Not just ‘nice to have’ – Keir Bloomer

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It is good to see that Glasgow City Council has reversed its decision to close Blairvadach Outdoor Centre.  However, the position in Scotland as a whole remains bleak.  After North Lanarkshire closes its centre in Oban later in the year, only 6 local authority outdoor centres will remain.  Two belong to City of Edinburgh Council which, alone, has maintained its provision over the quarter century since local government reorganisation.  Four other councils, including Glasgow, have one each, leaving twenty-seven authorities with no provision of their own (although some make limited use of facilities owned by private organisations or trusts).

This is in very marked contrast with the position twenty-five years ago.  The former Strathclyde Region alone had more than twenty centres.  It was committed in principle to giving all young people an entitlement to two residential experiences in the course of their school careers.  Although it never achieved this aim, most school pupils did benefit from at least one visit.  Today, a stay at a residential outdoor centre is very much the exception rather than the norm.

Does this matter?  Has anything of value been lost?

As a member of the Strathclyde education directorate, I spent a year in the late 1980s reviewing a number of existing policies, including the council’s commitment to outdoor education.  The centres were popular but their value was described in many differing ways.   The most common was the one given recently by defenders of Blairvadach.  They provided activities like sailing, orienteering and hill walking that many young people, particularly those from disadvantaged backgrounds, would not otherwise experience. 

However, as I listened to young people, parents, teachers and centre staff, I came to believe that the activities were, in some ways, secondary.  There had to be purposeful activity but it could be of many kinds. Castle Toward, for example, had often been used for summer art classes and orchestra rehearsals.  The critical factor was a formative social experience; co-existing with peers, collaborating in shared activity, gaining resilience.

All young people, regardless of background, benefitted.  However, the impact was perhaps greatest on those who might never have left the city before or had any experience of orderly shared living.  A visit to an outdoor centre was always memorable.  Sometimes the reasons were surprising and striking.  At a centre in remote Argyll, a boy told me with astonishment and at least a little apprehension, “At night, it gets dark here – not like Glasgow, really, really dark”.

The fate of outdoor centres might seem like a relatively minor concern.  However, the enrichment of experience is central to the educational process.  It is universally accepted that young children who are exposed to rich language, ideas and broad experience in their early years are quicker than others to acquire vocabulary and develop cognitive abilities.  This is just as true in later childhood and adolescence (and indeed in adulthood).  It is part of the function of schools to try to supply the cultural capital that some young people would otherwise lack.

Viewed in this light, outdoor education is not an ‘extra’, something good to have but hardly essential.  An even more important example which is also under sustained attack is music.  There are other instances too.  The essential point is that every school and local authority needs to decide what it is going to offer to enrich the experience of young people and thereby support their development as rounded individuals but also their knowledge and understanding.  There are plenty of options available.  The key point s that this aspect of education needs serious attention, thoughtful planning and the commitment of resources.

Keir Bloomer is chair of the Commission on School Reform.