Select Committee on Education and Skills Second Report

3 Context

4. We publish this report at a time when outdoor education is the subject of significant media attention, particularly with regard to school trips. Over the past decade, accidents on school trips have been prominently reported in the press. In 1993, four pupils died in a canoeing accident at Lyme Bay. It was subsequently found that the students were not properly supervised and the activity centre had not provided adequately trained staff. The managing director was prosecuted and convicted of manslaughter. In 2000, two pupils died whilst river walking with a school party in Stainforth Beck, Yorkshire. A case against Leeds City Council was brought by the Health and Safety Executive. The Council was found guilty of failing to ensure the safety of the pupils and fined. In 2002, a teacher was jailed for manslaughter following an accident near Glenridding, Cumbria, when a 10-year-old boy was swept away and drowned in a flooded river. The teacher involved was a member of the NASUWT, who, for the past four years, have advised their members against accompanying school trips due to the danger of litigation if something goes wrong. Many of those who contacted us described these accidents as tragic but isolated incidents. They reported that the adverse publicity generated in these cases has seriously deterred schools from organising off-site visits and has led to a decline in education outside the classroom.

5. School trips have been the focus for much media attention, but our inquiry was not confined to off-site visits. We wished to consider education outside the classroom in its fullest sense. Outdoor learning takes place in many different settings within walking distance of the school, such as neighbourhood parks and green spaces, local buildings and community resources as well as within the school grounds themselves. A lack of access to these spaces is as important in the provision of outdoor learning as the decline of school trips.

6. We also recognise the cross-curricular nature of out-of-classroom learning. Outdoor education contributes to learning in a range of areas, including:

  • science and geography fieldwork;
  • physical education;
  • learning through outdoor play, particularly in the early years;
  • history and citizenship, through visits to museums and heritage sites;
  • art and design, through visits to galleries and experiences of the built environment;[1]
  • environmental and countryside education, and education for sustainable development;
  • practical or vocational skills that cannot be practised in a classroom environment;
  • group activities that build self-confidence and social skills; these may include adventurous activities that teach students how to deal with an element of risk;
  • the use of the environment as a tool to enrich the curriculum across subject areas.

The value of outdoor learning

7. The conclusions of this report stem from our belief in the value of outdoor learning. Evidence taken by the Committee strongly indicated that education outside the classroom is of significant benefit to pupils. Academic fieldwork clearly enhances the teaching of science and geography, but other subjects such as history, art and design and citizenship can also be brought to life by high quality educational visits. Group activities, which may include adventurous expeditions, can develop social skills and give self-confidence. Furthermore, outdoor education has a key role to play in the social inclusion agenda, offering children who may not otherwise have the opportunity the simple chance to experience the countryside, or other parts of our heritage that many others take for granted.

8. In some cases, the value of outdoor education and the skills students develop outside the classroom is very directly linked to the employment market. For example, The Institute of Ecology and Environmental Management (IEEM) has identified biological recording, survey and monitoring as a growing area that depends greatly on specialist skills being taught in schools, colleges and universities.[2] This link is also in evidence in the bioscience and ecological sectors and the growing environmental protection sector as well as in the numerous other areas of the labour market which require training involving direct contact with the natural world or vocational preparation which cannot be delivered in classrooms.

9. The broad extent of this inquiry has convinced the Committee that outdoor learning can benefit pupils of all ages and can be successful in a variety of settings. We are convinced that out-of-classroom education enriches the curriculum and can improve educational attainment. Whilst recognising this cross-curricular scope, we conclude that in order to realise its full potential, outdoor education must be carried out properly, with sessions being prepared by well trained teachers and leaders and in accordance with good curriculum guidance as well as health and safety regulations.

10. Our view of the value of education outside the classroom is supported by research evidence. Ofsted's recent report, Outdoor education: aspects of good practice, finds that "outdoor education gives depth to the curriculum and makes an important contribution to students' physical, personal and social education".[3] The recent Review of Research on Outdoor Learning,[4] published by the National Foundation for Educational Research (NFER) and King's College London, found that:

"Those with a statutory and non-statutory responsibility for policy relating to outdoor education should be in no doubt that there is a considerable body of empirical research evidence to support and inform their work […] Policy makers at all levels need to be aware of the benefits that are associated with different types of outdoor learning. The findings of this review make clear that learners of all ages can benefit from effective outdoor education. However, despite such positive research evidence and the long tradition of outdoor learning in this country, there is growing evidence that opportunities for outdoor learning are in decline and under threat." [5]

Dr. Peter Higgins of the Outdoor and Environmental Education Section, University of Edinburgh, agreed with these conclusions:

"The weight of evidence from MSc and PhD theses, projects supported by small research grants and Government commissioned studies does generally show benefits in out-of-classroom experiences. Perhaps more importantly this evidence points to a latent and undeveloped potential in relation to both curricular studies and lifelong learning."[6]

11. Many countries, both in Europe and elsewhere, achieve a significantly higher level of outdoor learning in their schools than the UK. Dr Higgins' evidence, quoted above, goes on to cite Australia, Norway and Canada as examples of good practice and notes that:

"in many cases the countries we are familiar with developed their national approach to outdoor learning after detailed consideration of the approach taken in the UK in the 1960s and 1970s. In particular the carefully constructed and wide-scale provision in the Lothian Region of Scotland was widely regarded as the ideal model. Several decades of erosion have left such provision in a poor state, not dissimilar to the rest of the UK, whilst several of those countries which adapted the model to suit their own situation now have extensive curricular provision."

