Terrorism: security advice for school trips and student travel

Terrorism and violence have threatened us for years but 2015 saw the arrival of a ‘new order’ in the way that such hideous acts are conducted and exported in such a consistent and seemingly globally linked way.  Many of Pharos’ team have seen at first hand the effects of violence whilst serving in the police and military, after the London 7/7 bombings, in Northern Ireland and international conflict zones but never before has our advice on these risks been so sought after by our clients.

In most circumstances, school groups are unlikely to be specifically targeted by terrorists but they could easily become caught in post-incident disruption following an incident.  Since not at greater risk than the general UK population per se, our advice for school and student groups is therefore practical and logistical.  Much of our advice should be included in risk assessments and ultimately, a decision needs to be made on whether to go ahead with the trip or not as altering plans is the only way to guarantee safety.  It would be a shame if the threat of international terrorism prevented school and student travel so a sensible calculated balanced decision needs to be made.  We hope that this article will help schools make such assessments.  This article will help those responsible for making these difficult decisions, either as a tour operator or as a school Head Teacher.

The direct affects of terrorism are of course difficult for us to counter but greater visit planning can help avoid situations, and also help improve response if groups are affected to an incident by geographical proximity.

General considerations for all visit types

  • Consider increasing supervision ratios from normal arrangements.  If for example small groups of older students are allowed to spend short periods of time indirectly supervised by staff, consider removing this additional freedom
  • Stay alert to local and national news before and during
  • Carefully consider the relative benefits of visits to religious or political venues and events that could be considered higher risk
  • Assess the needs of SEND students and their ability to react and respond to dynamic situations
  • Communicate openly with customers or parents in advance to reassure them that safety is the priority and has been carefully considered by the organisers. Provide contact details of visit leaders for them to contact during trip
  • Remind students to remain vigilant and alert, reporting anything suspicious to leaders
  • Remain alert to more ‘usual’ crime since this remains far more likely than terrorism
  • Brief participants in advance that if they are caught up in a security situation, that they should try and get away as quickly but safely from the immediate vicinity as possible, leaving baggage or other belongings behind
  • Brief participants in advance to follow instructions of police or security forces at all times, being mindful that they may be armed and appear more intimidating than they are used to.  Officers might be extremely forceful, direct and may even point weapons directly at them and others
  • Brief participants what to do if separated from each other in the event of a security incident.  This should include designating specified physical meeting points and contact telephone numbers for staff.  Remember that mobile phones may not work in the immediate hours after an incident so it is additionally important to designate a meeting location.  Consider use of telephone boxes where they still exist for contacting the school or office.  Phone networks were blocked by police in London following the  2005 7/7 attacks but were deliberately maintained by the French police in Paris November 2015
  • Data based communication services such as WhatsApp might work even when voice calls don’t so consider setting up a trip-specific WhatsApp group for communicating in an emergency
  • Consider providing all participants with a printed emergency contact card with the school’s or office’s landline telephone number on it and provide space for them to write down their own home landline number.  Pharos’ clients have access to 24/7 support and plastic credit card sized cards and these could be used
  • Leaders should carry a spare mobile phone (if possible on a different telephone network to the other handset) and spare battery or auxiliary charger.  Simple items like a notebook, pen and torch can be really useful too
  • Each Leader should carry a team list with all participant details, including medical conditions and next of kin noted
  • Tell students that if they are separated, to ask for assistance from a police officer or other security official and state that they are a part of a school group. Remind them that police and security forces may be very forceful with the public in the immediate vicinity of an incident: this is necessary until people’s identities are confirmed
  • Carry water (not just fizzy drinks!) and snacks on visits in case of travel disruption and long delays, especially in warmer months or climates
  • Carry additional personal medication in case of long delays
  • Be additionally vigilant in crowded places such as shopping malls, travel hubs and sports stadia
  • Consider changing either the date or visit location to a time or location that carries less risk

In the event of a security incident on visit

  • If groups are caught up in a security incident, Leaders should attempt to keep everyone together whilst moving away as quickly as possible.  Keeping together may be difficult and is ultimately less important than speed of action and staying safe. Staying low and even better, moving away whilst behind solid objects such as concrete barriers or buildings (as opposed to just parked cars) will provide good protection
  • Once accounted for, it may seem obvious to try and travel from the town or venue as soon as possible.  If this involves public transport, it may not be the best option as some terrorist organisations plan secondary attacks that specifically target transport hubs
  • The Group Leader should notify the home contact as soon as practicable, noting the known whereabouts of all members
  • Activate your organisation’s crisis plan. Establish a crisis team at the school or head office that can become a communication focal point and receiving area for next of kin and students upon return in schools.
  • Arrange the group’s return transport when the situation is sufficiently secure to do so. In schools, parents should collect their children from school rather than travel to the incident location
  • Schools should communicate with parents using their normal methods where possible, including email and secure website areas
  • Consideration should be given to arranging proactive trauma counselling for students and staff after such an event; this can be provided at short notice by Pharos Response and be ready at the school


