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  • Writer's pictureDave Harvey

A Picture of Participation

How much outdoor learning is going on?

In 2015 the Blagrave Trust and Institute for Outdoor Learning (IOL) commissioned a review of the evidence base supporting the effectiveness of outdoor learning. The subsequent report, often referred to as the Blagrave Report, was intended to provide a ‘coherent sense of the sector as a whole’, as well as assessing what was being measured and how robust the methodology was. However, the authors found no single source of data that gave an indication of scale and as a result they recommended that the sector ‘pull together the various data sources…to give the current picture and create a system to regularly capture data on the types and volumes of activity’.


Why is this important?


The increasing volume of evidence supporting the positive benefits of learning in the outdoors suggests that opportunities should be available for all children and young people to access. As we know, however, access is inequitable and dependent on a wide variety of social, economic, political, geographic and cultural factors. Different strategies to increase participation range from local to national in scale and ambition, but all require money, time, resources and commitment to succeed.


Gathering data is tricky, not least because of the many interpretations of outdoor learning. Organisations collate and use data using different methods and for different purposes, and there are also issues with ‘what counts’ as outdoor learning. How does a 6-year old’s class experience compare with a 15-year old’s membership of the Scouts, for example? Data sets exist for many organisations in terms of numbers of participants and offer one way of gauging participation, although they do not offer the more granular detail needed to understand who is accessing the provision, or indeed who may want to but currently cannot. In schools, assessing the time spent outdoors offers an alternative measure, but so far this is limited to research in Scotland and a couple of questions in Natural England’s Children’s People and Nature Survey.


What does the data show?


Comparing pre-and post-pandemic figures shows the impact of Covid-19 on participation.

  • Numbers, unsurprisingly, are down in terms of membership of organisations like Scouts, Cadets and Guides, and participation in D of E, NCS and the John Muir Award is significantly less.

  • The number of students taking GCSE and A-level Geography has increased, and the reintroduction of fieldwork may yet lead to further increases.

  • One further aspect of provision that is seeing an increase is the number of care farm places, reflecting the increased demand for mental health support.

No single data source can provide the answer as there are numerous interpretations and participation groups. Despite these shortcomings an update of available data on a regular basis would be straightforward and when combined with longitudinal studies such as the ongoing Children’s People and Nature Survey would provide a high-level indication of OL access trends and the success, or otherwise, of strategies to increase participation. Read the full article (published in the IOL’s Horizons magazine in November 2022) here.


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