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  • Writer's pictureDave Harvey

Levelling up: what does it mean for the outdoor learning sector?

Updated: May 24, 2022

In its Levelling Up White Paper the UK Government sets out its goal ‘to give everyone the opportunity to flourish’. As advocates for the transformational power of the outdoors for personal, social and community development, Place Innovation believe that there is a clear place for outdoor learning in this ambition.

Participation in outdoor learning can take place at any age, although the focus of the majority of the sector is with children and young people through schools, youth groups and outdoor learning organisations. The government’s vision relating to this age group is therefore significant, and has been set out in three policy papers:

  • The Youth Review summarises the findings of a review of the Youth Service begun in 2020;

  • Opportunity for all: Strong schools with great teachers for your child focuses on improving standards in schools;

  • Sustainability and climate change: a strategy for the education and children’s services systems responds to recommendations from, amongst others, the 25 Year Environment Plan and Net Zero Strategy.

  • Supporting these three papers is the SEND Review consultation paper.

You can read a more detailed review of these papers in the context of outdoor learning here.

We need to begin to tackle the inequalities that inhibit fair and equal access to the outdoors.

In the government’s vision for English schools, links to outdoor learning seek to address the twin challenges of sustainability and climate change. Unfortunately, the opportunity for curriculum reform and to make outdoor learning an entitlement in England has been missed. Instead the vision favours non-statutory teacher training and resource development, along with the voluntary Climate Leader’s Award and National Education Nature Park project.

Levelling Up seeks to address inequality but access to green spaces either in school or the immediate vicinity is unequal, meaning that provision will also be unequal.

Where outdoor learning activity is specifically mentioned there is support for existing schemes. The Youth Review, for example, clearly states the desire of young people to experience more adventurous activities away from home, yet the ‘solution’ to this challenge is a reformed NCS programme and financial support for schools that do not yet offer the DofE scheme. While the money apportioned to D of E and NCS is welcome, in real terms the funding for NCS is less than previously allocated and must now fund a year-round scheme. For schools not currently running DofE the funding will help to establish the scheme, although it is unlikely to address issues of equal access based on participants’ socio-economic status that exist where the scheme is already run.

The Levelling Up strategy appears to be supportive of outdoor learning, yet its non-statutory position in the education framework means that the sector will continue to need to prove its worth to potential customers, funders and policy makers.

Evidence-based practice underpins the government’s strategy in schools and youth provision, and while the research base supporting outdoor learning is growing, providers will need to be clear about the benefits they can attribute to their programmes. There may well be plenty of belief in the power of outdoor learning in schools and youth groups, but increasing energy, food and fuel costs will impact the spending power of schools and parents alike, making purchasing decisions harder. Without clear supporting evidence to back it up, the justification for buying a particular service in the future may be harder to achieve.

So where next? The papers set out the Government’s vison for education to 2030 and how it contributes to ‘levelling up’ productivity.

Specific outdoor learning related opportunities do exist, but there is a strong need for a more coherent, cross-government approach to the outdoors for learning and recreation.

Given its status as a ‘cultural good’ of the UK, it would seem that the time is now right for the outdoors to have similar status to the arts and sport. Similar to them, this would enable funding to be provided that supports access to the natural environment, allowing schools and youth groups to target funding that meets local need and context. Only then will we begin to tackle the inequalities that inhibit fair and equal access to the outdoors.

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