself. Consequently, the opportunity to experience these things first-hand are an important part of a modern education for our students to understand and appreciate the world with the view of becoming great global citizens themselves.
Many schools have some amazing programs which take them all over the world. However, international trips are not just a fun holiday away. They’re serious educational programs and as such are not suitable for everyone. Taking a group down the road or even to somewhere such as Canberra to see a museum, gallery, or experience something different outside of the classroom is one thing. Each of these have their own inherent risks, the consequences of which are generally relatively minor. However, once we start travelling further afield into other countries, there are far more complex risks and considerations to be made when taking a school group. If someone behaves badly on a local trip, you can call their parents to come and get them, a bit annoying, sure, but not a major problem. However, if some behaves badly and you’re 3 days up river in Vietnam you have a completely different situation and one which could be a major problem and with limited resources and communications, could continue to escalate into something far worse. Unfortunately, you can’t just leave them up river with Colonel Kurtz and must address this problem so the behaviour of one or two students doesn’t negatively impact the rest of the group and its experience.
How should you go about this? Whilst there are many ways to address problems which emerge on an overseas program, the best solution by far is not to have them in the first place. For any of your overseas trips, you must ensure that you have a clearly documented and disclosed set of expectations for all applicants and a vetting process through which you can reject applicants for your overseas trips. To ensure good risk management from the outset and reduce the risk of a major behavioural incident, just don’t take some people! It’s as simple as that.
‘But we have to…’ I hear you cry, ‘The parents are paying, so we have to take everyone.’ Well, if that’s the case, then you’re not actually managing one of the biggest risks you can have on any program. Negative behaviours have the potential to cause far greater risks than almost anything else on a trip, other than driving vehicles. These risks compounds with the fact that you’re overseas and a long way from home and additional support.
If you take everyone without a clear vetting process in place, which is often a temptation to ensure trips are full, then you miss a really important part of ensuring an international trip is a great one for all. Removing and reducing your people risks in a foreign land is vitally important for success. For example, if you’re in Amsterdam visiting the Anne Frank House and the Rembrandt Gallery, you don’t want someone sneaking out at night to procure reasonably easily available alcohol and drugs. You need to have a greater level of trust in your students in this context, as there are potentially many more temptations and opportunities for them to find if they’re inclined to do, so when you’re far from home.
Where should you start? The documentation you have for your trips is a great starting point for clearly setting down your expectations of students. What’s the expected standard? What’s their current track record? What’s the chance that they might do something that’s out of step with what’s expected of them?
From this point, you should also build a face to face interview process with the student and the parents. This helps you gain an insight into why they want to go and enables the parents to ask any questions around supervision or expectations for the program. These interviews also give you a really good sense of a student’s suitability. Ask the tutor, or year advisor for some background information on the student before these interviews. If there are any red flags, then discuss this with the student and the parents as well. This might seem or feel very much like Eastern Block KGB tactics, but at the end of the day, you’re responsible for a group of students in a foreign country and if something goes wrong and you could have foreseen this with a simple vetting process, then the consequence can be far worse and further reaching than just an uncomfortable interview.
One local program on which I was working, had two students whose behaviour was negative and destructive to those around them. They’d only been with us for a matter of hours and this became apparent. We advised that these two individuals would be unsuitable for another program that was being run the next year, yet this advice was ignored and the two were taken on the far longer, more remote and risky program. The end result was a ruined experience for the other participants, a near miss, which could have resulted in a fatality and after all this, one of the students was expelled. Why take this risk when you can remove much of this through simply vetting and saying no?
If you look at some of the incidents over the years on international trips, many of them have occurred due to poor student behaviour, or students sneaking out at night or becoming separated from their groups. Whilst these are never good in a domestic setting, the escalation of this in a foreign land, with different laws and languages can be quite catastrophic.
Even a borderline student that in your mind is probably not a good fit is one you shouldn’t take. Whilst over the years, I’ve taken many borderline students out with us on outdoor education programs and other domestic trips, the systems and backup plans we had in place for this, ensured most of these were really good experiences for the students. However, I wouldn’t have ever considered the same students for an overseas trip.
International trips are wonderful and form part of a really important modern education for students. The benefit of standing where Caesar was struck down, watching an opera in Vienna, or breathing the crisp air of the Galapagos Island is astounding. However, one of the most important things you can do to help make this an amazing trip, is to make sure that it’s going to be the right fit for the right students and be memorable for all the right reasons.