Excellent adventures

Twenty years since the Lyme Bay tragedy in which four young canoeists died, outdoor learning activities are enjoying a revival, says Charlotte Goddard, with proven benefits to children's long-term wellbeing

This is an exciting time for outdoor education. Like some happy conjunction of the planets, initiatives and campaigns from a whole range of organisations are aligning in 2013 to promote adventurous activities and outdoor learning from every angle.

“Adventure” will become a pillar of the government’s Olympic legacy marketing campaign later this year, while the Britain on Foot campaign, launching in May, will see the British Mountaineering Council invest in new staff to encourage participation as part of a drive to get 100,000 more people active outdoors.

The National Trust continues to run its “50 things to do before you’re 11¾” campaign, while Outdoor Adventure Week will take place for the fourth year between 4 and 12 May.

Learning outside the classroom is already enjoying something of a renaissance. The government’s National Citizen Service (NCS) for 16-year-olds is driving uptake of outdoor activities among young people out of school. Dave Harvey, head of centres at Brathay Trust, says “NCS is great in providing an opportunity for young people”, while Matt Healey, head of education at Kingswood Outdoor Education and Activity Centres, says his organisation has picked up a lot of business from NCS providers.

There are some difficulties – Harvey points out that young people engaged in NCS all tend to take their residential component at the same time of year, leading to supply issues. Healey has more concerns about resource allocation: “The sense is that money that would have provided local youth groups or church groups with outdoor residentials perhaps is now being channelled into NCS.”

Younger children are increasingly taking part in outdoor learning. “Generally, schools are driving down the age at which they do their first night out,” states Chris Loynes, lecturer in outdoor studies at the University of Cumbria. In addition, both schools and providers are increasingly looking to “add value” to outdoor activities.

Many schools want to see hard evidence that abseiling, caving and the like can not only boost “soft skills” like self-esteem and resilience, but can have a measurable impact on attainment, attendance and behaviour.

Evaluating residential programmes
The Paul Hamlyn Foundation is currently funding 13 clusters of schools to develop new residential programmes and evaluate their impact in nine areas from GCSE attainment to resilience, self-confidence and wellbeing.

The study is centred around the effects of residentials rather than outdoor activities, but many of the programmes have outdoor activities at their core. Canterbury High School in Kent, for example, is taking GCSE students on residentials where they combine outdoor activities and academic work.

During breaks between activities, the students wrote down their experiences of outdoor adventures, then used these notes to plan their descriptive pieces of writing for their English coursework.

The young people also attended formal mathematics sessions and practiced their numerical skills during activities – for example, using their knowledge of trigonometry while sailing or rock climbing. Students who attended the residential saw a 65 per cent improvement in their maths results.

Other schools are working towards different aims. A Manchester federation of primary and secondary schools is focusing on families, targeting children identified by the family support worker. Families attend residentials in the Peak District with activities such as walks, cycling and pony rides, and are encouraged in the evening to learn to play together and communicate.

Loynes acts as an adviser to the Learning Away school residential funding programme run by the Paul Hamlyn Foundation. He says: “It has been fantastically successful in re-engaging children in education, restoring engagement with their family, changing families’ behaviour, and helping parents make friendships and even find jobs. One parent said: ‘I have been sent off on all these parenting courses over the years and this time I get it.’” 

Learning outside the classroom is not just about outdoor activities – art, drama, visits to museums and the like can also result in many of these positive outcomes. Goonhaven Primary School in Cornwall takes children to Birmingham. Although they stay in an outdoor centre, their new experiences include visits to a mosque and loosely supervised shopping in Birmingham’s Bullring.

But adventurous activities do have some unique selling points – such as overcoming fear. Caroline Vernon, head of Victoria Junior School in Barrow-in-Furness, wants her pupils to develop the skills they need to help them in the transition to secondary school.

“We chose outdoor activities because we are getting children to identify skills they think might be helpful and to explore these skills not in a classroom setting,” she explains.

“Children tend to say things like: ‘We need to be brave, able to try new things, confident, get on with other people.’ Then they come up with a host of activities they think will help develop these skills. Abseiling is new to a lot of the children, for example, and they need to support each other with positive peer pressure,” she explains.

“It will make them scared, so they can develop strategies to cope with that. Obviously they will not be abseiling at secondary school, but they will need strategies to cope with feeling scared.”

