The Future of Residential Outdoor Learning – Dave Spence

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We are now going through another period of heightened awareness about human impact on the environment. Proposed solutions tend to be change driven: change technologies (more use of renewable, driverless cars) or change behaviour (travel less, use less, recycle more). As is often the case, if older people feel these changes are imposed upon them, they will be reluctant, even resistant to change. What can we do that is positive? 

Sustainable solutions are about the decisions and choices that we make. But we’re slow. We are being forced into the zone of adaptation.  However, while adults beyond a certain age tend to look to the past, future generations must not be held back by nostalgia-laden views.  The best thing that decision-makers can do today is focus on the needs of young people, and take action to enable young people to develop the qualities, skills and decision-making capabilities that they will need in order to survive and thrive in their future. 

This will not be easy. On many measures we are failing young people. We want them to be confident, connected to the environment, adaptable, positive and brave. But research shows they lack confidence; that screen time is increasing; and that many display behaviours that impede educational and social development. Theirs is a ‘cotton wool’ society and many are pessimistic about their future.

Education and Curriculum for Excellence lead the way but teachers cannot do it all.  Teachers need allies and outdoor specialists are “other educators” able to support and collaborate with teachers to add value to Curriculum outcomes.

We are also hampered by austerity, practically and psychologically. For teachers under financial and staffing pressures at school, taking young people away is a set of problems too onerous to consider. Partnership working and collaboration is fanciful when a potential partner is pressed for time or when they feel under threat.

Other Educators

For 80 years, outdoor education and the residential experience has been a significant life event for Scottish pupils and other young people. This was recognised by the last National Outdoor Learning Strategic Advisory Group (2010) which reported that young people should experience different types of outdoor learning regularly and frequently, and that…

“Progressive outdoor learning experiences are best delivered through a combination of school-based outdoor learning and residential programmes”.  Ministerial Foreword

More recently, John Swinney has said,

“I am keen to ensure that residential outdoor learning experiences continue to be part of the Curriculum for Excellence.”

Yet the disconnect between desire and application is critical. Many young people still experience no outdoor learning at all, and for those doing most to engage young people in outdoor learning – the residential Centre staff teams – the future is bleak.  We are sleepwalking to the demise of residential outdoor learning in Scotland.

What’s Possible?

The charity and social enterprise delivery model works. In the last decade SOEC has worked with over 150,000 young people providing over 500,000 learning days in away-from home, outdoor experiences (residentials, camps, expeditions.) Last year we worked with 250 schools, youth groups and support networks and over 2,000 teachers and group leaders.  We want to double these numbers.

Specialist outdoor educators engage young people in a breadth of activities. Activities might be adventurous, leisurely, educational, environmental or challenging. Activities enable young people to develop knowledge, qualities (confidence, resilience, relationship building) and skills (team work, problem solving, communication etc.) Activities are both formative and fun.

Activities are packaged into programmes to deliver specific outcomes (transition to work, transition to secondary, eco-programme, exploration, adventure). However, success relies on skilled outdoor tutors developing positive relationships with young people, enabling them to review and reflect on their experiences, and facilitating the transfer of lessons learnt to other contexts: school, home and work.

Spending time exploring, engaging in challenges with their peers, learning with other educators and doing this ‘away from home’ is important in the development of the young person. They become more confident, more resilient and better aware of their potential. Experiences trigger change to more positive behaviours and forges a “can-do” growth mind-set and fundamentally to their self-perception and self-belief.

Other Benefits 

Our work can have a remarkable effect on young people. SOEC’s Transition to Work Programme for those with autistic spectrum diagnoses provides evidence that experiential learning works.  That programme had the twin aims of exploring the therapeutic benefits of the countryside while developing qualities and skills for life and work.  Responses from parents and young participants are fabulous and the group now visits on a regular basis. 

Remarkable outcomes with schools are commonplace. In one class, 2 pupils had restricted their diet and another was self-selective mute in school. Within 3 days, 2 were eating a wide range of healthy food types and the third was singing in the shower; her teachers quipped they “couldn’t shut her up if they’d wanted to”. Of course they didn’t because they knew these pupils had been chaperoned out of school for half a day every fortnight to see specialists, for six years with no visible improvement.

Many of the young people who come to our Centres live in – and are often constrained to – cities and towns. We introduce thousands of young people to the countryside, often for the first time, where they enjoy the outdoors while protecting the environment.  We must connect young people to the environment.  If we do not, the countryside will be an irrelevance to them and they will not be motivated to take action to “save the planet” in whatever form that might take.

With 3 Outdoor Education Centres, SOEC generates £1.5m per annum. Employ over 45 people, our Centres are one of the largest employers in the rural areas they are located in. As a not-for-profit social enterprise, income is directed into the local and national economy through salaries and supplies. For the most part, parents pay for these experiences but the social and environmental benefits are significant; consultants determined SOEC’s Social Return On Investment ratio to be £1: £11.

The Threat

Despite these frequent and remarkable outcomes, residential outdoor learning is disappearing in Scotland.  The trend of centre closure is coming to a head. Decision-makers and the wider public need to know that opportunities they benefitted from and enjoyed are reducing and may not be available for their children.  

SOEC aims to motivate and enable young people to develop the qualities and skills they will need for their future. The next generations must be more confident, resilient, better team players and a whole lot more. They must master these qualities and skills if they are not to be disempowered by threats but instead, see opportunities in a rapidly changing world. Young people need residential outdoor learning experiences more than ever.

Urgent Action Required

The question therefore is, what do we want? Do we, as educators, parents, and business leaders, want the residential experience to be retained as an option for our young people into the future?

If we want to put residential centres on a sustainable basis, we must do things differently.  We must organise provision in new ways, and we must stop diverting money to adults and away from young people. Instead we must pivot our efforts toward enabling more young people to directly engage in experiential learning. The Third Sector can help with cost effective delivery. Partnership working (which delivers the best outcomes) must be promoted vigorously.  

Decision-makers need to be more vociferous in their support for this. After the tragedy of the Coronavirus and the deep impacts of lockdown, we can expect another decade of austerity.  By the time it is concluded, it may be too late for residential outdoor learning. There is a lot at stake.  In a few years, we may look back on allowing the loss of these resources and consider it an act of utter folly.

In 1939 Parliamentarians took the time and effort to debate and create residential outdoor Centres. It was described as “a great educational experiment” and considered “the best thing we did at this time” and “perhaps the most important educational initiative since school attendance was made compulsory”.  That they showed the foresight and commitment to do this, at a time when ‘their backs were very much to the wall’, is astonishing. Young people still benefit from their decision.

It is our turn now.  The trend of closure is clear and seemingly inevitable. Despite all of the benefits, we must ask, are we now willing to let the residential experience just disappear?  Or are there enough of us across the political spectrum, who see the importance and potential of residential experiences for young people and are willing to commit to them being integral to the Scottish Curriculum for decades to come?

Dave Spence is CEO of Scottish Outdoor Education Centres