Curriculum - A field of dreams or out in the cold?

Outdoor learning broadens horizons and boosts student-staff relationships. It has even helped a mute girl to speak. So why aren't more teachers heading for the hills? Henry Hepburn investigates

Henry Hepburn

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At first, a report from the Scottish Outdoor Education Centres seems just another dry document gathering dust on the Scottish Parliament's website. But this particular paper includes a moment straight out of a Hollywood feel-good hit. A P6 girl, described as a "self-elective mute" at school, had literally found a voice. After months of unbroken silence, she was heard singing in the shower. There, in a transcendent few words, was proof of the power of outdoor learning.

Outdoor learning has become fashionable in recent years - a sign of a school's progressive credentials and commitment to Curriculum for Excellence. Increasing numbers of teachers are finding ways to get outside, while residential trips are seen less as treats and more as ways of unlocking confidence and talent. There has been growing fascination, too, with Scandinavia's "forest schools" and other international examples of al fresco learning.

But evidence submitted to Parliament last month suggests that progress is fragile. Outdoor education across Scotland is patchy in the extreme and often reliant on lone enthusiasts, the Education and Culture Committee heard. And, as budgets shrink, the interest of education bosses and school leaders seems to wane. Outdoor learning remains the cherry on top rather than an essential ingredient.

"Despite political support, the absence of a coherent understanding of the nature of outdoor learning and its benefits by education authorities and teachers continues to limit quality . of young people's outdoor learning," said Peter Higgins, professor of outdoor and environmental education at the University of Edinburgh.

Undeterred, Professor Higgins and other outdoor learning experts wasted no time in summarising the benefits for the committee. The Scottish Outdoor Education Centres told of three P6 students from the same class who went on a five-day residential trip. One was the aforementioned mute girl. The other two were boys with eating disorders, one of whom had been seeing dietitians for six years with no improvement.

Sustained outdoor learning could "trigger changes in behaviour away from those that impeded social development", the centre said. As the mute student started singing in the shower and talking to staff, the other two students were suddenly willing to try an array of foods.

Outdoor learning, of course, is about more than occasional trips away. Even urban schools can find ingenious ways of extending the classroom for all subjects by taking only a few steps beyond the school gates. Professor Higgins asked the committee: "Can you imagine a teacher taking kids out and counting the number of blades of grass on a soccer field using mathematics and statistical sampling? That kind of thing happens."

A 2012 research review led by the University of Edinburgh's Dr Beth Christie shows "modest support" for claims that outdoor learning can boost attainment in maths, English, reading, science and social studies. But the evidence is stronger for outdoor learning's claims that it can bring together seemingly disparate parts of the curriculum in a profound way. As Professor Higgins told the committee: "It benefits that big thing that is so difficult to (achieve) but which we all like in education - interdisciplinarity."

Breath of fresh air

Outdoor learning is arguably in a stronger position than ever in Scotland. The General Teaching Council for Scotland's revised professional standards meant that "schools and teachers have no choice but to educate kids outdoors," Professor Higgins told TESS. In-service training involving Education Scotland was "going very well", he added, while there was "much more" outdoor learning in the early years of secondary than in the past, and schools felt less constricted by health and safety concerns than they did even five years ago.

The rise of outdoor learning is inextricably linked to the more open-ended educational approaches espoused by CfE. Nigel Marshall - principal of Arran Outdoor Education Centre but representing the Scottish Advisory Panel for Outdoor Education - told the committee that CfE was "the greatest thing that ever happened to the outdoors".

But Martin Davidson, the Outward Bound Trust's Scottish director, said that despite CfE, "There is still some way to go to see regular progressive outdoor learning experiences as part of a young person's secondary education." One of the main hurdles was "an ongoing concern of schools and headteachers that what they will be held to account for is exam results", he said.

Outdoor learning is also moving centre stage at a policy level. The Scottish government accepted the recommendations of the Learning for Sustainability report in March last year, which spelled out the need for outdoor learning in schools (see panel, page 18). An implementation group is expected to meet for the first time next month. And in Kilmarnock on 1 March, Education Scotland will host the first national conference to advance outdoor learning in the early years of secondary school.

