"If you make outdoor adventure education 100 per cent safe, then there's no adventure left," mountaineer Sir Chris Bonington said this week.
The Mount Everest veteran believes outdoor education is "under siege" from budget cuts and safety issues. "After every crisis, like the terrible disaster at Lyme Bay, there are screams to make things safer. But at what cost to education?" he said.
As a result of the 1993 Lyme Bay accident, in which four sixth-formers from Southway comprehensive in Plymouth drowned while canoeing, the Government introduced stringent licensing and registration for all outdoor activity centres. As a result, most centres are now only granted annual licences subject to review.
The Foundation for Outdoor Education, an umbrella body of which Sir Chris is patron, claims hard-up local authorities are increasingly seeing closing centres altogether as the easy option.
A New Manifesto For Outdoor Education, published by the foundation, has been sent to local authorities and MPs with the aim of highlighting closures and seeking support for the principle that "all young people should have the opportunity to take part in adventurous activities".
Sir Chris added: "Education is increasingly driven by league table results and national curriculum constraints. But education isn't just about passing exams. Exams are only a measure, and a rather narrow measure at that. Outdoor adventure can provide the kind of personal, physical and spiritual development not found anywhere else on the curriculum."
The foundation believes outdoor adventure is also at risk because schools perceive it to be prohibitively expensive. But adventure can come cheap, insists Sir Chris: "It doesn't have to mean a week in the Lake District or sailing on a Scottish loch. With a bit of imagination city schools can find adventure in local parks and rivers. My dreams and fantasies bore fruit as a child playing on London's Hampstead Heath, absolutely nowhere near a mountain!" The Fairbridge project, which works with the probation service in providing outdoor adventure to young offenders and those at risk, is finding similar problems. Director Nigel Haines thinks the "solid safety frameworks have been essential in pushing out the cowboys", but have frightened many schools away.
He said: "No one wants their school to be the next disaster, so they stay away. Before Lyme Bay local authorities could get away without investing in the best equipment and staff training. Now that they can't scrimp on costs they often choose not to invest at all."
He agrees with Sir Chris that safety worries may be verging on the excessive. He said: "For many of the 2,000 young people we see each year this is their first taste of personal development. It only works if we push them to their physical and emotional limit. They need to experience fear in order to overcome it.
"But for well-trained instructors there's a big difference between pushing the boundaries and gross negligence. What price life?"