Out of classroom environmental learning in 2004

Posted in: Comment, News and Updates

For those of you keen to see how much progress we've made over recent years, here is the 2004 submission made by the Council for Environmental Education to the Select Committee on Education and Skills in their 2004 enquiry into out of classroom environmental learning [OoCEL] ...


The Council for Environmental Education (CEE) is the national strategic organisation for environmental education in England. Founded in 1968, CEE's membership includes 73 national organisations and an ever-increasing, diverse network of organisations with interests in education, the environment and sustainable development. Our work seeks to add value to the sector and create a supportive policy climate. For example, CEE acted as special adviser to the Environmental Audit Committee inquiry Learning the Sustainability Lesson. CEE is grateful for this opportunity to contribute to the Committee's inquiry.


CEE is particularly concerned with educational experience of natural and built environments, and educational experiences in education centres, visitor centres, and museums relating to the environment. This will be referred to throughout this submission as "out of classroom environmental learning", (OoCEL) reflecting elements of the useful categorisation of the range of interests in education and the environment developed by Scott and Gough (1).


Since the expansion of mass schooling, a strand of educational thinking has stressed the importance of learning outside the classroom. Patrick Geddes' Outlook Tower in Edinburgh at the end of the 19th Century set out a model for the field and urban studies centres that developed in this country, particularly after 1945. Specialist provision for young people to study the world beyond the classroom became widespread.

The Field Studies Council (FSC) noted in 1972 that between 1941 and 1969, the number of Local Education Authority (LEA) field centres grew from about five to about 110. It identified nearly 200 centres run by schools, the Youth Hostels Association, FSC and other organisations.

However, at that time, as the authors of Out and About (2) observed, many schools still reflected a belief that school life and life in the "outside world" should be separate:

"Windows were high, often frosted, so that pupils should not be distracted by the outside view from concentrating on the `essentials' taught within classrooms . . . History, geography, science, English and mathematics were subjects to be studied from printed books and blackboard summaries; they bore no relationship to the town, the countryside, and the communities of the children's outside life."

The CEE report to the Countryside in 1970 conference referred to schools "exploding into the environment".Streetwork, the Exploding School (3) made a significant contribution to thinking on OoCEL. "It is a book about ideas: ideas of the environment as the educational resource, ideas of the enquiring school, the school without walls . . ."

Throughout the 1970s the diversification and development of opportunities and professional expertise continued throughout a network of residential and day centres, and public institutions supporting OoCEL. By 1980 it was common for LEAs to have at least one centre, in the case of Birmingham, a dozen. With budget restrictions, LEA provision began to wither; the introduction of Local Management of Schools (LMS) significantly reduced the number of LEA centres and advisers focusing on OoCEL. This decline is demonstrated by the reduction in membership of professional bodies, the Environmental Education Advisers Association and National Association for Environmental Education. Education policies since the start of LMS have continued to erode public provision of services supporting OoCEL and the ability of teachers to make use of them. Other local authority departments, NGOs, private centres, museums and other providers have strived to replace or supplement LEA work but coherent, professional and inclusive provision of OoCEL is now patchy. Speakers and delegates at CEE's 2001 conference, The Power of Place,argued persuasively for the necessity of OoCEL to contextualise the curriculum, whilst reflecting on barriers to its adoption and development: concentration on a limited core curriculum and quantitative evaluation, low status in inspection, funding changes, a decline in teachers' expertise and LEA support, safety concerns and fear of litigation.

Recent attempts to support such learning fail to address many of the barriers to more challenging, effective and inclusive OoCEL. FSC, the British Ecological Society (4) and others have raised the prospect that at least one aspect of OoCEL, biology fieldwork, "risks extinction", and evidence gathered by the Real World Learning Campaign (5) suggests a decline in takeup of OoCEL in specific subject areas, at specific phases, and amongst disadvantaged user groups.


