Work on the Wild Side: Outdoor Learning and Schools is a notdeadfish report by Tash Niman and Anita Kerwin-Nye, in partnership with the English Outdoor Learning Council, the Institute for Outdoor Learning, the Association of Heads of Outdoor Learning Centres, Learning Away, and the Council for Learning Outside the Classroom. Notdeadfish is a social change consultancy and you can download the report here.
The report aims to demonstrate that those schools (that by any measure are leaders in the education system) place a high value on learning beyond the classroom. It sets out to be a contribution to the debate about the best approaches to ensuring all children and young people have high quality outdoor learning and residential experiences. This is what notdeadfish say about the report on their website:
"Work on the Wild Side attempts to debunk the myth that outdoor learning and residentials are not viable teaching mechanisms. As accountability within schools increases and budgets decrease, it is easy to see how outdoor learning can slip down the agenda. This notdeadfish report compiles the evidence demonstrating how schools across the country are using outdoor learning to improve children’s academic attainment and emotional well-being. ... We found that outdoor learning is valued amongst teachers, pupils, parents and inspectors and that the skills learnt outdoors are transferable to the classroom and across the academic spectrum."
The report begins with four assertions which are probably reasonably widely accepted by those who know about such things, although the 3rd one is obviously not shared by all "teachers, school leaders, parents", as the report clearly demonstrates. The assertions are:
- that children and young people benefit from being outside has almost universal agreement.
- that not all children and young people are spending as much time outside as they should is also well evidenced.
- teachers, school leaders, parents and others with an interest in education generally support the principle that schools have a key role in ensuring that all children and young people benefit from being outdoors – from outdoor learning, to residentials away from home, to more time outside the classroom.
- at a time of restricted curricula, reduced school budget, high accountability frameworks and a context in which school leaders are hyper aware of ‘risk’, in every sense of the word, there is a justified fear that schools might deprioritise outdoor learning.
The approach was a novel one; it was [i] to take those UK primary and secondary schools with the highest Progress 8 scores, and the winners of the Pupil Premium Awards, and summarise what they said about residentials and outdoor learning in their external prospectuses and websites, and [ii] to look at what inspectors said about the same topic in their most recent Ofsted reports on schools they deemed to be outstanding.
The report is a useful summary of recent activity. For example:
"Recent research has found that outdoor learning has a positive impact both academically and personally. The GLA (2011) released findings stating that when children spent time in nature, there was an improvement in both mental health and scientific learning. These findings were replicated by Fuller, Powell and Fox (2016) who conducted a three-year project in which they found that visiting outdoor residential centres led to an increase in pupil’s confidence as well as academic improvement. The benefits are not restricted to individual development: research has found that outdoor learning impacts how pupils work and socialise with peers (Christie, Higgins & McLaughlin, 2014, Learning Away, 2015). Leaving the classroom not only benefits pupils, but teachers as well. Natural England (2016) found that outdoor learning had a positive impact on teaching delivery as well as their personal health and wellbeing.”
There are also extracts from York Consulting’s evaluation of Learning Away's #BrilliantResidentials campaign, recent Ofsted reports from schools it deems outstanding, and the final report from the Natural Connections Demonstration Project. For example, their comments that Learning Away Residentials:
- improve students’ engagement with learning
- improve students’ knowledge, skills and understanding
- support students’ achievement
- foster deeper relationships
- improve students’ resilience, self-confidence and well-being
- boost cohesion and a sense of belonging
- widen and develop teachers’ pedagogical skills
“Learning Away has shown that a residential learning experience provides opportunities and benefits/impacts that cannot be achieved in any other educational context or setting. The impact is greater when residentials are fully integrated with a school’s curriculum and ethos.”
In a similar vein, Ofsted reports from schools deemed outstanding contain comments such as:
"An exceptional range of opportunities offered outside of the classroom are all well attended and highly valued by both pupils and parents."
"The curriculum includes numerous opportunities for pupils to learn beyond the school. Pupils participate in a broad range of trips which play a significant part in enriching the curriculum."
Examples of how 2016 premium funding award winners spent their funding on Outdoor Learning are also listed. For example:
"The Pupil Premium funding has enabled year 5 and 6 pupils to attend an Outward Bound residential. It was noted that ‘The work of the (Outward Bound) Trust is well documented in a number of case-studies showing that for disadvantaged pupils, greater gains are made in academic learning when they are faced with new challenges in adventurous settings. The school applies such learning to the school environment e.g. developing growth mindsets which improves co-constructed learning and outcomes."
The bulk of the report consists of 4 tables showing: [i] the top 20 primary and high schools along with promotion of outdoor learning on school website; [ii] the top high (ie secondary) schools based on their progress 8 scores in 2016; [iii] extracts from 20 recent Ofsted reports on schools deemed outstanding; and [iv] the Pupil Premium Award Winners.
Of course, what all this really shows is that successful schools occasionally let their students escape from school; it does not show that this day-release into the community is why they are successful schools – nor does the report claim this. It surely is the case, however, that good schools tend to be good for a range of reasons, and so it might be surprising if they didn't embrace outdoor learning, given what we know about its benefits. It might also be the case that not-so-good schools also tend to be not-so-good for a range of reasons, and so it could be that they neglect outdoor learning, despite what they know about its benefits. Or it could be that they embrace it just as much as good schools do – or that they embrace it not very successfully. There are a lot of unknowns here, but this report sheds no light on them.
There are familiar claims in the report that outdoor learning experiences can have positive benefits on student learning and student enjoyment of school. Well, who can doubt it? However, as noted above, in a good school where there are so many sources of stimulus, it must be hard to pinpoint what experience is responsible for which bit of improvement. This is probably why the report is number-free and you will no hard evidence to convince a hard-nosed, sceptical policy-maker who knows the value of statistics. As such, there is much in here that we already knew about or suspected, but nothing really helpful.
Afterthought: The collaborators on this project included: the English Outdoor Learning Council, the Institute for Outdoor Learning, Learning Away, and the Council for Learning Outside the Classroom. Isn't is absurd that all these outfits continue to exist as separate entities thereby diluting their effectiveness? Time for mergers and acquisitions ...