Careers: Outdoor education worker

Outdoor education workers need practical skills to back up their qualifications, finds Charlotte Goddard

What is an outdoor education worker?

An outdoor education worker uses outdoor experiences, including environmental and adventure activities, to provide learning opportunities for young people. Some of the work is about teaching physical activities such as abseiling. Other parts are about helping to build confidence, self-esteem, team building and other emotional learning. Not all work is outdoors or physical-activity based; the role can include group work sessions indoors, following up or reinforcing lessons learned.

Outdoor education workers work directly with young people, including those with special needs such as behavioural problems and physical and mental disabilities. They will oversee health and safety during activities, help to train youth workers and teachers, and develop new activities.

Who employs outdoor education workers?

Some are employed by local authorities, while others are employed by voluntary or private sector outdoor education organisations. Outdoor education workers are often based at a specific centre or park.

Is it a nine-to-five job?

Hours generally include evening, weekend and holiday work, and the role can often be part-time. Most jobs are seasonal, although some workers are on full-time contracts, spending the winter engaged in developing new activity programmes, for example.
What skills are required?
Peter Thompson, UK outdoors manager at SkillsActive, the sector skills council for outdoor education, says there are four areas of skills needed by outdoor education workers: technical skills related to the activities they are running; environmental skills such as dealing with weather conditions; skills around working with children and young people; and the skills needed to use activities as a springboard for learning around team building, personal development and so on. In general, outdoor education workers must be over 18.

What qualifications are needed?

A first-aid certificate is a must. Outdoor education workers will also need outdoor coaching awards from the various governing bodies of sport covering activities such as orienteering, sailing, canoeing, caving and mountain walking, depending on which activities they are instructing. Most of these awards are soon to change so that they are recognised as National Vocational Qualifications (NVQs).

Some employers offer their employees the chance to train on the job. SkillsActive has worked with organisations including the Institute for Outdoor Learning to develop a sector-wide induction programme for new staff at an outdoor centre or organisation.

Degrees are available in recreation management (with an outdoor focus), outdoor education for teachers (BEd) and outdoor education for youth workers, which offers a diploma that can lead to a degree. There are also general degrees in outdoor and environmental studies, which do not tie you to a particular profession, and postgraduate qualifications in outdoor education, including master’s degrees and advanced certificates.

"Degrees focus on the academic side of things, which is useful when working with young people in a fairly complex way, rather than in an entry-level position," says Thompson. "But the danger is the practical skills are not there – a young person might graduate, walk up to an outdoor centre and say: ‘I’d like to become a senior person’, and then not be able to take a canoe session, for example, as they don’t have the skills." Thompson recommends undergraduates spend time volunteering in order to build up practical as well as academic experience.

The Institute for Outdoor Learning has a tiered professional accreditation scheme for practitioners at different stages of practice within the outdoor learning profession.

What issues are facing the workforce?

According to Thompson, the sector is becoming more diverse, as centres, traditionally focused on schools, widen their reach to families, youth clubs and the like. He says there is a "tremendous" growth in the outdoor sector, and the council is launching a survey in the next few weeks to look at the composition
of the workforce.

On the other hand, outdoor education centres, particularly those that are local-authority-owned, are vulnerable to cuts: North Yorkshire County Council for example decided earlier this year to close half the county’s outdoor learning centres after cutting a £1m subsidy from the ventures.



  • The Institute for Outdoor Learning, a membership organisation for the sector
  • The Council for Learning Outside the Classroom, a registered charity with responsibility for delivering the government’s learning outside the classroom manifesto
  • SkillsActive, the sector skills council for outdoor education, which aims to create a framework of continuous professional development
  • National Skills Academy for Sport and Active Leisure co-ordinates independent, quality-assured training for those involved with the sport, fitness, outdoors, playwork and caravan industries

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