When highly valued by participants, integrated into the curriculum, well planned and professionally supported, OoCEL has great educational value. In A Review of Research on Outdoor Learning (6), researchers at The National Foundation for Educational Research and Kings College London conclude that there is strong evidence that OoCEL has significant cognitive and affective impact, and, critically, provides an opportunity for mutual reinforcement of knowledge, understanding and affective experience. Academic benefits include strong support of curriculum requirements in geography, science, history, citizenship and significant contribution to education for sustainable development (ESD). The Government's Sustainable Development Action Plan for Education and Skills (7), launched in 2003, has as its primary aim that "all learners will develop the skills, knowledge and value base to be active citizens in creating a more sustainable society". Existing opportunities, including those provided by CEE members, make a clear contribution towards this goal. A more supportive policy climate would allow this contribution to be strengthened.

A recent Ofsted report (8), though concentrating on adventurous outdoor education, draws attention to the role of direct experience of new environments or new experiences in familiar environments in contextualising aspects of the curriculum.

Research also points to the importance of direct experience in valuing and developing understanding of the environment. The Demos/Green Alliance report A Child's Place (9) concludes that:

"Many children have a surprisingly good grasp of environmental issues but gain their most powerful understanding through exploration of their own natural environment."

Such understanding is empowering, and critical to achieving sustainable development.


Department for Education and Skills (DfES), government agency, LEA and school policy needs to support OoCEL if it is to be effective. There is little evidence that current policy sufficiently supports integration of challenging, effective OoCEL into the curriculum. Within the National Curriculum Geography Programme of Study, "appropriate" fieldwork is required, but no guidance is provided on its location or duration. Geography is itself marginalised in many schools; Ofsted has identified serious weaknesses (and evidence of schools failing to meet curriculum requirements for fieldwork) in primary geography (10). There are no curriculum requirements for fieldwork or educational visits in other subjects, such as science, citizenship and history.

This low profile is also reflected in the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority (QCA) model Scheme of Work: a concern when such a high proportion of schools are using the model as the basis of their curriculum planning. OoCEL is not specifically assessed in most school inspections, and is not specified by most GCSE, A Level or vocational examination specifications.

There is limited guidance available for schools and providers on quality in OoCEL is limited. Whilst good materials are available, including those provided by some LEAs, CEE's Measuring Effectiveness: evaluation in Education for Sustainable Development (11), and Quality, Safety and Sustainability (12), published by the National Association of Field Studies Officers (NAFSO), further research is needed on the contribution of OoCEL and aspects of quality provision.

Specific recognition within the Ofsted inspection framework of the value of OoCEL and further guidance from QCA on integrating OoCEL into the curriculum would be beneficial.

DfES has provided useful guidance aimed at minimising risk to pupils' health and welfare, including Health and Safety of Pupils on Educational Visits (13), Standards for LEAs in Overseeing Educational Visits (14), Handbook for Group Leaders (15) and Group Safety at Water Margins (16).

This welcome focus on minimising risk is not, however, balanced by sufficient emphasis on the benefits of OoCEL, on supporting teachers in developing relevant expertise, and in protecting schools and teachers from financial risk when accidents, regrettably, occur. This lack of support is understandably reflected in the approach of teaching unions. NASUWT currently advises its members not to lead educational visits; in response to HMCI David Bell's statement at the launch of Ofsted's report on outdoor education that "if teachers follow the recognised safety procedures and guidance they have nothing to fear from the law", NASUWT issued the following: "As NASUWT casework has demonstrated time and time again, following the procedures and guidance is no protection against litigation".

A more robust legal and practical framework is required, within which teachers can feel confident to operate and support OoCEL. The framework should allow for action commensurate with risk, and reflect a consensus between government, providers and the profession (including the teaching unions). Furthermore, more research is needed on the efficacy of LEA and school policies designed to support learning outside the classroom.

Teacher education has a vital role in developing teachers' expertise and confidence in accessing, integrating, and leading OoCEL. Anecdotal evidence suggests a decline in the status of fieldwork and other OoCEL in BEd and PGCE courses, and a decline in relevant experience expertise amongst teacher trainers. More research is required to identify good practice and the extent of relevant learning in initial teacher training and continuing professional development activities. A commitment from DfES and the Teacher Training Agency to ensure suitable support within teacher education would be of great benefit.


