As the Executive turns to alternative approaches for young people in and out of school, Sarah Nelson looks at the role of outdoor education
Tagging under-16s, new powers to disperse youngsters, banning orders and youth court pilots have grabbed the headlines in the Government's drive against crime and "ned" behaviour. But could beleaguered outdoor education services find new roles in combating youth crime and disaffection?
Outdoor education has long been seen as especially valuable for troubled or troublesome young people. While macho traditions still exist, more thoughtful approaches to "learning through direct experience" value self-esteem, teamwork, engagement with school, problem-solving and achievement.
Yet supporters await firmer encouragement - despite significant injections of cash via the New Opportunities Fund (NOF) allocation to PE and sport for 2002-05 - pound;52 million to modernise indoor and outdoor facilities and pound;35 million for out-of-school projects. The latter includes an "active steps" programme to divert 5-16s from behaviour likely to lead to crime.
Outdoor education services, however, still reel from the cutbacks and closures of the 1990s, provision remains non-statutory and without subsidies charges have shot up.
There were once 45 outdoor education teachers in Lothian, but now Broughton High is rare in Edinburgh in retaining outdoor education staff. It is also the base for a new "Adventure Edinburgh" NOF co-ordinator for outdoor education, mainly working with socially excluded youngsters.
Broughton believes outdoor education plays an important role in engaging disaffected pupils and non-attenders. Mike Adamson, outdoor education teacher, is involved in the GoForth Partnership, which takes young people from across Scotland on adventure and problem-solving pursuits at Rannoch and Aberfoyle.
"How do you engage with children who are totally disaffected? I think you can achieve these things without outdoor education, but it's a vehicle some kids get a tremendous amount out of - ones on the edge of their communities, who are perceived as a waste of space by those communities and are sometimes involved with unsafe older people," Mr Adamson says.
"Outdoor education is one tool in the armoury, no more than that, which people use for many different reasons - and a way of getting people out of their social environment".
But Broughton, which includes areas of poverty in its catchment, is still unable to use outdoor centres in Benmore in Argyll and Lagganlia in Inverness-shire nearly as much as it once did, due to increased charges.
John Hall, manager of Scottish Borders Council's outdoor education service and recent chairman of the Scottish Advisory Panel for Outdoor Education, echoes Mr Adamson's caveat that it's not a "be-all and end-all" provision - nor is it only for children with problems. But it can be of great value as part of carefully planned work with troubled young people.
"I argue steadfastly that all children can benefit from these experiences.
Kids on a very academic timetable need it too, to get some sort of balance in their education."
Mr Hall hopes the NOF funding and the active steps allocation will be followed by more support. "I am wholeheartedly behind it. Part of it being ring-fenced was crucial."
While Borders also suffered severe cuts and lost four residential centres, it is proud of having kept an outdoor education staff who work with schools through individual negotiations with headteachers, and with units for children with various problems.
In Borders, the active steps initiative is known as Borders Challenge and is headed by Liam McPherson, who is jointly funded by the authority's education and lifelong care departments. This programme is just starting, with Borders emphasising its use of individual "mentoring" plans.
Involvement in sport and outdoor challenges, it is hoped, will not just improve self-esteem and behaviour but reduce isolation and exclusion in rural communities where too often young people are viewed as "troublemakers".
Mr Hall feels a wider problem is that many policy-makers still underestimate the skills involved in work with troubled young people. "You can't just head for the hills; it's very resource intensive and has to be very well thought through. There are no longer a lot of groups with those kinds of skills."
One such agency is the Magdalene youth strategy project which has worked for almost 10 years with some of Edinburgh's most troubled young people (see above). Despite striking successes, it has to rely on voluntary funding.
Richard Barron, deputy director of education in Glasgow, supports those who believe outdoor education should be for all, although he said the city would focus on the active steps programme for vulnerable youngsters. "All our feedback suggests that the personal and social benefits of outdoor activities are as powerful in benefiting young people as the actual skills learnt," Mr Barron says.
Meanwhile Robin Harper, leader of the Green Party at Holyrood and a former teacher, intends to keep pressing the Scottish Executive to develop an outdoor education strategy.
Mr Harper has lodged a parliamentary motion highlighting disparities in opportunities, the serious decline in the number of outdoor education teachers, the lack of a national teaching qualification and the absence of HMI responsibility for outdoor education.
An Executive spokesperson stressed the importance of allowing young people to discover more about themselves. "We would like to see outdoor education move forward and develop, and are considering how to achieve this."