Kim Parry, commercial director of the Outward Bound Trust, says the perceived risk factor, carefully managed by the provider, can help young people develop important skills. “Outdoors provides a powerful metaphor – there can be real consequences for young people as they plan and execute things,” he says.

“There is a degree of frustration from employers as young people are presenting with great GCSE and A-level results, but employers are finding that broader skillset is lacking – creativity, innovation, working as a team. Outdoor education has quite an opportunity to help provide young people with those skills and help them into work.”

While outdoor education is not built into the curriculum in England as it is in Wales and Scotland – the Welsh Key Stage 2 PE curriculum states that “adventurous activities may be pursued in curriculum time, after school or as part of an out-of-hours residential experience in new and challenging environments away from the local area” – schools have found that outdoor activities can be valuable indicators to Ofsted.

Loynes says: “One of the Birmingham schools we are working with has just been inspected and the information we were able to provide made a big difference to its Ofsted results.”

Delivering outdoor education
All of this activity is taking place against a backdrop of significant changes in the way outdoor education is being delivered. Driven by budgetary constraints as well as politics, an increasing number of local authorities are either divesting themselves of the outdoor education centres they traditionally owned and managed, or insisting that the previously subsidised services must now run at a profit.

Andy Robinson, chief executive of the Institute for Outdoor Learning, says this move will not necessarily affect provision, “provided that authorities have given support and time for residential outdoor centres to become self-funding”. But he has concerns about the loss of directly subsidised places leading to fewer opportunities for vulnerable young people.

“There is the pupil premium. It has been recognised by government that one of its uses is outdoor education, but obviously there are 101 other pressures on that.”

Some local authority centres are being taken over by commercial or third sector organisations such as Kingswood and Brathay Trust, which in many cases are working to keep the same pricing structures for schools and youth groups.

The role of the outdoor education adviser is also changing. These were traditionally employed by one local authority and gave advice to organisations within that authority, such as schools, children’s homes and youth services.

Advisers now often straddle a number of councils, or may be self-employed, selling advice to academies or councils. There have also been moves to place them in local authority health and safety teams rather than in a specific outdoor education division. “From an outdoor learning point of view, this is less attractive as you end up with less informed and potentially more cautious approaches to outdoors and less in the way of outdoor expertise,” says Robinson.

But Kingswood’s Healey has a different perspective: “People I have been talking to say this is a very positive experience. Outdoor education can be an esoteric thing in the corner of local authority provision, whereas the health and safety department can bring them resources, and the ability to do their job is increased.”

Dave Faulconbridge, chair of the Outdoor Education Advisers’ Panel, says that while advisers are now coming from both health and safety and outdoor backgrounds, both can do a good job with the relevant training. Advisers are particularly important since they can offer important practical support and advice in a crisis, such as a coach crash abroad, as well as helping plan trips in advance.

One concern, however, is that the rise of academies and free schools may lead to a splintering of good practice. Faulconbridge says: “The risk is that teachers and managers work in isolation within a particular academy, without that exposure to the range of good practice ideas you can get as part of a broader network.”

Partly driven by economics and partly by policy, schools are increasingly taking on outdoor education themselves – with the help of advisers – rather than buying in expertise from providers. “There are not so many bus journeys to visit esoteric crags,” says Healey. “Many have left us far behind now with what they provide in their own schools. That is one of my personal highlights of the job – how we can support schools to do it themselves.”

Cost-effective alternatives
With cost in mind, schools might be organising camping trips, perhaps in their own grounds or somewhere nearby, rather than paying out for residential centres. Some schools use Scout camps during the week when the Scouts are not there. “There is a double benefit from the camping mode,” says Loynes. “The first is low cost, but it also adds so much pedagogically, through rich curriculum opportunities.”

Schools in Bulwell, on the edge of Nottingham, have installed climbing walls and mapped out their grounds in order to provide orienteering and other activities. “It is not seen as just ‘hand the children over to the specialist any longer’ – that is a good thing,” says Robinson.

“Providing you are making sensible risk assessments in a dynamic environment, courts are likely to back you – you will only be found liable if you have not been taking sensible precautions.”

A number of organisations have created literature and resources in recent years for teachers to help them manage risk and plan outdoor activities (see the “who’s who” box). Workshops, such as those provided by the Institute for Outdoor Learning, give teachers the basic competence and confidence to deliver activities.

