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The Power of Virtual School Trips: An Interview with The School Trip Community’s Tom Sanderson

15th February 2021

With the UK’s third lockdown showing no signs of easing anytime soon, ongoing school closures have meant that, up and down the country, teachers have once again been assigned the difficult task of moving their syllabus online. And, with children now facing day after day staring blankly at a screen, away from the buzzing, interactive environment of the classroom, it’s no surprise that – for teachers and students alike – school is starting to feel a bit like Groundhog Day.

Fortunately, to counteract this “digital fatigue”, there has been a huge surge in online resources designed to diversify learning and re-energise students’ imaginations. Whether it’s Joe Wicks’ mission to get children moving with his morning PE lessons, or apps like Kahoot! that allow educators to create fun, interactive quizzes, there are a myriad of ways to keep students motivated. And now, with the domestic tourism sector facing similar restrictions, many museums, attractions and heritage sites have turned to virtual school trips to keep their audiences engaged from afar – adding another resource to teachers’ lockdown toolkit.

At Virtual Visits, we believe that virtual reality does not need to be stale or lifeless; with the right technology in place, teachers can use exciting, 360 guided audio narration to transport their students anywhere – from the ancient remnants of Stonehenge, to the grand gates of Buckingham Palace.

To get a deeper understanding about the growing popularity of virtual school trips, we spoke to Tom Sanderson, founder of The School Trip Community, to learn more about why learning away from the classroom can be just as important as learning within the classroom.

Welcome, Tom! Tell us a bit more about yourself and what inspired you to set up The School Trip Community?

I believe that every child should have access to incredible learning experiences and that one of the best ways to bring learning to life is through school trips.

Over the last eight years, I’ve worked with leading theatres, museums, galleries and attractions across the county to help promote their offering to teachers and students. I’ve been lucky to work with incredible places and shows including Matilda The Musical, Billy Elliot, the National Theatre, The Royal Opera House, The National Gallery, Royal Museums Greenwich, ZSL and more.

However, I’ve always felt that something was missing. There are countless magazines, email lists and other ways to promote yourself to schools; however, I felt none truly engaged with teachers to drive meaningful relationships and longstanding results.

So, in December 2019, I created The School Trip Community with two aims. The first, to help teachers access the fantastic resources, ideas and activities that school trip venues have to offer. The second, to help all venues, regardless of their size or budgets, speak to teachers and share their unique educational offering in the most cost-effective way possible.

Why do you think it is so important for teachers to expand learning beyond classrooms?

School trips have always been a vital way of bringing learning to life. For many children, the first time they visit a museum, castle or theatre will be with their school. These experiences increase the child’s understanding of the subject, but also provide memories and spark passions for later life.

If we look back, we can all remember a school trip we went on as a child. These educational visits were quite often highlights of our time at school. I’m passionate about bridging the gap between these cultural venues and the classroom to allow all students the ability to access incredible learning experiences.

This year children and young people in Britain have missed out on more than one million school trips, what do you think the impact of this will be?

The impact will be huge. As well as brilliant ways to lift a subject matter from the page, school trips increase engagement, confidence, social development and mental health. An overnight school trip to an activity centre or city is often the first time that a child has been away from their parents. We can probably all remember our first trip away from home, and perhaps how scary it was, but also the joy that it brought us and the memories it created with our friends. Covid-19 has completely stopped these opportunities and all these memories along with it.

Due to ongoing pandemic, remote learning has become more important than ever for maintaining social distancing. How have you seen the use of virtual technology evolve in relation to school trips?

School trip venues have stepped up over the last year. Before the pandemic, some places had virtual sessions, virtual tours or other ways to engage online. However, nowhere near the amount they have now.

For children (and in fact for adults!) there’s nothing quite like seeing that Roman artefact or musical performance in front of you. When we’re allowed to start again, I’m confident that school trips will return to what they once were. Perhaps they’ll still have to be slightly adapted, but every teacher I speak to can’t wait to book and go on their next trip to their local museum, theatre or further afield.

However, I also think they’ll now always be a place for ‘virtual school trips’ as well. I hate to say that anything to do with this time is ‘a good thing’, but there certainly have been some silver linings. I’ve worked with venues that have been excited to open up their offering to even more schools. A virtual session, by its nature, can be accessed from anywhere and by anyone. A school in Cornwall can now access learning opportunities from venues in Liverpool and vice versa – something that wasn’t possible up until this point.

I hope that venues keep their new virtual offerings and continue to create engaging resources like they did to help teachers with home learning. All will create more opportunities for schools to access the best education out there, with students benefitting from access to even more wonderful experiences.

It’s no secret that both tourism and the arts have been two of the hardest-hit sectors during the pandemic. How do you envision they will bounce back?

This time has been really tough. It’s been heart-breaking to see the two incredible industries I work within becoming two of the most affected by the pandemic.

However, I’m confident that both industries will bounce back and, although it may take some time, stronger than what they were before the pandemic. Every teacher I speak to can’t wait to book and take their next school trip. Although some schools may take longer than others, I’m sure they still see the value of what educational visits can offer their students.

I’m excited to see how venues evolve and move on after COVID-19. We’ve seen so much development and ingenuity through this challenging time with countless new products and initiatives. I’m excited to see how places will carry on from this and move forward with these new products.

What are the most creative examples you’ve seen of theatres or attractions continuing to interact with the public during this challenging time? 

I’ve been beyond impressed by the amount of new and creative products that theatres, museums, galleries and attractions have created during this difficult time. Theatres across the country streamed their productions, often for free, to their existing and new audiences. It was wonderful to see millions of people watch these and engage in the theatre where they perhaps wouldn’t have traditionally. 

It’s also been great to see museums, galleries and attractions adapt their workshops to work online as they create new virtual sessions. National Museums Liverpool’s new Virtual Classrooms are a brilliant example of this. Covering subjects from Ancient Egypt to the modern-day, their new sessions allow teachers to beam the museums directly into their classrooms and allow their students to still connect with these amazing venues.

Many have also stepped up to support teachers, not just with their students’ learning but also with their wellbeing. An excellent example is Turner Contemporary’s Creative Mindfulness videos. These new videos help students focus, relax and ready themselves for learning. What’s also great is that they can be used anywhere and at any time.

I could go on and give hundreds of examples of all the fantastic resources, videos and opportunities that theatres, museums, galleries and attractions have provided schools. I’m so proud to be in such an amazing industry that, even in its darkest days, still steps up to support their local communities and access the best of what they still have to offer. It’s something that gives me confidence that this fantastic industry will go forward and not just survive but thrive when we’re given the chance.

To learn more about Tom and his work with The School Trip Community, visit their website.

At Virtual Visits, we are proud advocates of the power of virtual learning. As part of our pandemic-busting project, Virtual Visits are collaborating with a wide range of heritage sites to deliver unique guided visits that engage and inspire. To learn more about our existing virtual visits, click here.