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I can see clearly now - the benefits of outdoor education

Liz Briggs, of Bohunt Education Trust, on the "incredible positive effects" of building-free learning, particularly for disadvantaged pupils

Posted by Julian Owen | October 09, 2019 | Teaching

Enjoy, respect, achieve. These core values are as embedded in the DNA of Bohunt Education Trust’s (BET) schools as words in a stick of rock and influence every aspect of our students’ education.  

As BET’s manager of the Duke of Edinburgh Award (DofE), it is a privilege to work for a multi-academy trust that not only sets such store in this ethos, but is staunch about outdoor education playing a central role in our schools’ curriculum – and is accessible to all.

Since its inception in 2014, BET has made a clear commitment to providing a broad and innovative curriculum. BET’s outdoor education programme fits with this ethos, and is a model of how, through thoughtful and ambitious curating of this platform, we can enable all our young people to enjoy, respect and achieve – both academically and holistically.

Outdoor learning represents what I value most in education – nurturing and developing the whole child. At a time in education where pressure is placed on the academic demands of the curriculum, it is imperative that schools continue to value outdoor education. At BET, outdoor education is deeply rooted in every school, as we recognise its ability to boost confidence, resilience and teamwork. Our students are ‘game-changers’: skilled, resilient, ambitious and confident individuals who can influence others and are empowered to have big ideas that change the world. We are determined that a student’s background should not be a barrier to realising potential and firmly believe that a disadvantaged start in life is not a reason for a disadvantaged future.

We are so resolute about giving our less advantaged students the same opportunities to take part in DofE as their peers - because we recognise the incredible positive effects it can have – that our vision has been to directly support these children with funding raised through grants. As such, in 2018-19, over £15,000 of grant-raised funding went directly to the most vulnerable and disadvantaged students to enable them to participate in the award.

We have countless stories of students overcoming adversity and achieving goals that they could never have imagined

Plenty of evidence, not least from the Education Endowment Foundation, suggests that outdoor education is beneficial for academic attainment, with a clear link between academic progress and engagement with an outdoor programme. Our inclusive programme for outdoor education is evident throughout BET. Less than two years after starting to work with Priory School in inner city Portsmouth, for example, 13 of their students stood, dressed in crampons and armed with ice axes, on top of an ice-capped volcano in Iceland.

Our commitment is borne out by the fact that, again at Priory, which is over 40% pupil premium, we have ensured that each of our most vulnerable students are completing the Duke of Edinburgh Award and that pupil premium students are overrepresented in every year group on the outdoor programme. This is done through helping with funding, working with tutors and parents/guardians, running some of the programme within the curriculum and ensuring the outdoor programme is progressive: onsite activities; short residentials; bushcraft; DofE; and then big expeditions, which take students to incredible locations such as Mongolia, the Himalayas and Madagascar.

Tangible impact

From the minute students walk through our doors, even when they are a prospective pupil on their first Year 5 taster day, our students learn and understand the importance that Bohunt places on outdoor education, and what it means to be a game-changer.

The impact of outdoor education is measurable. We have worked closely with the University of Leicester to collect data over the last three years which clearly demonstrates the positive impact of outdoor learning on academic outcomes. Our research has shown that students, including those from disadvantaged backgrounds, who have been involved in outdoor educational opportunities – be it the DofE, bushcraft sessions after school or expeditions further afield – have, on average, consistently performed higher in their GCSE examinations than those who have not.

Engagement and participation with the DofE programme has been key to achieving improved student outcomes through outdoor learning. The programme is not just about providing new experiences away from home, or developing students so that they can learn first-hand the importance of utilising responsibility, initiative and teamwork. Rather, it encourages them to think of others and value their time - particularly when helping the community - and to engage with the wider curriculum and, importantly, be recognised for it.

What can schools do?

There are many ways that schools can, and should, engage students, their families and staff in outdoor education.

Firstly, through embedding outdoors education within the school ethos, to create a culture which recognises the value and importance of learning both inside and outside the classroom.  To enable this, schools must have a leadership team, which recognises and champions its value. At BET, each head teacher has a passion to develop outdoor education and believes in the multitude of impacts it generates. The DofE programme and the learning experiences our students receive, are entirely aligned with our vision for education, and with our curriculum.

Secondly, it is about ensuring that you have the right team to implement the programmes. We have over 100 volunteers and staff members involved in at least one or more of our outdoor education programmes. Across the trust, this enabled more than 40 DofE expeditions in the last academic year alone (from the South Downs and Dartmoor, to Dorset and Brecon, to name just a few). Not only does this offer the opportunity to run successful and impactful outdoor activities, but it provides additional opportunities to offer excellent training and professional development for staff members.

Inclusivity

Ultimately, it is our responsibility, as school leaders, to facilitate access to outdoor education.

There are many ways schools can ensure they have the resources, particularly financially, to enable all students to participate in outdoor education. One very successful route for us has been through external funding, which is something schools looking to develop their outdoor education offer should explore. We have successfully secured funding from Tesco, Greggs, Warburtons, the Ramblers, Marina Maria, the Department for Education and the DofE, enabling us to be open and inclusive of all. In the last three years, we have been successful in securing over £60,000, the impact of which has been transformational.

Outdoor learning represents what I value most in education – nurturing and developing the whole child

To further boost our inclusivity, we apply for free participant places with the DofE Award, and have made arrangements so that all pupil premium students have access to outdoor trips for reduced prices. Also, that there is clothing and equipment available to borrow, to again limit the cost to the student and their family.

In many cases, however, the work needs to start long before securing funding or free places. A lot of the time it’s about cultural capital and starting an open dialogue with students to get them on board in the first instance.

To engage students from less privileged backgrounds, schools should build their confidence and familiarity with the local environment and world around them, before they take part in the programmes. For example, we recognised that some students were lacking in confidence and struggling with the physical section of the DofE programme. In order to build familiarity and resilience, we set up walking clubs, which gave them the confidence and platform to participate.

We have countless stories of students overcoming adversity and achieving goals that they could never have imagined – from some of the most disadvantaged pupils, many of whom have rarely left their home county, to students living with limiting health conditions which may have prevented them from participating without appropriate support.

I believe schools should do all they can to ensure that every child can participate in the outdoors. Enjoying and exploring the natural environment should be everyone’s right. Education does not stop at the classroom door, and it is our responsibility to embed the outdoors within the educational offering, to stand the best chance of enabling students to become game-changers and future leaders who enjoy, respect and achieve.

Liz Briggs is Duke of Edinburgh Award manager for Bohunt Education Trust

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