With a pedigree of more than 50 years in the UK, outdoor education has matured into a solid contributor not only to the curriculum but also to the broader purpose of education - that of helping prepare young people to live in a complex society.
The significance of this contribution is not lost on the Department for Education and Employment which makes much of it in Extending Opportunity - A National Framework for Study Support (April 1998). Here it states "Outdoor education offers attractive opportunities for achievement to pupils across the spectrum of academic ability. These can stimulate and reinforce a positive attitude towards education and are recognised as achievements by teachers and peers alike."
During its development, outdoor education has produced a number of specialisms. Particular emphasis has been placed on using it with young offenders or disadvantaged youngsters, for instance. Valuable though it is for such groups, we need to make sure that mainstream education continues to provide outdoor experiences for all children.
The true worth of outdoor education lies in achieving success in a challenging environment, by undertaking new and different activities, by carrying and sharing responsibility, and most effectively by being with a group of peers away from home. Problem-solving on school playing fields cannot replace sailing in the Lake District or ridge walking in Wales.
But how do we define effective outdoor education? There are three elements: the adventure experience; the shared experience; and the residential experience.
This means coming into contact with a wild and natural environment - from the wind on your face to the spectacular scenery.
Children learn to live with the consequences of group decisions. Camping expeditions, rock climbing, or canoeing, for example, all give support to youngsters as they develop self-esteem and realise potential. The role of qualified staff on any outdoor activities programme is crucial to maximising this and ensuring its success.
The nature of the adventure in outdoor education merits further consideration. The essence of outdoor adventure with young people must be that of "perceived" adventure.
Part of the excitement and extending of personal boundaries while, say, gorge walking or coasteering, revolves around the "risk" of falling in and getting wet. In itself that is not dangerous. The management of risk by instructors is critical in ensuring that any threats to health and safety are managed and reduced to acceptable limits.
Back in the classroom, the gains from such activities are clear: problem-solving, when very often the problems are real and have to be lived through; communication - if it is clear then success follows; teamworking - no man is an island in the outdoors. Added to this is the fact that the best environmental education takes place in the environment.
Understanding develops as both teachers and pupils share experiences and step outside their traditional roles. Each player can see the other in a new light which can illuminate relationships back in the classroom.
Among young people the shared experience creates new things to talk about.A bond arises from facing challenging activities and perhaps inclement conditions together.
The effect of this is to break down school-based peer groups and to create a new social environment where all are included; even children who previously may have been isolated in school have shared a common experience of adventure.
A residential setting contributes to the shared experience; teachers and pupils chatting or socialising in domestic surroundings develop differently away from school.
Residential centres create other opportunities beyond the shared adventure. For youngsters contributing to a common effort of domestic harmony there may be many firsts: sharing bedrooms; accepting personal responsibility; making packed lunches; and eating meals at tables instead of having TV suppers. There is also the added challenge of staying in a part of the world far removed from urban and suburban life. In the highlands of Scotland, for instance, many visiting teachers report that "just being here is an education in itself".
To make it all come together effectively, safety is paramount. Accidents do happen, but a survey by the Health and Safety Executive in 1994 found properly supervised adventure activities to be safer than standard playground games.
The Adventure Activities Licensing Authority inspects and licenses provision of most adventure activities for under-18s, where payment is made. This should be sufficient safeguard for schools planning outdoor education programmes. There are still gaps though. Some activities, such as ropes courses and surfing, are outside the scope of the authority. In other cases, risks to health and safety might arise because of a fault in the company rather than with the adventure activity itself.
Schools need to select a safe provider (see panel above), and any member of the Association of Heads of Outdoor Education Centres can give reassurance on all these fronts.
A bigger danger is that safety could be compromised as outdoor centres face an increasingly tough battle for customers. Devolved school budgets could also threaten the existence of local authority centres, which provide a benchmark for good practice. Furthermore, outdoor education could become prohibitively expensive.
Most aspects of education can be encapsulated in outdoor education. The opportunities it provides for young people should not be dismissed lightly as an end-of-year treat or a holiday, but should become an integral part of the education service for all children. The UK are leaders in the field and we must take care to ensure that we stay that way.
Phil Simpson is chairman of the Association of Heads of Outdoor Education Centres and development director of the Abernethy Trust in Scotland. The association promotes excellence in the management of residential centres which provide personal development through outdoor education. It is affiliated to the National Association of Head Teachers. The views expressed here are Mr Simpson's own and not necessarily those of the association.
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