Outdoor learning schools Scotland: Why the next generation of Scottish teachers are heading outdoors

Scottish university puts outdoor learning at the heart of primary teacher training course

The seeds of an unlikely revolution in Scottish education are being sown at Queen Margaret University’s campus on the outskirts of Edinburgh.

Nestled between the A1 road and Musselburgh rail station, the buildings at the site are modern, spacious and airy, but the students there are increasingly being urged to head for the exit doors.

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In recent years, the university has become a leading advocate for learning outside. The institution will officially open a new outdoor hub on Tuesday, featuring a hand-crafted wooden shelter that can be used as a teaching facility, as well as a “discovery trail” and a “wee forest”, planted with the help of local primary school children.

Local school children help create the Wee Forest which now surrounds The Howff at Queen Margaret University, EdinburghLocal school children help create the Wee Forest which now surrounds The Howff at Queen Margaret University, Edinburgh
Local school children help create the Wee Forest which now surrounds The Howff at Queen Margaret University, Edinburgh

Queen Margaret University (QMU) is far from the only educational institution extolling the benefits of fresh air. A movement has been growing in many parts of the world, with Scotland at the forefront, despite its inclement weather.

However, what makes QMU stand out is how it has embedded outdoor learning right at the heart of its recently-created primary teacher training course, which is now producing more than a 100 graduates a year, who will head off to schools across Scotland.

It is difficult to quantify what could blossom from this way of thinking over the coming years and decades, but the potential is significant.

"There are so many positive benefits of being outdoors,” explained Patrick Boxall, a lecturer in education at QMU who has led the outdoor learning hub project.

Patrick Boxall, lecturer in initial teacher education at Queen Margaret UniversityPatrick Boxall, lecturer in initial teacher education at Queen Margaret University
Patrick Boxall, lecturer in initial teacher education at Queen Margaret University

"If you take people outside, generally they find that interesting and engaging, even if they are doing something that would be conventional indoors, like maths.

"Second of all there is an increasing amount of research going on that says it is good for people’s health and wellbeing. Just in terms of education, kids are feeling better about themselves – positive mental health and positive physical health.

"There is that side of things, but actually there is a growing amount of data that says that if people are doing work outdoors, it improves their attainment. It shouldn’t just be an add-on. It is not just a thing that you do on a nice, sunny Thursday.

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"If you integrate it into your curriculum, into your thinking, it’s going to be not only more enjoyable and more engaging for learning, but actually it will lead to better outcomes.”

A former head of English and drama at St David’s RC High School in Dalkeith, Mr Boxall joined the university in June 2020, shortly after the launch of the new primary teaching course in 2019.

QMU stepped in after Edinburgh University opted to end its four-year undergraduate degrees in the subject.

"I would be the first to say that other universities have built-in outdoor learning to their degree courses,” said Mr Boxall. “Stirling and Edinburgh have been leaders and they are leaders around research, and fair play, they are good colleagues.

“We are the first people that have built it in as a core part of the curriculum, in my understanding, where there are actually modules focussed on learning sustainability and outdoor learning, and that is part of the degree.

"We are the first people that have embedded additional qualifications in outdoor learning into the degree as kind of add-ons, bonuses. And we’re the first people to take from that curriculum thinking, that pedagogical thinking, and make it go outside, with a significant development [in the outdoor learning hub]."

The appetite for learning outdoors has spread through the university since the creation of the teaching course, not least after the Covid-19 pandemic forced many meetings outside anyway, often with positive results.

Mr Boxall, who is among a number of academics at QMU carrying out doctoral research linked to outdoor learning, spoke to The Scotsman amid a typical stretch of dreich weather, but said that should not stop Scotland from pioneering this way of teaching.

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“We moan about the weather, but actually it is really not that bad,” he insisted. "But also we’ve got a long tradition in Scotland of progressive thinking and very inclusive approaches. And of thinking about our land – whether it’s in our culture, or whether it’s in our music.

"So I think there is something about Scotland and land, landscape, that is really important. You are never far from the sea, you’re never far from a hill and you’re never far from a bit of open ground.”

While that may be true, Mr Boxall also admitted there may be practical problems which prevent some schools and communities from pursuing learning outside regularly.

"It is a very positive story, but I think there are some genuine challenges there,” he said. “They are about estate, they are about skilling up and supporting educators to feel confident. There’s the overall capacity and bandwidth of a school to organise these things, there’s actual staffing.”

An important way to resolve some of these issues, he said, was by working in partnership with others, particularly community groups.

While he was speaking to The Scotsman, Mr Boxall notices out of the window that a group has arrived at QMU campus from Edinburgh and Lothians Greenspace Trust, involving youngsters from the city’s disadvantaged Craigmillar area, who have been helping with the “wee forest”.

Young people, particularly those from difficult backgrounds, have been the focus of many negative headlines in Scottish education in recent months, amid falling attendances and rising school violence in the wake of the Covid lockdowns.

Mr Boxall said he believed outdoor learning could be a part of the solution to such problems. "If you bring in this kind of thinking, it could really shift the dial around inclusion, around engagement,” he said.

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“There are so many negatives stories in education. But actually there is an incredible message of hope here, and it comes from the multiple activists and leaders and educators. People are doing great things.”



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