But outdoor learning in schools was still often "ad hoc" and no more than "one-off ideas", said Dave Spence, chief executive of the Scottish Outdoor Education Centres. "We are seeking progression and interconnection to enable young people to have different types of outdoor learning regularly and frequently," he told the committee. "That is the goal but it has been elusive."

Professor Higgins said that local authorities had not applied policy guidance consistently, and that "more coherent and consistent policy" was needed from the Scottish government and Education Scotland.

He also wanted to see many more teachers with specialist outdoor learning qualifications. Even Christine Anderson, depute headteacher at Beeslack Community High School in Midlothian, which has won praise for promoting outdoor learning through the John Muir Award, told the committee: "The programme is still driven to a large extent by people who are enthusiastic about outdoor learning, and there is still work to be done with other teaching staff who are perhaps not quite as passionate about it."

Professor Higgins said he was involved in helping teachers to become accredited in outdoor education, but "very few people go through the process - perhaps just one or two per annum".

Although many teachers did have qualifications in specific outdoor activities, he added, these were not broad in outlook. "It is the equivalent of a physical education teacher having a netball qualification, a cricket qualification or a rugby qualification," Professor Higgins said. "The activities are not about the core issue of how we train people to work in the outdoors with young people."

Shrinking opportunity

There were even fears that outdoor learning was on the retreat because of budgetary pressures, the committee heard. "The opportunities that existed for children in the past are definitely shrinking. There were 12 local authority-owned outdoor centres in Strathclyde and there are now two, which is significant," Mr Marshall said.

Some centres were being used as "cash cows" and had been told to reduce their availability to schools, he added, "so that they can bring in money from outside agencies to offset the costs of running the local authority".

Fiona Cruickshanks, Education Scotland's development officer for outdoor learning, had a more upbeat outlook. She could reel off numerous examples of inspirational and sustained outdoor learning, such as an Advanced Higher English class that ventured into the great outdoors to connect with the pastoral imagery in Sylvia Plath's poem Wuthering Heights. That happened through the Queensberry Initiative in Dumfries and Galloway, a community charity project linking Wallace Hall Academy and surrounding primary schools with farms, colleges, universities and a local country estate that offers a huge range of outdoor activities.

"There's evidence that quite often when pupils are doing outdoor activities, relationships build up with staff," she said. "The dynamic can shift - and have a benefit on learning back in the classroom."

Dr Christie's research shows that the benefits of outdoor learning could include considerably stronger student-teacher relationships. As one teacher put it in feedback to the Scottish Outdoor Education Centres after a "fantastic" residential trip, "In five days, I have developed a rapport with the pupils that would have taken me three months in school."

But the gains of outdoor learning are not easily quantified or predicted. Dr Christie writes that, with outdoor learning, teachers "must maintain an appreciation for the unexpected and unintended connections that individual learners can draw".

Ultimately, the success of outdoor learning in Scotland's schools depends on the same questions being asked of CfE more generally: will a leap of faith be taken? Or, when it comes to the crunch, is success still to be measured by how well students cram for exams in the confines of the classroom? The answer is blowing in the wind.


Last March, the Scottish government accepted all 31 recommendations of the Learning for Sustainability report prepared by the One Planet Schools Working Group, including:

"Outdoor learning should be a regular, progressive curriculum-led experience for all learners."

"Learners should have active curricular learning experiences that develop their understanding of the inter-relationship of environment, society, economy and inequity, of the ecological limits to development and the interdependence of ecological and human well-being."

"Every learner should have the opportunity for contact with nature in their school grounds on a daily basis and throughout the seasons through the provision of thoughtfully developed green space for outdoor learning and play."

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Henry Hepburn

Henry Hepburn

Henry Hepburn is the news editor for Tes Scotland

Find me on Twitter @Henry_Hepburn

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