How outdoor education drives up attainment

20th May 2016 at 00:00

Can the many and exciting challenges presented by outdoor residential learning really bring significant benefits for disadvantaged children, and help them to become more focused on their studies when they return to school?

In our experience, they certainly can. Without a doubt, outdoor residential learning can play a key role in supporting the target of the Scottish government’s Attainment Challenge to improve young people’s health and wellbeing. What’s more, it has proven to increase pupils’ efforts once they are back in the classroom.

But to ensure disadvantaged young people can make the most of opportunities to increase attainment there is, first of all, a need to engage and re-engage them with learning.

St Margaret Mary’s Secondary in Castlemilk, Glasgow, is one school where engagement has led to attainment. According to headteacher Brian Brady, many of his pupils have great potential but low aspirations and often fail to engage with learning. His solution is to motivate the students by bonding individual S2s into school teams before they select their subject choices.

This takes place during a week-long programme with the Outward Bound Trust. As Mr Brady says: “Through developing team-working skills, we encourage our pupils to support each other so they raise their aspiration and develop communication skills and resilience.

“It also instils into our pupils a thirst for higher academic achievement, with many returning pupils opting to select more challenging choices for study as a result.”

A focus on health and wellbeing is a well-established conduit to pupil attainment at St Machar Academy in Aberdeen. Acting headteacher Jim Purdie explains: “The nature of our school catchment area means that many pupils are directly affected by social issues that impact on their self-esteem, confidence, resilience and mental health.”

Every year the school takes its S2s on a week-long experiential outdoor-learning course. With a healthy balance of support and challenge, the course helps pupils recognise and hone their inherent skills and qualities.

One withdrawn and disengaged pupil, after attending a course in S2, went on to become head boy. When asked during his interview why he seemed so different and why he was applying, he explained that his outdoor residential course had given him the belief to achieve more.

Post-course research collated by the trust from February 2014 to February 2015 revealed that 82 per cent of teachers observed an increase in both pupils’ educational aspirations and their level of interest in school work; 80 per cent reported an increase in the effort that pupils put into their studies.

I believe that outdoor experiential learning has a crucial role to play in shifting a pupil from disengagement to engagement – only when that happens can we expect any significant elevation in attainment across Scotland.

Martin Davidson is Scottish director for The Outward Bound Trust

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