Adventure, self-development, ponds, parks and seashores. The scope of activity centres has blossomed to take in virtually any pastime that can be undertaken out of doors. But major changes in the way local authority outdoor activity centres are owned and run have been accompanied by fears for their long-term survival.
An unpublished national survey carried out last year by the Countryside Commission, in association with the Field Studies Council (FSC), provides the first comprehensive picture of what has been happening to outdoor education centres since local management of schools and the national curriculum forced a rethink in ways they are funded and operated.
The good news is that more schools are using activity centres. The bad news is that this is for shorter periods and accompanied by a worrying decline in use by inner city schools, which are even failing to take up offers of additional financial support. A quarter of primary children have no residential experience. The main reason given for schools not using centres is one of cost (including staff cover) and timetabling pressures. And while the national curriculum determines what centres offer, most of them seem to concentrate their courses on 7 to 14-year-olds at the expense of younger and older pupils.
According to the survey, 20 out of 260 local authority centres have closed since 1988, which is a loss of some 8 per cent. It also records a startling 23 per cent drop in all types of centres since 1979. This includes national parks, public utilities, youth hostels and private and commercial interests. What the survey doesn't show, however, is the number of new centres which were set up in this period, so current figures ranging from 2,000 to 3,000 are estimates.
Chas Matthews, warden of the Ripple Down environmental education centre in Kent, is a passionate believer in the value of residential experiences for young children, giving them, among other things, greater confidence and learning by doing. For many young inner-city children this could be a few days in the country learning about pond life, playing in the woods, or just scrabbling along the seashore. "Kids want to be mucky," he says. "They don't want sophistication. They want space to explore in safety."
Ripple Down is an independent residential centre, based in a secluded l9th-century manor house with Victorian artefacts and costumes room, in over three acres of grounds, which include a well-stocked pond, woods and adventure playground, with access to local farms and historic sites. It has the added attraction of its nearby shoreline and the white cliffs of Dover. Once run by the Inner London Education Authority and, after abolition, by Southwark, it tries to give local children a rural learning experience in a residential setting. When the London borough pulled out in 1991, Matthews did a deal with the property's owners and relaunched the centre as a charitable trust.
So far this year, some 1,100 children have visited the centre, taking part in activities that range across core primary school subjects. Schools can also use the grounds to teach outdoor survival skills, such as locating fresh water and edible food; building shelters; learning to light and maintain a fire, and navigate using a map and compass.
Fees are Pounds 20 a pupil per 24-hour stay plus a one-off price of Pounds 100 to Pounds 150 to buy in additional teaching expertise. This is seen as very competitive. The Commission's survey found an average fee of Pounds 50 per pupil, but a wide range between Pounds 5 and Pounds 150, depending on the type of course. Ripple Down's income falls short of the Pounds 120,000 running costs by Pounds 30,000. Some of that is made up from donations by local companies and Matthews running projects in nearby schools.
Ripple Down's story is typical of many of the independent field study centres struggling to survive by providing the courses demanded by schools or those which most benefit an urban child.
One local authority which has continued its commitment to outdoor centres is Dorset. It has six centres which offer a cross-section of activities such as canoeing, sailing, rock climbing, and environmental education, and which are now run as part of the local authority's professional development services but with a requirement to boost commercial activities.
In Dorset, every school is allocated a specific amount of time free of charge to use at the centres. This entitlement is based on the type of school and the number of pupils on the school roll. The local authority deducts funding at source, buying 70 per cent of the centres' time. The rest of the time must be used to generate additional income through evening and weekend courses.
Tricia Zimmerman, manager of the Hengistbury Head outdoor education and field studies centre in Bournemouth, says the national curriculum has helped by emphasising environmental studies across a range of subjects. It helps too being a coastal nature reserve, a site of special scientific interest (SSSI), and an area covered in iron-age earthworks. "Heads want courses with good curriculum value. You can't look at erosion or geology in the classroom. Children can come out here and watch erosion going on."
Dorset has three curriculum teams for land, water and environmental activities. They look at and assess what schools want and develop the most appropriate courses across the six centres. To extend the reach of the expertise available through the centres, staff go into schools to help them develop their own grounds and facilities for teaching purposes.
Now all outdoor centres face the stringent requirements of the Activity Centres (Young Persons' Safety) Act 1995 which became law at the end of June. This is setting up a new licensing authority to govern outdoor centres and regulations for all activities which could entail a risk of death, which are vulnerable to changes in weather or natural environment, or where the competence of instructors is crucial. This aims to plug the safety gap that allowed the Lyme Regis canoeing tragedy to happen, and to weed out "cowboy" centres or freelance operators, as well as tightening up the rest.
The regulations (due out for consultation later this month) will cover centres offering "adventure activities" such as rock climbing, mountaineering, canoeing, and sailing, but exempt centres like Ripple Down which offer only the "soft" activities of environmental education, such as pond-dipping. Some centres, of course, offer both.
Terminology may determine whether a licence is required. For example, the National Association of Field Studies officers (NAFSo) suggests that orienteering (competitive, risky) could be called map reading or compass skills (harmless). The NAFSo and FSC are to meet this month to discuss a voluntary accreditation scheme. The fear is that schools will be put off any centres which remain unlicensed.
Ripple Down Environment Education Centre, Dover Road, Ringwould, Kent CT14 8HE. Tel: O13O4 364854 Hengistbury Head Centre, Broadway, Southbourne, Bournemouth BH6 4EN. Tel: O12O2 425173 Countryside Commission, John Dower House, Crescent Place, Cheltenham GL5O 3RA. Tel: O1242 521381 Field Studies Council, Preston Montford, Montford Bridge, Shrewsbury SY4 lHW. Tel: O1743 85O674
How to make the most of outdoor education centres.
* Match your subject needs to courses offered by outdoor centres * Try and build a range of outdoor activities into your lessons * Don't overlook the wider learning opportunities offered by centres * Develop your own school grounds as environmental learning areas * Get relevant in-service training * Make sure all pupils have the opportunity to learn out of doors at some stage