We’re all, it seems, trying to do some outdoor learning. In Scotland, it’s even a key component of the Curriculum for Excellence national strategy. Gone are the days when it was seen as something the hippy schools did – we’re all building fires and looking under logs for minibeasts now.
The embrace of outdoor learning has come because it is seen as a way of encouraging responsibility in our young people. Fears that modern society is giving rise to a generation unable to protect themselves from danger have led us to the situation where we believe taking children into the great outdoors and letting them kayak, climb and walk through gorges in wetsuits will redress the balance.
It’s all made me feel slightly uncomfortable. In most of these activities we are not really creating risky situations, nor are the children truly independent. We exert control to account for all possibilities and we step in at the first whiff of trouble.
Recently, I have again read about the work of RF Mackenzie, the visionary head who from the late 1950s led Braehead Secondary School, located in an area of deep deprivation in Buckhaven, Fife. He would send pupils away to the Scottish Highlands for weeks at a time to remote bothies, or on walks east to west with their own tents and food, and with minimal input from teachers or other adults.
One of these teachers, perhaps the first to be employed as a teacher of outdoor education anywhere in the UK, was the later-to-become-famous author and mountaineer Hamish Brown who, as long ago as 1994, was criticising outdoor centres as being merely extensions of school with every day “programmed out”.
“If ‘Canoe 2’ got wet,” he said, “[pupils] could come in and have hot showers, then sit in the carpeted lounge watching TV until a bell rang and they trooped in to a supper the staff had prepared. It was an exercise in soft living such as many didn’t have at home, but it had little to do with outdoor reality.”
Meanwhile, kids from Buckhaven were being dropped off at Glen Coe and then picked up again, a week later, at Dalwhinnie. Others were marooned for days during torrential rains and floods at Knoydart.
Risk-assessed to oblivion
The key to it all was that there was a great deal of “sleeping out, bivouacking, howffing and bothying”, with pupils often having to build their own shelters to sleep in. There was a lot of learning about how to cook, as two pupils at a time were abandoned for a day while others went out to explore.
According to Brown, the number of professional cooks and chefs coming out of Braehead far exceeded those from any other school in the region.
How did we lose this sense of adventure? In my first job, at one of Edinburgh’s most prestigious private schools, we had an emphasis on developing a sense of risk through the great outdoors. Climbing, walking, yachting, mountain biking and weeks away in the Highlands were all part of the curriculum but, as elsewhere, all were strictly controlled by risk assessment and high teacher-pupil ratios.
Later, as a Forest School leader, I gave pupils knives and axes, and asked them to attack pieces of wood, but all with strict instruction on proper procedure, the provision of a reliable “blood buddy” and with plenty of supervision on hand to ensure that nothing went wrong.
Likewise, risk assessment was king when out walking or biking and higher authorities would check guidelines were followed. This led in one case to being allowed to take a group of pupils up Ben Lomond only if I made them carry – not ride – their bikes.
Now, as a school leader, I find myself wanting to give children (and teachers) the freedom to experiment with the opportunities presented by our natural environment, but unsure how to do this within the strict legal framework that controls us.
Is that legal framework justified?
Preparation is key
In 1993, a pupil died following a “foolish” shortcut down a steep slope and a failure to instigate adequate emergency procedures. In 2012, a 17-year-old boy died of heatstroke while mountain trekking; the coroner found the school had not been given “sufficient information and training” in the risks. These are just two cases in which inadequately prepared expeditions have fallen foul of weather and environmental conditions. When tragedy strikes, the newspapers round on schools.
So where do we go from here? I propose that we move away from our overreliance on outdoor education centres for our wilderness experiences, and use their input as a supplement rather than the main event.
Teachers need to be better trained in first aid. But we should also provide them with opportunities to develop their qualifications in other spheres. Risk assessments must be simplified and based on common sense. Most of all, we ought to free up time in the curriculum to allow free-form week-long expeditions in remote areas.
The Duke of Edinburgh Award provides a template, especially if we can take it back to its roots. Instead of following groups of young people as they meander across the hills, give pupils an opportunity to roam and get into trouble (with the hope they can get out of it as well). Organisations such as the Combined Cadet Force can once more let children run around hills firing blanks at each other, while adults carry out remote monitoring. Above all, we need to engage in outdoor education with a sense of freedom, if we are to avoid the farcical situation that Hamish Brown warned of.
“I rage against it,” he said, “because now it is my pupils’ children who are the feckless, flat-arsed button-pushers denied the most vital part of all: challenges to the imagination.”
John Rutter is headteacher of Inverness High School