How to make residential visits successful, with Ollie Williams.

Learning Outside the Classroom (LOtC)

Planning, organising and leading a residential visit can be a daunting prospect, even for the most experienced and knowledgeable leader. These visits can help form life-long memories, so every measure should be taken to ensure the experiences are positive. Over the past 24 years, since going on my first residential visit as an adult, there have been a significant number of changes to how they are led and organised. Yet, the overwhelming benefits and reasons why I love leading them remain as strong as ever.

Learning outside the classroom plays a vital part in the early stages of life. When planned and implemented effectively, it contributes significantly to raising standards and improving pupils’ personal, social and emotional development. It is most successful when it is an integral element of long-term curriculum planning and closely linked to classroom activities. The opportunities to develop interpersonal skills such as communication and co-operation are plentiful. Other significant benefits include building resilience and confidence, self-discipline, developing independence and applying creative thinking.

Planning the residential visit

An effective residential visit programme should complement the learning outside of the classroom activities taught in school. If the programme spans across year groups, each visit should allow the pupils an opportunity to extend their skills each year, enriching, embedding and building upon previous experiences.

Despite not being a statutory requirement, I would encourage any new residential visit leaders to attend a ‘Visit Leader Training’ course, usually run by the Local Authority (LA) and endorsed by the Outdoor Education Advisers’ Panel (OEAP).

The residential visit should:

  • Be cost effective and accessible to all pupils
  • Provide a programme of activities to reinforce your school’s vision, ethos and values
  • Ensure group safety and security
  • Be suitable for the age group and have a set of challenging, but achievable outcomes

Choosing the most suitable location, centre or provider for your residential visit is essential. On occasion, you may be lucky enough to inherit a fully embedded and successful visit programme. With these, the history, traditions and tried and tested activities that are included can be hugely advantageous. This also helps you to build upon the legends of previous adventures had by older siblings and friends, elevating the excitement in the run-up to the visit. Discovering new and untried locations, creating a fresh programme and beginning your own legacy can be equally as rewarding and exciting.

Forming the staff team is just as important to ensure a balance of experience, energy, discipline and knowledge of specific pupils’ needs. Residential visits require commitment and are exhausting, so providing the opportunity for staff to choose to attend is a suggested approach. Having trust in your team, activities provider and transport companies (if used) is crucial and will take time to establish. Building trust begins in the preparation and planning for the visit and working alongside the OEAP and your LA outdoor education adviser will provide you with additional support.

Risk assessments

Conducting a thorough risk assessment (RA) prior to any visit is fundamental to the safety and security of your group. It is best practice to submit a completed RA to your LA and headteacher for approval, no later than two weeks before the visit. The RA is also an opportunity for you to meet with centre provider staff, settings, caterers and transport companies who you may be working alongside for years to come.
I have always insisted on visiting the centres and locations in person to witness what is being prepared for the pupils, so any questions, queries or specific needs for the group can be discussed face to face. Any organisation should be able to provide its own role-specific RA. How to determine and reduce risk is explained fully during the ‘Visit Leader Training’ course.

Key factors to be assessed include:

  • Transport and travel arrangements
  • Dietary requirements and medical needs (including staff )
  • Accommodation
  • Site or centre specific (including any human or physical geographical features)
  • Activities (school and provider-led)
  • SEND or specific pupil needs (e.g., emotional or behavioural)
  • Illness, sickness or injury procedures
  • Operation Duke (procedure for the trip leader to follow in the case of an extreme incident, accident or fatality)

In the weeks leading up to the visit, meeting with your team to discuss the RA will help ensure vital information is communicated. Providing a staff handbook can also maintain expectations and understanding throughout the visit. Depending on the activities, it may be beneficial to conduct a kit check for the pupils. Even after providing a kit list, experience tells that sometimes items can be forgotten, left at home or not deemed necessary. Checking that the pupils have the ‘essential items’ prior to the trip ensures at least they are prepared for the specific activities.

The visit

Communication, communication, communication!

I can’t stress enough the importance of maintaining a constant open dialogue between your team, school and pupils to help the visit go as smoothly as possible. Whether it’s the night before the visit, the first morning of activities or moments before arriving back at school, keeping everyone ‘in the loop’ is essential. Despite advances in technology and setting up group chats etc., you can’t always rely on having a signal when you need it, so planning for scheduled team catchup points during the day is recommended. An endof- day team briefing is a top opportunity to share experiences, reflect on the day’s events and spend time appreciating the essence of the visit.

Each day and activity will pose its own specific challenges, but where and when possible, join in and share the experiences with the pupils. Feel what it’s actually like; appreciate the difficulty or uniqueness of the activities and let the ‘wow factors’ be part of your own experience.

Even as an adult, I climbed my first mountain, skied my first red run and explored an underground Welsh slate cavern whilst on school residential visits. All of these incredible memories will stay with me forever, as similar memories will for the children.

These moments make every single hour spent preparing – every meeting, every phone call and every ounce of effort – completely worthwhile. It is an honour to have parents put their trust in you to lead a residential visit and look after the safety and welfare of their children, whilst knowing they are going to have the adventure of a lifetime. Whether it is your first or your fiftieth school residential
visit, each will have its own distinctive challenges, leave its own legacy and will always be about that unique group of children having the best time possible.

Further support

There is a wealth of expertise available on residential visits and learning outside the classroom, whether directly from qualified organisations or from colleagues who have experienced it first-hand. You may need suggestions for new centres, activity providers, transport companies or overall programme structures, but sound advice is always available.

The OEAP provides national guidance on residential visits – good practice and other key documents. As mentioned previously, your LA will be able to support you, specifically the ‘Outdoor Education and Physical Education, School Sport and Physical Activity Adviser,’ with any queries. Other useful contacts are accessible through social media, including @theoeap, @CLOtC, @AHOECUK, @teach_outdoors and IOLOutdoorProfs.


  • Ollie Williams

    Ollie trained as a secondary PE teacher but has been teaching primary for 20 years. He is a deputy headteacher, DSL and ECT member. Passionate about learning, the outdoors and nature, he is a learning outside the classroom lead who has been leading residential visits for 18 years.
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