The consultation on the Government's manifesto for education outside the classroom closed on January 30. This is the long-awaited response to the widespread belief that education visits and trips are in terminal decline, killed off by a mixture of teacher workload and concern about safety.
Last year the parliamentary education select committee articulated those concerns, arguing that a bureaucratic and risk-averse culture was getting in the way of "enormously valuable" out-of-classroom learning. The manifesto is the Government's solution to the problem.
If any subject on the school curriculum can lay claim to the outdoor classroom it is geography. Some kind of fieldwork is a national curriculum requirement at key stages 1-3, and the GCSE syllabuses used by most schools call for a minimum of one or two days of fieldwork. But how many schools are simply paying lip service to that curriculum entitlement and how many young geographers actually experience the environment they are studying as part of their programme of work?
It is impossible to tell. There are no national statistics relating to school visits, whether it be a day trip to Alton Towers or a geography A-level expedition to the Greenland ice-cap. The Department for Education and Skills estimates that school pupils spend around 8 million days on school trips. Some commercial venues, Alton Towers included, appear to be doing a roaring trade. Others, especially those whose experience is rather more related to the curriculum, report declining numbers.
Tony Thomas, chief executive of the Field Studies Council, has real concerns for the future. Numbers of groups visiting the FSC's 17 centres across Britain have been falling for some time. More recently the trend has been for the groups who do make the effort to spend less time at a centre.
"In primary schools you have to work hard to find good quality experiences and there's a real weakness in secondary at KS3," Tony says. A FSC survey of PGCE students found that one-third had not had any out-of-classroom experience in 15 years of education, one-third had experienced a couple of day trips, while the remainder had enjoyed a variety of trips and visits.
"If you are a teacher from groups one or two, would you have the confidence to take classes out on fieldwork?" Tony asks. The FSC is trying to tackle the problem by offering fieldwork training (see details, left). "When you find schools doing fieldwork, you also find thriving geography departments," he says.
That is certainly true at Herefordshire's John Kyrle High School and Sixth Form Centre in Ross-on-Wye, where head of geography Nic Howes is committed to the outdoor experience. "The field is a 'deep learning' environment for which there is no substitute," he says. "Time and again student feedback indicates that they enjoy the experience and learn from it; it has a positive effect on how they feel about the subject."
Students at John Kyrle get plenty of opportunities. There is some kind of geography trip every year, from single lesson visits to local sites to a four-day residential at Llanrug Outdoor Education Centre in Snowdonia, which Nic uses to launch the geography GCSE course. A-level students spend a week at the FSC's Nettlecombe Court education centre in Somerset. "It's worth doing," he says. "Groups of students develop a sense of identity as 'geographers' and a loyalty to the subject. It can clearly be shown to have a highly beneficial effect on examination results and it aids recruitment to the subject."
Nic rejects the idea that the virtual field trip, where students use websites to study a location, offers a viable substitute for the real thing. "This seems to me like the worst use of ICT - isn't there enough virtuality coming at young people out of computer monitors as it is?" he asks.
Enthusiasm for the field trip experience is not limited to a few determined secondary schools. At Langford Primary School in London, the field trip is a part of the autumn curriculum. "It isn't compulsory, but we very, very strongly recommend it," says Tessa Willy, who teaches Year 6 and has led two residential trips in the past year.
"Whatever special effects we might dream up in the classroom, they will never have the effectiveness nor the durability of getting out there and doing the real thing. It's a very narrow view of education that thinks you can do everything in the classroom, but it's really hard work and some colleagues just won't do it," she says. When she joined Langford two years ago, there was an existing school trip, but Tessa wanted to do something more challenging.
"I hijacked the school journey and turned it into a 'compulsory'
residential field trip to an environmental centre in Somerset doing traditional field work. I haven't changed the name; we still go on a "school journey" rather than a geography field trip - it is an easier concept to absorb for parents who have never let their children go away before," she says.
All her Year 6 group went this autumn - part of the commitment that a worthwhile education experience ought to be open to all children.
This is the key question about the Government's manifesto. Will it be supported with funding, especially for the estimated two-thirds of pupils who do not experience the outdoor classroom at all?
Tony hopes that a way can be found around that problem, possibly through lottery funding. But fieldwork, he argues, is worth doing in any case, though he warns against seeing the annual trip as a panacea. "Fieldwork is not the only answer to rescuing geography," he says. "The subject has to be relevant and it has to be taught in an interesting way all through the year."
* Field Studies Council courses for PGCE students and teachers are available at several FSC centres across the country. Courses are subsidised and cover group management, risk assessment, using different sites and habitats, along with practical subject-based activities and ideas.
Tel: FSC, 0845 345 4071 www.field-studies-council.org