Additional UK visit considerations

  • Research the venue/s to avoid occasions when large crowds are likely or political demonstrations are planned in the area
  • Speak to local police (or police force where visit is taking place) for specific advice in advance
  • Liaise with venues in advance to understand their own security arrangements for school groups and any individual events
  • Stay alert to local and national news, especially for any changes to official UK security threat levels
  • Consider using private coach transport rather than the Underground or other public transport when travelling in London
  • Advice for visits to London are available through the Metropolitan Police here
  • Advice for visits using public transport in London are available here

Additional overseas visit considerations

  • Research and adhere to the FCO advice for the country being visited, noting any specific advice for cities or areas or via Twitter @FCOtravel
  • Subscribe to updates for the country and carry a smart phone or tablet that can access these updates whilst overseas
  • Remember to do the same for any countries that are being transited
  • Other official advice from the FCO can be found here
  • Confirm with insurers that they will cover costs resulting from acts of terrorism, including medical care, repatriation and cancellation/curtailment. Consider adding this cover if possible as it is often an exclusion on non-specialist travel insurance
  • Tour operators should describe their own risk assessment and arrangements following terrorist threats and acts, including the possibility for changing destinations even if FCO advice has not changed (to specifically advise against travel)


  • Scan copies of passports, visas and travel insurance details and save these onto a secure cloud-based storage system in case of lost documents following an incident.  Pharos also retain these details for our 24/7 clients to ensure that this information is immediately available when needed
  • Carry additional medication such as anti-malarial tablets in case of lost baggage and delays following an incident
  • Avoid political or religious celebrations / demonstrations or venues.  Contact embassies or high commissions in advance of any proposed visits to these locations
  • Avoid locations that are synonymous with Western or European tourism if possible – especially popular bars, cafes, luxury hotels or restaurants. Rural and small towns generally attract a lower risk of terrorism than cities and principal tourist attractions
  • Enforce student awareness to cultural sensitivities, clothing and behaviour
  • Student behaviour and overall group presence and posture should be conservative and not draw additional attention
  • Comply with instructions from legitimate security forces and officials. If Leaders are unsure of their credibility and time is available, seek advice from the Embassy or High Commission by telephone
  • Check with your mobile telephone operator before departure to confirm that international roaming and data services are enabled
  • In more remote destinations, consider hiring a satellite telephone for the duration of the visit. These can be hired short term from a company called Cell Hire – some countries restrict the use of satellite phones by tourists so it is worth checking this in advance
  • Groups leaders should carry a suitable first aid kit at all times, and also carry water purification tablets
  • Notify your travel insurance provider as soon as possible if directly affected by terrorism and request repatriation assistance as soon as it is safe and secure enough to do so. The embassy will take a direct role in assisting British nationals and will in most circumstances also assist other passport holders if they are students at a British school. Consular assistance to school groups will normally be prioritised over adult tourists
  • It may seem obvious to attempt returning home as soon as possible by rushing to the airport or other transport hub.  However, such locations are sometimes targeted by terrorists for secondary attacks.  Although counter intuitive, it may be better to ‘hole up’ at a suitably secure hotel away from the main tourist sites.  The luxury hotels favoured by high end tourists and business travellers are normally best avoided in such situations as they may be more likely secondary targets.  Local advice should be gained from the local Embassy or High Commission or a tour operator’s ground handler
  • Consider changing either the date, entire destination or internal itinerary to avoid higher risk cities or locations

In summary, any responsible organisation needs to weigh-up the risks and Pharos can help with this using our unusual blend of experience spanning travel, education and security.

Contact us to find out how Pharos can support you in the pre-travel safety and security assessment, and also our critical incident response services.




The information in this article is for general information only and is provided by Pharos Emergency Response Services Ltd.  Without additional consultancy services tailored to specific destinations, groups, and visits, we make no warranty (express or implied) regarding the completeness, accuracy, reliability or suitability of this advice.