Select Committee on Education and Skills Second Report

5 The Role of the DfES

66. Our inquiry has revealed that there is currently a very patchy provision of outdoor education in schools. Some schools do well in organising a carefully planned programme of educational experiences outside the classroom, whereas others are put off by perceptions of risk, time-consuming bureaucracy and cost. The good practice of some schools in this area suggests that it would be possible for others to follow suit and that the DfES could expect to be successful in an attempt to share good practice across schools. When we expressed this view to the Minister, he agreed:

"We want schools to make the very, very best use of the various opportunities that are available and what we know is a lot of schools do but a lot of schools do not. What that says is there is the potential within the framework we have got at the moment to get there. Our role needs to be to see what can be done to encourage all schools to take up the opportunities that are available to them."[71]

67. We conclude that the DfES has a vital role to play in demonstrating the value of out-of-classroom learning to schools and spreading best practice across all schools. The future of outdoor learning depends on clear direction and leadership from the DfES that has so far been woefully missing.

68. A key role for Government is the provision of advice concerning the conduct of visits and of health and safety guidance. As we noted earlier in this report, the DfES has recently updated its guidance on a number of occasions. This clear health and safety advice is to be welcomed, but the Department as well as LEAs should take care to ensure that schools and activity centres are not becoming overloaded with risk assessment bureaucracy from different, overlapping organisations, as this can be a significant deterrent.

69. We are also concerned that the recent overwhelming focus on risk and health and safety issues may have meant that opportunities for curricular development have been missed. For example, in a written submission to the Committee, Dr Pete Higgins states:

"The response of the outdoor education sector on issues of safety has been, since the Lyme Bay incident in 1993, to focus almost exclusively on safety-related issues in their professional practice. Whilst such a response is entirely understandable, it has meant that curricular change has gone largely unnoticed and the resulting opportunities unexploited. This has led to a situation where although many experiences outside the classroom can be deemed to be 'safe' they have little or no locus in a curriculum."

The DfES needs to take the lead by demonstrating the low levels of risk attached to school visits. This could perhaps be achieved via a statistical comparison with other everyday activities. Given the relatively low levels of risk attached to outdoor activities, the Department should now give a clear steer to schools that educational innovation outside the classroom is to be welcomed and even to be expected.

70. The DfES has set up some initiatives aimed at encouraging outdoor learning. Chief among these are GetREAL and the Growing Schools programme. These have been supplemented by projects from other departments, for example Defra's Countryside Access schemes, as well as some innovative work by the Welsh Assembly.[72] In oral evidence, the Minister particularly stressed the importance and success of the Growing Schools project, terming it "a really, really powerful instrument of improvement"[73] and claiming: "We have got 10,000 schools signed up to Growing Schools. Almost half the schools are already part of this. What that means in practice in most schools is going to vary. They are not all at the excellent end of the spectrum but it is pretty impressive to have that number of schools already part of a network. "[74]

71. Although the Minister boasted that 10,000 schools have signed up to Growing Schools, we have some concerns about the limitations of this project. Growing Schools was specifically set up to teach children about food, farming and the environment, to explain how food travels from the farmyard to the dinner table and explore healthy eating and environmental impacts in this context. The Real World Learning Campaign describes the Growing Schools project as a programme "shackled if not dominated by a food and farming agenda", which cannot therefore be expected to resolve the wider problems facing outdoor education, described in this report.[75] In addition, an independent evaluation of the programme by the Council for Environmental Education and Bath University's Centre for Research in Education and the Environment notes the good resources supplied via the Growing Schools website, but questions whether the scheme recognises, or significantly addresses, barriers to effective learning outside the classroom.[76] The Committee believes that current Government initiatives do not go far enough in overcoming the barriers to outdoor learning. What is needed is a coherent strategy for education outside the classroom that brings together good practice from around the country, rather than a small number of limited, if worthy projects.

72. Throughout this inquiry, we have been impressed by the number and variety of voluntary, commercial and professional organisations involved in the provision of outdoor education. These include charitable foundations in the heritage and environmental sectors, local and national companies that bring schools into their businesses, commercial providers of educational and adventurous activities and teachers' professional bodies. In developing a strategy for out-of-classroom education, the DfES needs to more effectively engage these partners, exploiting and developing the resources that already exist.

73. In order to reverse the decline of outdoor education, some of our witnesses have called for a national entitlement to a certain amount of hours of outdoor learning within the school curriculum. The National Curriculum already lays down some limited statutory entitlements to outdoor learning, particularly in the Foundation Stage for nursery children, in PE and recently in Geography, where there is now a requirement for an element of fieldwork. Our evidence on the extent to which this requirement is being met or exceeded varies. The Field Studies Council told us that "the statutory requirement to carry out fieldwork has had a major positive impact on levels of geography fieldwork",[77] yet other witnesses complained that provision is patchy with some schools struggling to reach the bare minimum.[78] We are particularly concerned that these subject-specific requirements do not sit easily with the cross-curricular nature of much outdoor learning and its ability to raise achievement across subject areas.

74. In oral evidence, DfES officials opposed the idea of a cross-curricular statutory entitlement to outdoor learning, saying that an entitlement "does not offer any assurance about the quality or the relevance of the experience. It is an input measure".[79] This response surprised us, as the department has used the concept of an entitlement successfully in the past (for example, with the 'Literacy Hour'). Nevertheless, we would agree that the simple imposition of an entitlement is unlikely to improve matters by itself. It would need to be accompanied by other measures enabling the entitlement to be delivered.

75. As an alternative to an entitlement, DfES officials suggested that education outside the classroom could be expanded and improved by means of a 'Manifesto for Outdoor Learning'. Campaign groups have called for such a commitment, most recently through the Real World Learning Campaign, an alliance of organisations involved in outdoor education. Any manifesto should be part of a national strategy. The Committee supports the idea of a Manifesto for Outdoor Learning, but it must be more than 'warm words'.

76. Whatever mechanism is used, the Department's role must be expanded from its current reactive work to a more proactive function, championing the benefits of outdoor education. We regret that too often in education, the General Teaching Council and professional organisations do not have the will or the capacity to promote best practice effectively and so the Government is left with the responsibility of driving change.

77. We recommend that the DfES set up a structure to promote education outside the classroom at all levels. Within the Department, a dedicated team of officials should have responsibility for outdoor learning across curriculum areas and should tap into other Departmental initiatives, such as the extended schools programme and the provision of before/after school activities. A high profile 'champion' for outdoor learning should be appointed to lead this team. In each LEA, an Outdoor Education Adviser should be in place, promoting and co-ordinating outdoor learning locally and liaising with the Department. Each school should have a well trained Educational Visits Co-ordinator, whose role should be strengthened and expanded to act as the local champion for outdoor learning. A nationwide network of support, guidance and innovation would move outdoor education forwards from its current, patchy position to a more uniform provision of high quality opportunities throughout the country.

71   Q 227 Back

72   Ev 192, Ev 163. Back

73   Q 226 Back

74   Q 248 Back

75   Ev 101 Back

76   Growing Schools-The Innovation Fund Projects (2002-2003): an External Evaluation; Council for Environmental Education, University of Bath Centre for Research in Education and the Environment, 2003. Ev 176. Back

77   Ev 11, para 3. Back

78   Q 4 Back

79   Q 97 Back

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