Blue-sky thinking

4th May 2007 at 01:00
By making outdoor learning part of the curriculum now, all teachers could encourage young people to take an active part in their own future, say experts

THE REFORM of the curriculum should provide "a gilt-edged opportunity for outdoor learning", according to the man leading the drive to revitalise it.

But a report published on Monday reveals that the message still has to catch on with education authorities, which have presided over a decline in financial support for outdoor learning over the past 20 years.

In a stirring address to the first Scottish Outdoor Learning Festival run by Learning and Teaching Scotland and Scottish Natural Heritage, at Ingliston, David Cameron, chairman of the Outdoor Connections Advisory Group, urged delegates not to wait for guidance on the new curriculum, but to take an active part in creating it - in the same way the curriculum would encourage young people to take an active part in their own future.

He said outdoor education had to be part of a "rich and varied" package for young people, which would not be possible if they were restricted to sedentary learning. It also offered valuable opportunities to fulfil the four capacities in A Curriculum for Excellence, by increasing the self-confidence of young people and helping them become more articulate.

Experi-ence in the outdoors was learning in context, he said, and could engage youngsters in a way that worksheet-based lessons could not.

Mr Cameron, the director of children's services in Stirling Council, welcomed support for outdoor learning from Graham Donaldson, the senior chief inspector of education, who also spoke at the event.

Mr Donaldson revealed that outdoor learning would be the subject of a review by the inspectorate next year. He warned against schools making the experience discretionary, which would exclude some young people from the benefits. Outdoor education should not be dependent on the enthusiasm of individual teachers.

He acknowledged that outdoor learning had retrenched in recent years, rather than grown, but felt that was about to change. "We are at the point where we have to ask some difficult questions, such as 'is the education system sufficiently placed to face the changes young people will face in the future?' I don't think there is an area of the curriculum which would not benefit from the outdoor classroom."

The research report, Taking Learning Outdoors, was published to coincide with the conference. It noted that, while there was strong government support for the role of outdoor education, financial support had declined and stood at an average of just 0.2 per cent of local education authority budgets (excluding salaries, supply cover and parental contributions).

Sec-ondary pupils often got no outdoor learning at all.

There had to be a planned national policy, the researchers from Edinburgh and Stirling universities recommended. Other-wise, the provision was vulnerable. Learning out of the classroom amounts to around 300,000 pupil days per year, according to a 2002 estimate. "Parents and guardians now contribute significantly to the cost of outdoor education, particularly for excursions and residential courses," the report stated.

According to the report, risk was found to be more of a deterrent for schools and local authorities than specialist providers, who were considered risk management experts. The report said this indicated the perception of risk as a barrier to provision and one not solely attributable to media treatment of outdoor incidents.

Mr Cameron agreed it was important "to address risk and to manage it, but not run away from it". Young people could not grow in confidence or develop the other qualities in A Curriculum for Excellence if they were not exposed to risk, he declared.

Another barrier was the reduction in suitable space, despite school grounds being significant locations. Yet young people valued experiences that engaged them and left them feeling uninhibited, said the researchers.

Mr Donaldson underlined this conclusion that the experience of outdoor learning "engages the senses and matters in its own right".

However, the report stressed it was important that such learning actively related to the environment. "Simply 'being outdoors' is not sufficient for young people to express an ethic of care for nature or develop an understanding of natural processes," it stated. "These things seem to be learned when they are in an explicit aim of experiential activities and when they are mediated in appropriate ways."

The report said further research on a subject-by-subject basis would help clarify how outdoor learning could bring benefits across the curriculum.


"You can't sit in a classroom and be taught how to save the planet or whatever - you have to get out there and learn what needs to be done and how to do it" - secondary girl.

"My daughter has more energy and is more inquisitive about her surroundings" - parent.

"It is more important that you see (teachers) more as people rather than just someone who is standing in front of you telling you how to add up, or whatever" - secondary girl.

"You learn differently outside" - primary boy.

"My child has become more independent, with a lot more confidence" - parent.

"The outdoors is becoming as well used by staff now as any other classroom.

For most of my staff, it's brought creativity back into teaching" - headteacher.

"You really won't feel that strongly about it unless you actually experience it" - secondary boy.

"My daughter is more aware of the environment, sleeps better on a Wednesday night and comes home from school enthusiastic" - parent.

"They are learning about the environment, in control of their own learning, making decisions, problem-solving, investigating, having to interact with others and to work together, to share - nursery head.

Source: Taking Learning Outdoors, published by Outdoor Connections, the Scottish Executive and Learning and Teaching Scotland

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