Important curriculum-related fieldwork trips seem to be losing out to short leisure trips, to the dismay of many advocates of outdoor education.
Phil Revell discusses the Government's latest manifesto
Expectations are high for the Government's "Education outside the classroom" manifesto, which ministers have promised will be published this spring.
Last year, the parliamentary select committee on education published a critical report on outdoor education, arguing that a bureaucratic and risk averse culture was getting in the way of "enormously valuable" out of classroom learning.
Many of the observers who gave evidence to the MPs believed that school trips and visits were in severe decline. The reality is unclear because no one collects statistics about school visits. Available evidence suggests that the overall number of school visits is not in decline, but curriculum-related visits, especially geography and biology fieldwork, appear to be losing out to shorter trips to leisure parks such as Alton Towers.
"If we are serious about engaging young people in a range of agendas - obesity, health, drugs - then we need to encourage more young people to take up an active lifestyle," said Kevin Jackson, head of the Woodlands outdoor education centre in Wales and chair of AHOEC, the association of outdoor education centres. "If the Government is prepared to do something it will really be a positive move, but it's unlikely to throw a lot of money at it."
The manifesto will be modelled on the existing music manifesto, setting out a vision for an outdoor education programme that schools, local authorities and youth groups will be encouraged to follow. There will be no requirement to follow the manifesto and no list of activities that pupils have to take part in. But ministers want young people to have at least one residential experience in their school career.
The manifesto will give examples of the things that schools might offer, including on-site activities such as creating a school garden, and off-site residential visits such as sports tours, language exchanges and fieldwork.
Outdoor providers have high hopes for the manifesto, but there are worries.
"Our fear is that this will be only an aspiration; the Government does recognise that there is a need to address the problem of the children who don't get to participate at the moment. There must be a way to fund this for all children," said Randall Williams, head of the Bowles outdoor education centre in Kent, who has been involved with much of the manifesto consultation process.
At the Field Studies Council, chief executive Tony Thomas wants the manifesto to set out some idea of progression, so that children have a range of opportunities through their school career. "The problem in many schools is that no one has an overview of what is going on," he said, and identified lack of confidence among teachers as one of the hurdles to be overcome.
FSC research shows that around a third of teachers did not participate in any kind of out of classroom experience while they were at school. A further third had some out of school time, while the remainder had a variety of experiences. Many school trips and visits are led by a minority of staff. In some schools, a flourishing programme of outdoor education can collapse if a single member of staff leaves the school.
Many of those who contributed to the Department for Education and Skills's consultation wanted to see some kind of lottery funding for out of classroom learning. This could follow the example of the "Do it 4 Real"
project, a government programme of residential experiences for teenagers that is co-ordinated by the Youth Hostelling Association.
"Do it 4 Real" activity holidays cost pound;100, with some families paying only pound;25. The six-night camps are now in their second year, supported by lottery funding.