For the group of 40 French schoolchildren, their trip to the birthplace of William Shakespeare was meant to be the perfect introduction to the English literature and culture they were studying at their secondary school in Saint-Germain-en-Laye, an hour’s drive away. car west of Paris.
But for three of the children without EU passports and the schoolteachers organizing their four-day trip to Stratford-upon-Avon last month, it turned into what they described as a “Kafkaesque” nightmare related to UK immigration system.
“I have been a teacher for 26 years and I have never seen anything like it. It was really like something out of a Kafka novel,” said Fadila Mérioua, head of the international section at the Collège les Hauts Grillets after 12- and 13-year-old boys with Nigerian, Chinese and Georgian citizenship had their visa applications rejected. .
Travel industry leaders said their experience was not uncommon and urged Rishi Sunak’s government to follow through on a promise at the Anglo-French summit last month to cut post-Brexit visa bureaucracy for school trips.
After Brexit, the British government removed the group entry visa from the EU “traveller list” for school-age children, causing the number of expected school trip bookings from EU countries to Britain drop to more than half of pre-Brexit levels by 2023, according to the Tourism Alliance. industry survey last november.
Children in school groups with non-EU passports must now obtain individual visas, each application costs €120 and requires a trip to Paris or the nearest regional visa office, a bureaucracy that the industry says is making trips may not be feasible for many schools. .
Mérioua, who was leading the trip to Stratford, said the experience of dealing with the Home Office had been so bad that its director canceled all future trips to the UK until conditions improved.
The rejection of the three children’s visa applications came despite the fact that they traveled on a €450 four-day package tour with their teacher on a visit booked through long-established school tour company PG Thrips. A fourth student, from Cambodia, who made an identical application, received a visa for reasons the school does not understand.
Home Office rejection letters issued to the three children and seen by the Financial Times indicate that although the children were part of a fully sponsored tour, visa officers did not believe them. Applicants cannot appeal against the decision.
A rejection letter acknowledged that the student had provided a letter of introduction, a letter of invitation and a signed statement that their sponsor would pay €450 for the trip, but this was deemed insufficient.
“The documents you have provided do not demonstrate the personal or financial circumstances of your sponsor. Therefore, I am not satisfied that your sponsor can and will support you for the intended duration of your stay. Therefore, your application is rejected, ”he said.
Two rejections said the children had failed to show they had “parental consent” for the trip, despite traveling to visa interviews with their parents and signing an online parental consent form with the school.
The parents signed a official authorizationapplied [for the visa] online then they went to the appointment with their children,” Mérioua said, adding that all the parents of the children lived in France and had regularized immigration status.
Edward Hisbergues, director of PG Trips, said such experiences were not uncommon, with around 15 organized groups of 250 this year having been denied visas despite being on package tours.
“I have been organizing school excursions for 42 years. Before Brexit, we were sending around 15,000 children a year to the UK. In all that time, we have never, ever, left one behind. It is truly ridiculous,” he said.
The UK government committed to a joint communiquéIt follows the Anglo-French summit on March 10 to “facilitate travel” for school groups by “making changes to documentation requirements for schoolchildren on organized tours from France.”
However, the British Educational Travel Association (BETA), the industry body, said it had not yet received details on how the requirements would be relaxed and had written to Immigration Minister Robert Jenrick on March 20 to ask for details. .
The industry added that it was concerned that the introduction of a new UK Electronic Travel Authorization (ETA) requirement, which mirrors a similar EU scheme, would further complicate school trips.
Susan Jones, director of Linguastay, a company that finds host families for school trips, said the industry faced a “downward spiral” if things didn’t improve by September, when bookings for the next season are usually made.
Jones added that the groups Linguastay had hosted in 2023 had encountered “huge problems” with visas and most had indicated that it would not be practical to return. “The homestay industry implores the government to act fast on its decision, before it is too late,” she said.
The Interior Ministry said it was “currently considering” the implications of implementing the commitment made at the summit and declined to comment on the experience of the Collège les Hauts Grillets.
“All visa applications are carefully considered on their individual merits, based on the evidence provided and in accordance with the Immigration Rules,” a Home Office spokesperson said.