Recent Committee visits to Denmark, Finland and Norway have convinced us that there is much to learn from the provision of outdoor education in these countries. We were particularly impressed by the Danish 'Forest Schools' initiative, which uses the environment as a tool to enrich the curriculum, whist enabling students to experience a carefully monitored element of risk and to become more familiar with the natural world.

12. There are, however, a number of gaps in the research that could usefully be filled by further studies. Most of the data collated by NFER was published abroad and the report notes that "there is a particular need for more UK-based research into a number of aspects of outdoor learning".[7] It also observes that there is relatively little research on the comparative educational benefits of different approaches to education outside the classroom and warns that this is particularly important as "poor fieldwork is likely to lead to poor learning. Students quickly forget irrelevant information that has been inadequately presented."[8]

13. The Department for Education and Skills told us that it is currently undertaking research into outdoor education.[9] We look forward to seeing the results of this study and hope that the data will go some way towards filling the gaps in current research. Like all educational processes, the benefits of education outside the classroom should be rigorously researched, documented and communicated. Positive and reliable evidence of the benefits of outdoor activities would help schools determine the priority to afford to such work.

The decline of education outside the classroom

14. The recent Ofsted report on Outdoor Education, which concludes that education outside the classroom can be of significant benefit to students, notes that many students do not have access to this form of learning: "Outdoor education gives depth to the curriculum and makes an important contribution to students' physical, personal and social education. However, not all students in schools benefit from such opportunities".

15. There has been a general decline in opportunities for education outside the classroom. This decline seems to be affecting all types of outdoor experience. The Committee has received evidence from professional bodies, including the Royal Society and the Field Studies Council, on the diminishing opportunities for fieldwork. It has also heard from organisations such as Learning Through Landscapes, Play Wales and the Children's Play Council that children's day-to-day access to the outdoors is being increasingly restricted.[10] In the past ten years, twenty local authority outdoor education centres have closed. Nonetheless, the DfES asserted that: "most LEAs tell us outdoor activity in their schools is stable or increasing".[11]

16. Perhaps more worryingly still, the Committee has received some evidence to show that education outside the classroom is declining not only in quantity, but also in quality. In oral evidence, Dr Steve Tilling of the Field Studies Council described "a much closer, much more prescribed content than certainly was the situation ten years ago […] driven by skills and techniques and things which are easily measurable, or measurable in a predictable and, some would say, sanitised way".[12] Dr Anthony Thomas of the Real World Learning Campaign added that in some schools "it is not particularly well planned […] it is seen as maybe a prize at the end of the year".[13]

17. Despite these generally discouraging trends, the Committee has also heard of much good practice. High quality outdoor education centres run both by LEAs and private or charitable operators have told us that they are regularly oversubscribed and have to turn schools away.[14] Museums and galleries cannot accommodate all those who wish to visit.[15] Many schools are committed to outdoor learning as an integral part of their students' education and put in place what Dr Rita Gardner of the Royal Geographical Society described as:

"a programme of development that is an educational development over a period of years, […] embedded in the culture of the school and the curriculum, a passionate teacher and a really committed head who sees and understands the values, and can convince their governors too, of the values of out-of-classroom learning".[16]

18. This evidence paints a picture of extremely patchy provision. Individual good practice in many schools and local authority areas is set against a more negative national situation. It is clear to the Committee that outdoor education is a sector suffering from considerable unexploited potential. In the remainder of this report, we will explore the barriers that prevent schools from developing opportunities for their pupils to benefit from education outside the classroom and make recommendations for action to spread existing good practice amongst all schools.

1   See particularly evidence from CABE, Ev 157. Back

2   Ev 192 Back

3   Outdoor education: aspects of good practice, Ofsted, September 2004, page 2. Back

4   A Review of Research on Outdoor Learning, Mark Rickinson, Justin Dillon, Kelly Teamey, Marian Morris, Mee Young Choi, Dawn Sanders and Pauline Benefield, (April 2004). The review synthesised the findings of 150 pieces of research on fieldwork/visits, outdoor adventure, and school grounds/community projects, published internationally in English between 1993 and 2003. It was funded by the Field Studies Council, DfES, English Outdoor Council, Groundwork, RSPB, and Wildfowl and Wetlands Trust. Back

5   ibid, p 5. Back

6   Ev 112, para 1.5. Back

7   A Review of Research on Outdoor Learning, p 5. Back

8   ibid, p 2. Back

9   Ev 59 Back

10   Ev 131, 162, 165. Back

11   Ev 61, Annex A. Back

12   Q 4 Back

13   Q 4 Back

14   Ev 106, 168, 187. Back

15   Ev 125, 187. Back

16   Q 6 Back

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