Outdoor education at risk

23rd August 1996 at 01:00
A year ago much ink was spilt predicting which parts of the education service were most at risk from the reorganisation of local government and the looming cash crisis.

It is now evident that outdoor or residential centres would emerge as easy targets. Many were to find that none of the new councils cherished them in the way that, say, a specialist teaching unit (or even a music ensemble) would be protected. That is because when the regional former owner of a centre disappeared, the successor authorities would disagree about the future control and financing of a facility outwith their own area. Everyone accepts that the centres do good work, but when they are not sited in your backyard you do not feel local pride in maintaining them if cash is tight.

David Henderson's survey of the depressing picture across Scotland (page four) suggests that the balance between local authority and commercial activity may be radically altered. Clearly, it will be in the interests of pupils to continue to enjoy outdoor education and the social benefits of residential experience whoever provides them. But the enforced retreat by local authorities and the disruption that is causing to outdoor staff are regrettable.

The Government would not like to be reminded of the circumstances of 25 years ago when another Conservative administration was asking authorities to become more deeply involved in outdoor education. A circular advised that at least one period of residence at an outdoor centre should be included in every pupil's education.

There was even stipulation about the nature of provision for different age groups and the type of accommodation that should be available. For primary pupils most outdoor work should be on a day out of school because although residential experience was valuable, the organisation needed could be out of proportion to the gain. For the early years of secondary, however, centres should be able to accommodate between 60 and 80 pupils for two to three weeks. Specialist work by older pupils - academic, aesthetic or physical - would require centres with up to 40 places.

The Government stipulated the need for a permanent nucleus of teachers and instructors as well as domestic and maintenance staff. A quarter of a century ago the system was being ratched up, with Government encouragement. Local authorities now wrestling with cutbacks and closures would receive little sympathy from St Andrew's House if they pointed to the 1971 circular. But ministers who expect the boon of outdoor education to be provided by the commercial sector should remember that few families can afford commercial rates and that the local authorities' financial problems will preclude general subsidies.

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