The Easter holidays are fast approaching and traditionally thousands of secondary school children across the country would swap their blazers and backpacks for dungarees and ski boots and head for the mountains.
Except for this year, the slopes in Europe will be largely empty of school classes. An insurmountable combination of rising costs, government regulations and red tape means that the school ski trip, once considered a rite of passage, is in danger of quickly becoming a privileged few.
In the 1980s, an estimated half a million secondary school children took part in the annual school ski trip, piling up in carriages, driving overnight and waking up in the morning to a view of snow-capped peaks in France, Austria or Italy. For many children it was the first time abroad and for the majority it was the first time on skis.
“School trips were a great way to introduce kids to skiing,” says Tim Johnson, Managing Director of Club Europe, which was founded in 1980 as one of the first companies to offer special school trips. “It wasn’t necessarily that the trips were that much cheaper, but you didn’t have to commit to skiing with a whole family. That meant kids who otherwise wouldn’t have had the opportunity to ski could try it out.”
The first major blow to school ski trips came in 1988 with the Education Reform Act. The legislation, introduced to establish national standards across the country, also changed the rules for funding school trips, stating that parents could no longer be billed for trips during school hours. Although schools can get around this by asking families for a voluntary contribution, it poses a significant logistical and financial challenge for schools – leading many to give up mid-semester ski trips altogether.
“Before the Education Reform Act, we had different school ski trips almost every week between January and April,” says Johnson. “But the Education Reform Act ended vacation skiing practically overnight, urging all schools to focus on school vacations when everything is so much more expensive.”
Although data on the exact numbers of children who took part in school ski trips in the past decade has not been collected, anecdotal evidence suggests that it is only a quarter of the number of children who peaked in the early 1980s were.
“In our prime, we organized about 70 school ski trips each year,” says Johnson. Now we do about 25-30.”
According to data from Crystal Ski Holidays, which analyzed the ski market between 1980 and 2007, the number of school-age children clicking into a pair of skis had already fallen from 550,000 in the 1980s to just 133,000 in 2006/07.
Whilst government legislation dealt the first major blow to schools’ ability to run ski trips, recent events such as Brexit, the coronavirus pandemic and the cost of living crisis have all contributed to school trips being restricted to all but the lucky few at all times become more unattainable.
“The price of each leg of a ski trip has increased about 25 percent since 2019,” Johnson says. “A ski trip that cost maybe £900 in 2016 now costs £1,200. During the half term in February this can go up to £1,500. These increased prices alienate the school routine we used to serve, with children receiving free school lunches and student bonuses, and there is very little scope for them to get an affordable ski trip.”
Along with the increased costs, the amount of paperwork required to organize a school ski trip has also skyrocketed.
“It takes a lot of forward planning and you really have to start organizing at least a year in advance,” says Jo Sheehy, assistant head teacher at St Michael’s Catholic Grammar School in north London. “Many teachers have enough stress at work without worrying about organizing a school ski trip.”
Bend the rules
Despite increased prices and paperwork, the school ski trip is not dead. One possibility is to follow the European model and change legislation that would allow travel during term time. This would drastically reduce costs.
For example, Jo Sheehy will soon be skiing with a group of 10th graders and will miss a week of school. By avoiding school holidays they have saved over £200 per pupil.
“Doing this trip during the semester is an exception,” says Sheehy. “But we believe there has to be a balance and post Covid, social and emotional development is just as important as gaps in students’ curriculum.” Parents and children agree – the trip was overbooked.
Another option is to completely rethink the school ski trip. “We need to look for ways to get kids involved in the activity we love, but in a different way,” says Phil Brown, program director for Impulse Racing, which runs alpine ski racing training for young people. Brown himself is a product of the school ski trip system, having tried skiing with his classmates in Italy when he was 12 years old.
“SnowWorld Landgraaf in Holland is home to five indoor ski slopes,” says Brown. “Landgraaf is about a six-hour bus ride from southern England. Schools can spend the weekend doing many activities without having much time outside of school.”
Rite of passage or unnecessary luxury?
The question remains, are school ski trips really necessary? A recent poll shows that Telegraph Travel readers are divided in their opinion.
According to Isabella, a 10th grade student at St. Michael’s, the answer is yes. She was the driving force behind her assistant principal, Jo Sheehy, to organize a ski trip for her grade level.
“I think it’s a great opportunity for students to learn new skills and it’s great fun, too,” says Isabella. “The price of a ski trip is usually high and many families may not be able to afford to go there with the whole family… going with the school is financially better and just as good.”
Luckily, the staff at St. Michael’s agreed and saw the value of the trip taking place.
“Our school’s ethos is based on the idea that outings and extracurricular activities are absolutely vital to young people’s development and cultural capital,” says Sheehy. “It’s a level. It can be really inspiring for kids to experience these things that otherwise wouldn’t be possible.”
“It’s not just a ski trip,” says former British downhill skier Konrad Bartelski, a passionate advocate of getting more young people onto the slopes. “It’s a chance for kids to have an experience where they learn foreign languages, foreign currency, where they get hands-on with geography and where they all participate in an activity, whether they’re small, tall, underweight or overweight. It is an experience that everyone can benefit from.”