With benefits ranging from improved self‑confidence to improved academic attainment, outdoor education isn’t just something schools should do, it’s something they should prioritise, believes Phil Avery, director of education at the Bohunt Education Trust
I was recently told by an opinionated stranger, who was happy ignoring the etiquette of conversation whilst queuing, that outdoor education should certainly be part of a child’s education, but it was not something that schools should be involved with; the time and effort of educators should be spent on the academic attainment of students, not on getting students up hills. I disagree.
In a survey that our Trust recently commissioned, 78 per cent of people surveyed said that outdoor education is important for the self-development of children. Sixty‑seven per cent of them said that providing outdoor education is the job of schools. I also disagree with those people.
With 75 per‑cent of children in the UK spending less time outside than prison inmates (survey of 2,000 people commissioned by Persil as part of its ‘Dirt is Good’ campaign) it’s going to take more than just schools to get young people outside enough to reap the benefits; benefits that include not just self-development, but also increased academic attainment – one of the core functions of schools.
Outdoor Education Programme
As director of education at Bohunt Education Trust, I oversee the classroom experience across our five schools and our Outdoor Education Programme that includes everything from Bushcraft on school grounds to major expeditions.
My early test bed was Bohunt School in Liphook (an 11-18 comprehensive academy in Hampshire). In 2009 no students spent two or more nights in a tent with the school. This year, due to the work of a dedicated, skilled team, over 900 will: Year 8 Activity Camp, Year 9 Bushcraft Camp, Bronze, Silver and Gold Duke of Edinburgh, and preparation expeditions for students preparing to go to Greenland, Mongolia, Azerbaijan or a 6000m peak in the Himalayas.
As other schools have come in to the Trust we have worked with them to develop this strategically important outdoor offering as quickly as possible. Less than two years after starting working with Priory School in inner city Portsmouth, thirteen of their students, were stood, dressed in crampons and armed with ice axes, atop an ice‑capped volcano in Iceland (with me trying to put thoughts of Jokulhlaups – giant volcano induced floods – out of my mind).
Getting a group of their students there had not been easy. Only seven turned up to the information evening. Students could not understand why they should prioritise, in terms of time, effort and finance, an expedition to a remote part of Iceland, a country that even in name didn’t seem very appealing.
We had expected that pretty pictures and fundraising ideas would lead to the expeditions being oversubscribed. We were wrong; we had severely underestimated the lack of knowledge of why the outdoors is important, as well as the financial barriers. I now want to address each of those issues in turn.
In the summer of 2017, teams of 14-16 year‑old students went for three weeks from Bohunt to Greenland, Mongolia or Kyrgyzstan. They had challenging aims such as crossing glacier systems, living with remote shepherd communities in gers and completing difficult canoe treks.
They faced real dangers: the Greenland team had to complete bear watches throughout the ‘night’ and one of the leaders in Mongolia was seriously injured and evacuated by Nissan Micra across the Mongolian steppe.
The expeditions were closely studied by two university teams. The University of Kent found that the students came back from the expeditions more culturally competent and valuing diversity more.
The University of Lancaster found that students acquired a variety of skills whilst away, as well as learning how to significantly improve their team dynamic. Now at this point my acquaintance in the queue told me that the qualities of team building, resilience, perseverance and soft skill acquisition are fantastic, but not the role of schools, which is about exam success.
However, the Education Endowment Foundation, a key research organisation for education, states that non‑cognitive skills, could well be having an impact on academic attainment. ‘Overall, studies of adventure learning interventions consistently show positive benefits on academic learning.
On average, pupils who participate in adventure learning interventions make approximately four additional months’ progress over the course of a year. There is also evidence of an impact on non‑cognitive outcomes such as self-confidence. The evidence suggests that the impact is greater for more vulnerable and older learners (teenagers), longer courses (more than a week), and those in a ‘wilderness’ setting, though other types of intervention still show some positive impacts.’ (See the research at www.educationendowmentfoundation.org.uk).
At Bohunt School in Liphook we looked to see if we could replicate these results. We looked at the correlation of Progress 8 in the summer’s results with participation in the Outdoor Programme. The results were conclusive and positive with all but our lower ability learners, where the numbers participating in the outdoor programme were too low to make the results significant (an area for us to improve on).
The more involvement they had in the Outdoor Programme the greater the progress they made, with the greatest progress reserved for those that went on expedition.
So, participation in outdoor education can build soft skills and enhance academic attainment. Despite these compelling benefits finances can still stand in the way; often for those students who would benefit most; 70 per cent of people in our survey believe that cost is the main factor which stops students going on outdoor/overseas expeditions and trips. This was certainly the case with our Iceland expedition as 40 per cent of the students in Priory School are Pupil Premium.
To overcome the financial barriers we have a range of strategies: we advertise our trips three years in advance along with our suggestions as to the most beneficial (language trips, outdoor education trips and trips linked specifically to their GCSEs) so that parents can prioritise accordingly; we reduce the costs for pupil premium students by using the additional money given to us by the government; we are flexible with payment plans; we allow in-school fundraising for certain trips; and we keep supplemental costs (for example kit and transport) very low by doing our own fundraising for those items.
However, the main tool to overcoming the financial barrier is education. By tutors and key school leaders working with parents/guardians we are able to highlight the benefits to students. When the students from the first Priory expedition returned and told their tales it changed the attitude of students almost overnight.
We now have over 30 students going on a multi-adventure expedition to Norway in the summer, over 100 students doing Duke of Edinburgh (including every one of our most vulnerable students), we’ve won grants to create a Bushcraft Area within the school and the school has started a Combined Cadet Force.
With benefits ranging from improved self‑confidence and improved academic attainment, we believe that outdoor education isn’t just something schools should do, it’s something we should prioritise. In the future we want to continue to expand the range of outdoor opportunities we offer, reduce the cost of some of our events and embed it further within the curriculum.
We intend to build our own Outdoor Centre, run Bushcraft Clubs in all of our schools, equip our Sixth Formers with the skills to run their own private fieldwork expeditions when they are at university, expand the teaching of subjects that happens in specialist outdoor areas on‑site, and continue our university‑level research to understand how we can best improve learning through the outdoors and on major expeditions.