…said the British customs team as we left the British passport control in Dunkirk. As the last of our group of seventy twelve-year-olds disappeared through the door, all five members of the customs inspectors burst out laughing. “You could have heard a pin drop as you brought your children through, we have never seen, or heard such a well-behaved school group, it so quiet” she said between her laughs.
Yes, even seventy Dutch twelve-year-olds can be quiet and serious!
Travelling with large groups of school children has its moments. The chaos, the noise and the feeling that you are heading a flock of sheep. But occasionally something like this comes along.
As a teacher it does give you a good feeling to get such a compliment! Was it our very serious (and possibly slightly over the top) instructions? Was it the uniforms of the serious looking customs men and women staring down from their desks? Was it a bit of both?
Either way, we were happy, the customs people were happy and the kids were quiet…..what is there not to like?
This really does seem a note-worthy moment to post. So much has happened in the last three years. In the autumn of 2019 I travelled with 80 or so pupils and a team of colleagues for the last time, the journey being from the Netherlands to visit the U.K. for just under a week. It was before the pandemic and before the Brexit deal was finalized.
Now three years later we have just repeated the visit for the first time. This time with two groups, one of 71 twelve year olds accompanied by seven teachers and a secon group of 60, mostly fourteen year olds and five teachers. On the program were various outside activities at the location were we stayed as well as a day trip to Oxford, and for the older children also a visit to London.
Reflecting now, from the comfort of having returned, what is there to say, what has remained the same and what has changed?
We’ll leave aside the fact that our travel agency, who organized the main logistics of the trip, let us down to a serious level,. Leaving us with many situations where we were forced to improvise, be creative or simply hang around in the cold waiting for a bus at five in the morning. But what about Brexit or Covid issues?
The main Brexit difference was that now, every single child is required to have a passport, and not just a EU Identity card. The extra expense of this change was born by parents and thankfully due to notifying them of it months in advance presented no unexpected problems. We were also fortunate to have no pupils in our group with complex nationality issues. Visa requirements have become significantly tighter since Brexit, this is doubtless a bridge that we will have to cross another time.
The Covid part of the story in the end worked out reasonably well, but did leave us a little on edge at times. There are no real Covid restrictions to travel between the Netherlands and the UK at present. However the idea of setting off on the trip with people in the bus who were testing positive was a concern. We didn’t specifically ask pupils to test, I’m pretty sure that we are actually not allowed to do that. It was the health issues amongst the staff that was the main concern. The days before we travelled, one of my colleagues had two family members at home who were testing positive, what if there were more cases amongst the teachers pop up at the last minute? We needed the full team, and a fully fit team! It really is an excursion that needs you to be at the top of your game in terms of health to cope with the 16-18 hour working days.
Right until the morning of our departure teachers were testing, thankfully in the end all with negative results. Did we have pupils with us who might have tested positive? Quite possibly yes, sitting amongst us in a crowed bus for hours on end. Did we have an outbreak of pupils feeling under the weather and maybe ill? Well, that’s a no, despite the tightly packed bedrooms that the pupils slept in.
Some colleagues were at times definately a little effected by symptoms that could easily have been a relatively light case of Covid. Did we test whilst in the U.K.? That’s a definite no. There seemed little to be gained by knowing. We just ploughed on with the excursion.
All in all the trip as a whole felt remarkably similar to the trip of three years ago. There was a bit more hand washing go on before eating, but to be honest, that is about as far as the Covid measures went. But also about as far as the measures really could go in such crouded conditions. Hopefully we’ll be making the same trip again next year, and hopefully the Covid situation will have eased still further, the situation/rules at the border crossing, given the current state of British politics, is anyone’s guess!
In a recent discussion with my fourth years (15-16 year olds) we touched on the issue of why we choose to do what we do and what we hope to get back for doing it. It was in the context of a lesson where we were considering the motivations the people caught up in the current migration flux of people from Syria, Afghanistan and North Africa. I wanted to get the pupils to think for a moment about what circumstances might cause them to want to relocate to a different country.
For my groups of fifteen year olds the idea of going to live in a different country because it offers a better paid job is an apparently very easy and obvious step to make. What is perhaps more interesting is to see how they almost believe they simply have a right to pursue such a route. Whether they accept it as a right for others is often somewhat less clear.
The immigration related discussion is of course a complex and heavily charged one. But a lighter exchange also took place when I reminded the class that I too was an immigrant having moved from the UK to the Netherlands back in the nineties. “What was your motivation for coming here sir?”. I think most of them actually already knew, but teenagers normally like to hear a bit of personal biography from their teachers. Initially I said that I came to the Netherlands because I liked Dutch art so much, but not surprisingly, they didn’t believe me, so I set about recounting the love story that did bring me this way. It’s a nice story to tell how my wife and I met, but it does also illustrate well how as a student you can temporarily be abroad, meet someone, and all of a sudden the route of life can take a sharp bend and you too, as I found, can be caught up in your own immigration story. I know for sure that when my wife travelled to England, in her early twenties, for her university placement he wasn’t anticipating coming back with a new relationship that was going to have such far reaching effects!
These pupils sit on the cusp of great changes in their lives. In two years many will be on the point of also setting off on the journey through a university education. If we return for a moment to that initial question of what motivates us to do what we do. The financial angle is always the first one that pupils name, they all want to be wealthy and own big houses and nice cars. But I would always ask them to consider other motivations and rewards they might hope for, and can offer a few of my own. One such reward is the very possibility to be able to talk with them about these sort of issues. By doing so you hope to open their eyes a little to different perspectives on the adult world that they, in the not too distant future, will be stepping into. It is so enjoyable and rewarding to engage with them in this way. They are all entering a period of a number of years of transition.
I was all too reminded of this earlier this week when I waved my own son (aged 18) off on a post exams adventure with two friends through Scandinavia and on to Saint Petersburg. He will learn so much from this three-week journey. As a parent this isn’t always easy when you are used to being close at hand to offer help and advice when needed.
I really shouldn’t complain though, how out of touch am I with the group of young travelers? They’ve been away for five days, we’ve engaged text messages, photos have been posted on Facebook and I can see exactly what the weather is like where they are. I made a similar trip nearly thirty years ago with two friends. We set off around Europe and in three weeks I don’t think I contacted my parents once, we just turned up again one day. Sorry mum and dad, I’m feeling increasingly guilty about that this week!