You’re thinking of booking your child or teen onto a summer residential camp. You’ve seen the ads, brochures and websites. The pictures look lovely. It’s hard to distinguish between pages of smiling, sunny photos. The dates work. Prices seem reasonable. The words are bullish (“we’re experienced, qualified, popular and, frankly, we’re pretty wonderful”). Then reality dawns. Your child’s life may soon be in the hands of a sunny, smiley company. Suddenly you want reassurances about their safety and health. The serious stuff. But you’re not sure what to ask.
I’ve had hundreds of conversations with parents in your position. And just as many with others who have been through it before. The latter are easy to spot. They ask many more questions. Particularly if they’ve had a bad experience.
Safety, security & staff
A reputable provider should be regulated by OFSTED (Office for Standards in Education, Children's Services and Skills). OFSTED conducts inspections of each camp. Its last report may include recommended improvements. It’s worth asking what they were and what the company has done about them. You should ask what rating OFSTED gave the provider at the last inspection. At present the ratings are ‘outstanding’, ‘good’, ‘satisfactory’ or ‘unsatisfactory’.
More detail will be available in the camp’s policies and procedures. These should provide information from staff recruitment to health policies. They must be available to you. Their clarity and level of detail are excellent gauges of the company’s attitude to safety.
Staffing is a key issue. Residential staff live in close proximity to children (sometimes, though not usually in the UK, in the same room). Ascertain whether the company meets and interviews them all before employing them. And that they are not accepted onto camp before having CRB & List 99 checks.
It’s worth asking about their staff training. Many will not be qualified teachers and require specific training in pastoral care and basic First Aid. And you should check that a matron or nurse lives onsite. A nurse who only pops in during the day is useless at midnight if and when there is a child with a stomach upset or asthma attack.
Furthermore, check that there are tight security measures to ensure that children always remain ‘in bounds’. And that all accidents and incidents are recorded in detail.
Those questions should provide a benchmark for safety. But you don’t want your child to spend the summer in a prison!
The atmosphere must be friendly. A great indicator is the reception you receive when phoning the camp’s offices. You should speak to a professional who really understands camp. Ask them about the company’s philosophy. Ideally the word ‘fun’ will be mentioned without a prompt. Even the most competitive children prefer a relaxed environment where everyone is encouraged to participate.
However, an inclusive atmosphere still needs rules. Beware the camp that dismisses behavioural issues. Ask what happens to children who misbehave. You want a strict code of conduct. Many camps are notorious for smoking and drinking amongst older children. A ‘zero tolerance’ attitude should rule them out.
The activities themselves are often the last thing you need to worry about. If you are calling a camp for the first time its important to know whether it is specialist or generalist. A specialist camp will concentrate on specific activities. Like sport, art or drama or even a language school. They may also have a religious leaning. Generalist camps will cover a lot of ground and probably afford more choice to each child. Neither is necessarily good or bad. You know your children best. But there is nothing worse that supervising children who feel they are ‘stuck’ doing something they find dull! Always encourage your child to look at the brochures, internet and marketing information. Remember, it is them going to camp so it is a good idea to let them play a part in choosing.
This summary isn’t comprehensive. But it is a good start. Remember that summer camp can be a seminal experience in a child’s life. But brochures don’t tend to focus on the moments when they feel unwell. Or homesick. Or when they’re close to tears. That’s when they’ll know if you’ve made the right choice.
Richard Bernstein is a Director of XUK, a residential camp in the UK. He’d be delighted to chat about these issues on 020 8922 9739 or please visit www.xkeys.co.uk where there is much more information available.