Opinion: The death of affordable Outdoor Education?

The BBC has reported that 95% of all local council-funded outdoor education centres have had their entire funding cut. A third of all the council-funded out door centres now feel their future is uncertain. 12 outdoor education centres are set to shut, in addition to all those that have already closed over the years.

I can not think of another national, educational service that has suffered a 95% cut in the latest rounds of budgets and been expected to survive.

The Liberal Democrats should be championing outdoor education.

Affordable high quality outdoor education which is available to children on low incomes, those who, by the way, not only need it most but also benefit the greatest from the experience, is in danger of being confined to the past. Far from closing outdoor education centres, the government should have outdoor learning as an important element in every child’s educational experience.

High quality outdoor education has the power to transform lives. How many of us had the opportunity to attend an outdoor education centre? How many of us were introduced to the wonder of the great outdoors for the first time in this way? Are we to be the last generation to be afforded this privilege?

Outdoor Education works. There is plenty of research to show the power that it has to improve individual educational attainment and to build confidence. Indeed, the research shows that the groups that present the most difficult challenges in terms of raising national attainment benefit most from this type of provision.

When I was in school, I was given the opportunity to go to an outdoor education centre in Wales. This was at a time when I had failed most of my GCSEs. The words of the teacher at that centre still ring in my head, “if you put as much work in to school as you do walking up mountains you will go far”. I ended up getting a Masters degree and I am now chair of Widehorizons Outdoor Education Trust and, in a weird twist of fate, I am responsible for the very centre that had such a personal impact on me all those years ago.

Outdoor education is a challenging service to provide. It is a soft underbelly that is too easily cut. Scrutiny reports all too often recommend centre closures as the challenge of restructuring, increasing occupancy and finding funding to repair buildings appears impossible.

The challenges can be overcome. Another way is possible and this is an appeal to all our ministers and MPs to rise up to the challenge and to fight in response to this crisis that the BBC has so starkly revealed and to make a commitment to preserving the wonder and unique transformational educational experiences that outdoor education provides.

If ever there was a task and an opportunity for the big society then this is it.

Widehorizons Outdoor Education Trust was born out of the commitment of both Lewisham and Greenwich Councils to preserving the borough’s outdoor education provision. The Trust was established and the physical assets of the buildings were transferred to the Trust to manage on condition that an affordable outdoor education was maintained. The Trust was free to seek funding and raise much needed investment in the dilapidated infrastructure.

As far as I am aware, this is the only model of its kind in the country, sitting between the council run and funded provision on the one hand and private profit making companies who charge a premium for the service, on the other.

The existence of the trust and its success shows that there is another way. This is one area where the third sector may be able to do a better job, in some cases, but establishing trusts takes a lot of hard work and time. A national plan and review of outdoor education provision is urgently needed.

These services must be subsidised to some degree to survive. The Liberal Democrats need to state their public commitment to affordable national high quality outdoor education provision and to work urgently to review the cuts that have already been made and to seek new and imaginative ways that this provision can be maintained and improved for future generations.

John Russell is a former Lewisham Councillor and is Chair of the Board of Directors of Widehorizons Outdoor Education Trust.

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  • I think a cheaper liberal solution is for people to volunteer like I do to help run Guides or Scouts. I’m teaching 20 girls to build shelters and fires this month and taking a similar number to camp for 3 days in the summer. I think it’s going to be hard to beat the Guides and Scouts for value for money for low income families.

  • John Russell 13th Jun '11 - 11:26pm


    I think it is great that you are working with the Guides and the Scouts. They do very good work. Encouraging more volunteers is important.

    However, I do not think we should close our centres forever. It is the preservation of these assets of these beautiful remote buildings, which is in immediate crisis.

    Once these buildings are sold they are gone forever.

    What the BBC has revealed, the scale of the cuts, I suspect, was unintended and unexpected by central government.

    Outdoor education delivered on a permanent basis from a warm dry building, with fully qualified, full time teachers is essential. Centres should be made affordable to all.

    We need both kinds of provision.

    This is a non political issue for me.

    The coalition government must urgently review the future of our outdoor education centres and the impact of the 95% cuts imposed.

  • Maria M, scouts and guides are, unfortunately, a movement of the middle classes. Access for low income families is restricted and state subsidies are catastrophically declining. Not only that, membership of both requires religious belief in its staff. Hardly liberal.

  • g is wrong about Scouting and Guiding being only for the middle classes, there are no such restrictions in membership criterea, nor of the attitudes. It is the perceptions of Scouting and Guidng in the minds of the working and non-working classes.

    At least you didn’t repeat the lie about it being solely for Christians!

    As for the staff needing to be religious- this is deeply inaccurate. However I won’t go into this as there is a grain of truth to what you said, even if you did not express your point fairly.

    But this is a red herring. I was worried about this aspect of the big society from the start. I am glad at the empowerment of the voluntary sector, the encouragement for us all to be good citizens and do stuff for our communities and the attempts to plug gaps with volunteers. What I was concerned about was that the gaps the voluntary sector would be expected to fill would not be pre-existing gaps, but places where the public sector had stepped aside to let them in. There’s plenty for a big society to do without the public sector slacking off!

  • Keith Browning 14th Jun '11 - 11:54am

    In the 1970s and 80s I took several groups of ‘school averse’ children on adventure/outdoor hoildays in UK and abroad. They were usually part of mixed ability groups and we always had concerns before departure about taking the more disruptive element. One school in particular had a ROSLA group (leaving age raised 15 to 16) who were a nightmare in the classroom.

    However, without exception all these difficult kids became transformed when outside in the fresh air and challenged with something physical. Attitude and general behaviour improved beyond recognition and it was often the normal high achievers who struggled to cope with their new environment.

    These were all school based groups that were open to all and there were schemes to help the low income families.

    Times have changed because the ‘health and safety’ people have taken away much of the thrill and enjoyment and now the finance departments are taking the opportunity away all together.

    Its a shame because the outdoor activity genre has been an area where British education has previously excelled – but no more.

  • @g by “staff” I expect you mean volunteers. It’s because each association has more than 50,000 volunteers that we can offer affordable opportunities. In past recessions membership numbers have risen because it is one of the affordable activities – join us for £15 a term compared with Stagecoach or swimming at £100+ per term. I’ve run units in inner city London where half the girls have had social workers and it’s extremely tough but also rewarding teaching young people skills they’ll need for life – cooking, budgeting, appreciating the out doors.I think the girls appreciated that I spent time with them because I wanted to, not just because I was paid to do so.

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