Before LMS, subsidised LEA provision enabled many pupils from low income areas to benefit from OoCEL experiences. Currently some groups are excluded from such opportunities. Research is needed to assess this trend and to explore models of inclusive national and local support. Specific funding may be required to allow inclusive access to opportunities, and Government needs to research the possibility of introducing an entitlement to OoCEL.

Providers of OoCEL opportunities also require support. Funding for so many activities is not currently available directly from DfES or DCMS, and funding changes including the end of education project funding from the Landfill Tax Credit Scheme, changes to National Lottery funding programmes, and a shift away from education in the latest round of Defra's Environmental Action Fund, have left many providers facing great uncertainty.

DfES has funded some providers through the Growing Schools scheme. The initiative, which "aims to use the `outdoor classroom' as a context for learning, both within and beyond the school grounds" has been cited by ministers (17) (18) (19) in responses to Parliamentary questions on fieldwork and out of classroom learning. CEE welcomes the initiative. However, an independent evaluation of pilot projects carried out by CEE and Bath University's Centre for Research in Education and the Environment (20), raised generic issues on OoCEL, and questioned whether the scheme recognises, or significantly addresses, barriers to challenging, effective learning outside the classroom.


    —  DfES and agencies need to identify and address barriers to OoCEL.
    —  Government, LEA and schools policy needs to support OoCEL.
    —  A robust, fair, legal framework for OoCEL is required.
    —  Research and action is required on ITT and CPD for teachers.
    —  Central and local government needs to adequately fund inclusive provision.


1.   Sustainable Development and Learning: Framing the Issues; Scott W and Gough S, RoutledgeFalmer, 2003.

2.   Out and About: A Teachers' Guide to Safety on Educational Visits; Schools Council, Evans/Methuen, 1972.

3.   Streetwork, the Exploding School; Ward C and Fyson A, TCPA, Routledge and Keegan Paul,1973.

4.   Teaching Biology Outside the Classroom: Is it Heading for Extinction?; Field Studies Council/British Ecological Society, 2003.

5.  Personal communication, 2004.

6.   A Review of Research on Outdoor Learning; Rickinson M, Dillon J, Temey K, Morris M, Mee Young Choi, Sanders D, Benefield P, Field Studies Council.

7.   Sustainable Development Action Plan for Education and Skills; DfES, 2003.

8.   Outdoor Education: Aspects of Good Practice; Ofsted, 2004.

9.   A Child's Place; Demos and Green Alliance, 2004.

10.   Ofsted Subject Reports 2002-03 Geography in Primary Schools; Ofsted, 2004.

11.   Measuring Effectiveness: Evaluation in Education for Sustainable Development; CEE, 2004.

12.   Quality, Safety and Sustainability; NAFSO, 2004.

13.   Health and Safety of Pupils on Educational Visits; DfES, 1998

14.   Standards for LEAs in Overseeing Educational Visits; DfES, 2002.

15.   Handbook for Group Leaders; DfES, 2002.

16.   Group Safety at Water Margins; DfES, 2003.

17.  Science Teaching: Response by Baroness Ashton; 10 Sept 2003: Column WA130.

18.  Natural Environment: Response by Mr Stephen Twigg; Hansard 16 Jul 2004: Column 1372W.

19.  Non-Classroom Learning: Response by Mr Stephen Twigg; Hansard 14 Sept 2004: Column 1566W.

20.   Growing Schools—The Innovation Fund Projects (2002-03): an External Evaluation; Council for Environmental Education, University of Bath Centre for Research in Education and the Environment, 2003.

October 2004


Well done for making it this far.  My only comment is too compare the acronyms:

OoCEL – out of classroom environmental learning                 LOtC – learning outside the classroom

... and ask my usual question: learning what, exactly given that, 14 years on, we have managed to lose sight of 'environment' at a time when it is more needed than ever.  Careless would you say?  Or deliberate so as to create a big tent into which all can gather no matter what they are interested in?  As they say in Somerset, if you're interested in learning more about al fresco cider drinking, then LOtC's for you.

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