Outdoor education for a post COVID-19 world

At a time when Covid has so disproportionately affected the nation's children, outdoor education has a unique tole to play in helping to restore and rebuild their confidence and mental health, writes Andy Robinson, chief executive of Institute of Outdoor Learning and member of UK Outdoors

Children and young people have been among those most impacted by the COVID pandemic. All have missed vital school hours and valuable time with friends, while being confined to their houses with limited access to the outdoors and the life enhancing experiences it can bring.

Outdoor education is a vital resource for all schools. At a time when COVID has so disproportionately affected the nation’s children, outdoor education has a unique role to play in helping to restore and rebuild their confidence and mental health. This is particularly true for disadvantaged children and the thousands of inner-city schools, students and parents for whom outdoor education is a unique and life changing experience.

The importance of Outdoor Education

Outdoor education and adventure are engrained in our DNA. It is part of British education. Every child’s first trip away from home is such an important and formative experience. A residential outdoor programme, or extended expedition, can go on to offer young people the chance to engage in adventurous activities in new and challenging environments far away from their local area, with unique opportunities for personal and social development. They are often amongst the most memorable experiences of a young person’s development and can lead to a lifetime of involvement in a new activity.

Over the years, schools engage with a range of high quality outdoor learning* and visits beyond the classroom that help to both support the delivery and enrich the curriculum. Such visits are often at locations far away from school and support more complex field work requirements or involve visits to sites of national significance. Of course, the opportunity to stay overnight allows for travel further afield in support of this, as well as providing for visits abroad on tours and expeditions that open up a whole new world of opportunity for young people.

With over two million children a year taking part in outdoor education, the benefits to health and wellbeing and to socio-emotional learning outcomes (including self-confidence, teamwork and resilience) have been well-evidenced. Over the last year, so many children and young people have been locked down in cities and towns with restricted opportunities to connect with each other or with nature. This is particularly true for disadvantaged children and the thousands of inner-city schools; schools that are too often the only route for children to engage with and benefit from the great outdoors. The inequalities between groups of children accessing these benefits are widening.

It is also worth highlighting that many of these experiences play a valuable role in terms of extra-curricular activities and enrichment opportunities so important in the development of children and young people. Here the focus may well be on personal development and purely, for many, the experience itself, so important for many of our young people who will lack many of the opportunities available to others.

Outdoor Education’s role in the recovery

As we recover from this pandemic, outcomes associated with high quality outdoor education such as increased self-confidence, enhanced peer to peer relationships and strengthened teacher/pupil trust and understanding, have never been more important.  We need to help children across the UK regain these valuable learning experiences and benefit from the unique role outdoor education can play.

In our daily contact with schools, we have seen how keen they are to return to outdoor education. School leaders recognise that immersive, fun and curricular-relevant opportunities provided by educational visits and residential outdoor education experiences offer particular benefits for children and young people as schools and youth groups plan for post-pandemic provision. Opening up the opportunity for schools to travel and take young people on residential educational visits will provide schools with enrichment opportunities that will address some of the key negative impacts that the health emergency has had on young people.

It is clear that the pandemic has had a magnifying effect on inequalities of access to the benefits of engagement with the great outdoors for children and young people. Making well planned and delivered outdoor education available to all schools and youth groups will contribute towards levelling up and reducing that impact.

The Roadmap for Restarting

The pandemic and the Department for Education’s guidance have been catastrophic for the sector, but with the right support and guidance, the sector can play an invaluable role in the recovery. The industry has formed a critical part of the School Travel Sector Stakeholder Group (“STSSG”) which submitted to Rt Hon Gavin Williamson, Secretary of State, and the Department for Education, a roadmap for the restart of domestic educational visits during the Summer term.

The proposals, which have been developed by a consortium of 12 industry groups, seek to ensure that the sector is able to safely restart school visits and includes a number of elements:

    •    A request for amended guidance to allow domestic day and overnight educational visits to resume
    •    Development of a COVID-safe operations protocol in consultation with Public Health England to allow centres to operate safely and within existing school bubbles
    •    Development of a Government-backed Insurance Policy to reinstate COVID-19 pre-trip cancellation cover in both commercial insurance policies and the Department for Education’s Risk Protection Arrangement
    •    Request for access to the Department for Culture, Media and Sport's Culture Recovery Fund, the extension of the Coronavirus Job Retention Scheme to 30 September 2021 and improved access to existing BEIS grant funding through Local Authorities

These proposals are bold in their simplicity to get residential visits restarted. The power needs to be put back in schools’ hands to working with trusted, experienced and accredited providers to assess risk and undertake overnight educational visits with a clear framework for reducing the risk of transmission.
This roadmap to restart provides a clear and prudent proposal for a phased restart of the outdoor education sector during the critical Summer Term. The roadmap can save jobs, businesses and the future of a sector with a huge role to play in the COVID recovery. The roadmap is the route forward for the sector and the Government.

* High Quality Outdoor Learning is available as a free down load from UK Outdoors