Trouble with the great outdoors

Teachers who are keen to use the environment as a curriculum tool are having second thoughts.

The Scottish Environmental Education Council is in the midst of a campaign to preserve outdoor opportunities for pupils. Cuts in local authority education departments, closures of outdoor centres, loss of trained staff, licensing of centres and trips, tighter health and safety regulations and threats of litigation are among the concerns of delegates at a recent conference in Stirling.

Cuts this spring will force local authority centres to recover almost the full costs of school trips as subsidies disappear. Schools will have to pay more - and also find the cost of absence cover when staff are away with a trip.

Nick Halls, a member of the Scottish Advisory Panel for Outdoor Education and former adviser in Strathclyde, told the Stirling conference that residential centres would have to fill their beds virtually all year to survive and at a real cost of Pounds 40 to Pounds 50 a day. Others said some schools were opting for cheaper, private services.

Mr Halls feared some councils might drop outdoor education. "If provision disappears in two to three councils, it could set a precedent. But we cannot allow this provision to slide away by default," he warned.

"Education in a residential centre may have to be an extension to the curriculum for the fortunate few, that's the reality. Is environmental education an essential or an extra? The difficulty of getting children out could make it an extra," Mr Halls predicted.

Teachers who are keen to use the environment as a curriculum tool told the conference of colleagues having second thoughts because of the increased pressures. More responsibility for sanctioning trips was also thrown on to headteachers with the loss of local authority advisory staff.

Sheree Smith, principal teacher of geography at Boclair Academy, Bearsden, and general secretary of the Scottish Geography Teachers' Association, summed up the frustrations: "People are not sure where they stand and are saying they are not going to do it."

The amount of form-filling, cross-checking against safety regulations and preparation on top of teachers' workload was deterring many. Stirling primary teacher Jane McNab said even short visits to museums and places of interest that relate to curriculum work caused staff to think twice. "Teachers are more accountable. They have more responsibility and you could put yourself in difficulties if something goes wrong. People are saying, is it worth it?" She said primary staff had to be sure there was a close link to the 5-14 curriculum before they opted to leave the school. "If there's not, they do not go, " she said.

Yet despite the increasing hurdles, Mrs McNab retains a belief in the value of out-of-school work. "The actual getting out still outweighs all the disadvantages. If you let children see things, they always remember it, far more than reading a book. First-hand experience can never be beaten," she said.

Yet many staff remain concerned about just what they need to know in a climate of blame if anything goes wrong. Local authority advisers, however, who are all redrafting trips' guidelines, assure teachers if they follow standard procedures they will be protected.

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