Select Committee on Education and Skills Minutes of Evidence

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 75-79)



  Q75 Chairman: Can I welcome Helen Williams and Stephen Crowe from the Department for Education and Skills who have kindly agreed to be here to answer some questions on what we have called an inquiry into the benefit of outdoor learning. This is an inquiry that we certainly take very seriously since three years ago some of us went to look at the Forest Schools Initiative in Denmark and saw the way in which even at pre-school the outside environment was used very positively as part of the educational experience of young children. There has been a whole number of issues that seemed to suggest that not only was it a time of change in outdoor learning but there were certain barriers to either its development or continuation. Stephen Crowne and Helen Williams, is there anything you would like to   say about your responsibilities? Interestingly enough, when we looked at your background in the department it did not really point up the reference and the relevance of outdoor learning to your particular remit, so perhaps you could illuminate us on that.

  Ms Williams: I am a Director within the Schools Standards Group within the DfES. I am responsible, among other things, for policy on the national curriculum and on support for all subjects and themes within the national curriculum, including outdoor education as a context for teaching and learning across the curriculum. That is how I come to be here today. The Department does see outdoor education as being a very important part of what schools should offer pupils to support a broad and rich curriculum. We know that some schools do use outdoor education pretty well but that there are other schools which, for whatever reason, are not fully exploiting the potential of outdoor learning. The department's policy is to work with a very wide range of partners to promote good practice in outdoor education and also to develop teachers' confidence and knowhow in planning and delivering outdoor education. We think it is absolutely key to getting outdoor education fully into the system to   convince heads and their staff that outdoor education has a contribution to make to pupil achievement and development so that they can build it in at the start into the curriculum and timetabling.

  Mr Crowne: I am Director of the School Resources Group which is responsible for school funding, capital investment, school organisation, school admissions, transport and safety, the last of which is essentially the reason I am here. My particular interest, as Helen says, is in working with partners to identify what are the obstacles to outdoor education which can range across issues of safety but also funding, transport and so on, to see whether there is more we can do in partnership to help give a greater sense of confidence amongst all schools that outdoor education is a central part of the offer and that there are ways of delivering that offer consistently and with high quality in all schools.

  Q76 Chairman: Thank you. This is a department that believes in evidence-based policy. Have you got any evidence that opportunities for outdoor learning are of any value at all?

  Ms Williams: There is a considerable amount of evidence, some of which we refer to in the memorandum that we sent you. I have not got chapter and verse at my fingertips but I am sure we can produce a lot of evidence showing that outdoor education has a contribution to make, for example, in science and geography and giving pupils first-hand practical experience of doing things in the wild, as it were, adventure activities in terms of developing pupils' skills, extending their horizons. There is quite a body of evidence. Outdoor learning is a very wide topic. Perhaps that is a point that ought to be made at the outset. It covers a great variety of things from field work in geography and biology through to trips to museums or places of cultural interest through to the Outward Bound activities.

  Mr Pollard: And Parliament?

  Ms Williams: Indeed, Parliament, and also we included in outdoor learning community-based activities, for example, volunteering which we encourage through the citizenship curriculum. We think that in all of those various areas there is evidence that, properly planned, outdoor learning can make a contribution to outcomes, to pupil achievement, but the emphasis is there on proper planning. It needs to be integrated into the whole curriculum offer for pupils rather than just being something done as an optional extra.

  Q77 Chairman: Is that one of the problems, that it is too diverse, that you start looking at this subject and, as you said, it includes a whole range of activities for a variety of ages? Where does your responsibility in terms of age begin?

  Ms Williams: I do not think it is a problem that it is a very rich and diverse field. I think that is just a fact. My interests in outdoor education span the full range of the curriculum from the foundation stage through to Key Stage 4 in a whole variety of subjects.

  Mr Crowne: From our perspective the key thing is that the school needs to be very clear about how particular activities form part of a rich curriculum for the pupils involved. In a way it should not be for us to try and lay down how each style or activity contributes; rather to ensure that the school is very clear, learning from what works in other schools and in other contexts and drawing together the best practice. When we are talking about removing the barriers we are also talking about encouraging the spread of understanding of how particular activities support particular curriculum objectives or social objectives, pastoral objectives and so on, in the school. To repeat the point, there is a tremendously wide range of activity here and one where we essentially need to work with a broad range of partners to ensure that distinctive contributions of each kind of activity are recognised and integrated in the school's overall offer.

  Q78 Chairman: What I am trying to get at is that if we do not have a pretty clear focus on what the value is and what the variety of contribution can be it is quite difficult for the Department to prompt schools to achieve high levels of added value for all the age ranges. Is that not the case?

  Mr Crowne: I am very wary of the Department seeking to distil out as it were, in a kind of salami-slice way, what distinctively each area contributes because in the end it is about how the school looks at the curriculum as a whole and plays to its local circumstances, the particular contexts it has to work with and feeds those into its overall view of the curriculum. I think there is a balance in this and where we ought to be putting our effort is in encouraging and promoting what the wide variety of partners believe to be the best practice and giving schools a menu of opportunities from which they can then select and mould and adapt in the light of their own particular circumstances.

  Q79 Chairman: Should it not be the Department's job to persuade by the evidence, by good practice, teachers in training, that this is a priority, that it is something that adds value to the life of the school and the life of the individual student? Is that not the level at which you should be taking a particular interest?

  Mr Crowne: It is a very good point and clearly this process has to start with initial training. The amount of time available for initial teacher trainees is limited and all we can expect is to give some basic tools around planning these kinds of activities. The real value added has to come during the early period of professional development in post when we should encourage all teachers to work together to see the benefits that can accrue from different types of activity and ensure that they are confident, through continuing professional development, in taking those kinds of activities forward. It is building the confidence and the understanding of the potential benefits where you get the real gains. You have to see it as a seamless development rather than focus specifically on the initial end.

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