The sector is united in its agreement that risk assessments are generally easier than ever. Official health and safety guidance for children on school trips was slashed from 150 pages to just eight a few years ago. “It is such an easy approach to take, to say ‘it is too dangerous, too difficult’,” says Kingswood’s Healey. “If we ever have people who say that they can’t come to our centres because of risk assessment, I phone their local authority outdoor education adviser and they go and help them.”

One area that is not changing at the moment is the licensing scheme for adventurous activities, which was put in place following the deaths of four young canoeists in the Lyme Bay tragedy that took place 20 years ago, on 22 March 1993. Providers of caving, climbing, trekking and watersports currently need a license. The government was planning to replace this scheme with a code of practice, but has now backtracked.

It nevertheless proposes to consult on new arrangements, but any change is unlikely in the next few years at least. “The industry wants some form of third-party accreditation,” says Robinson. “It is good for an industry provider who gets feedback on the quality, and the user gets reassurance about safety.”

Parry adds: “There is no doubt that licensing has raised the game across the sector.” The current system does have some drawbacks, particularly the fact that it only licenses four activities. A new system might draw together some of the existing licenses for other activities and providers, such as the Adventuremark, Gold Standard or Learning Outside the Classroom Quality Badge.

Times are clearly changing for the outdoor sector, but there is a feeling of positivity across the board. “The sector is going through tough times,” says Brathay’s Harvey. “But if it can survive, and maintain and demonstrate its credibility and professionalism, it is building the foundations for a positive future.”


Bullwell Education Improvement Zone, a partnership of an academy and its feeder primaries near Nottingham, has spent five years developing a residential programme that aims to ease the transition from primary to secondary school.

Partnership manager Linda Abbott, says: “We want to integrate residentials almost as a right for every child, and come up with models that are sustainable so they carry on way beyond the funding we receive from the Learning Away programme.”

Primary school students go on their first camp aged seven, at a local site in the grounds of a stately home. In the following year, they camp in the academy school hall, and in year 5 they stay for two nights in the grounds of another stately home. Climbing, orienteering, team-building games and den building activities are led by academy pupils. The school uses the outdoor learning cards developed by the Outdoor Education Advisers Panel as a basis for the activities.

“The children get an overnight residential that they love – they don’t care they haven’t gone on a coach into the Peak District and had the kind of all-singing all-dancing residential that we used to do,” says Abbott. “We used to buy in provision, but we have now trained up our own staff, through whole-area inset days specifically on delivering activities.”

Abbott says health and safety has never been a barrier. “The biggest barrier is making it affordable and getting the confidence of parents to let their children come. By having them very local, parents feel they are accessible.”

The schools are looking to develop increased wellbeing and resilience among the children on the camp. “There has definitely been more confidence,” says Abbott. “They get used to coming on the academy site – it feels a familiar place.” 


  • Adventure Activities Licensing Authority (AALA) has oversight and responsibility for the efficient delivery of the licensing regime for four adventure activities.

  • Adventure Activity Industry Advisory Committee developed the accreditation scheme Adventuremark for providers of adventurous activities that are outside the scope of the AALA. The scheme is delivered by Adventure Activities Associates.

  • The Association of Heads of Outdoor Education Centres administers the Gold Standard accreditation.

  • The Campaign for Adventure aims to rejuvenate society’s attitudes to enterprise and adventure.

  • The Council for Learning Outside the Classroom administers the Quality Badge for outdoor education providers and provides resource packs for teachers.

  • The English Outdoor Council is an umbrella body for organisations involved in the provision of outdoor education, recreation and development training.

  • Forest School Association is a relatively new organisation that works towards supporting and ensuring high standards in Forest School training and practice across the UK.

  • The Institute for Outdoor Learning aims to support and enhance the good practice of those who work in the outdoors. It publishes a range of resources.

  • The Outdoor Education Advisers’ Panel has developed a website to give guidance on school visits and produced outdoor learning cards to help teachers deliver adventurous activities.
    http://oeap.info and http://oeapng.info

  • Outdoor Industries Association, the trade body for providers of products and services for the leisure market, leads Britain on Foot, a campaign to get 100,000 people active outdoors in the next two years.
    www.britainonfoot.co.uk and www.outdoorindustriesassociation.co.uk

  • The Royal Society for the Prevention of Accidents launched guidance last month for schools planning and leading visits and adventurous activities.


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