Covid helped teach us the value of outdoor education but Scotland must act to secure its future – Murdo Fraser MSP

Too often these days, education debates are all about numbers: the number of teachers, of SQA passes, the percentage scores in literacy and numeracy, class sizes, to name just a few.

Outdoor education can help build confidence and self-esteem among children (Picture: Tim Richardson)

Whilst all this is important, we also need to turn our attention to more of the qualitative aspects of education – aspects which can never be reduced to numbers and snappy media headlines – but which are just as important when it comes to developing life skills.

That is where residential outdoor education comes in and that is why I am strongly supporting my colleague Liz Smith MSP with her new Member’s Bill at Holyrood, which aims to provide an entitlement to all young people that they will be afforded the opportunity to experience residential outdoor education sometime during their school career between the ages of 12-16.

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Many primary schools provide a trip to an outdoor centre at P7 as part of the transition to high school. It’s an important rite of passage at that age, with youngsters often being away from home without their parents or siblings for the first time, having to take responsibility for themselves and learn new skills.

It’s something that my son, now 13, benefited from enormously a couple of years ago. Sadly, my daughter of 12, who has just made the transition to senior school, missed out on the opportunity due to Covid restrictions – another example of young people bearing the brunt of the pandemic’s impacts.

It’s not just at primary level that outdoor education has such an important role to play. For those studying topics such as geography, it is invaluable part of the learning experience. The acquisition of social skills such as team-building, and the self-discovery that involves, means that a stay away in a residential centre has substantial benefits for all ages.

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The 1980 Education Act, Section 6, currently empowers local authorities to set up outdoor education centres and to assist with the provision of opportunities afforded by them, but we know that, in practice, far too many youngsters are losing out and never getting the chance to take advantage of these opportunities. And we know too, that this is particularly true for our more vulnerable and disadvantaged young people. That has to change and here’s why.

Firstly, there is widespread and longstanding evidence from educational research that these experiences enrich the lives of the young people involved, that they provide them with a knowledge and appreciation of environments and communities other than those with which they are most familiar, and that they help build confidence, self-esteem and belief in themselves.

In particular, these activities teach pupils leadership skills, the need for responsible behaviour and how to deal with new challenges and risk factors. Indeed, they often discover positive attributes they didn’t know they had.

This is precisely why further and higher education institutions, and a whole range of employers, are so keen on residential outdoor education since it enhances the life-skills of future students and employees.

As well as academic credentials, they greatly value all the other attributes that combine to give young people a well-rounded education upon which the original principles of the Curriculum for Excellence were based.

In the Covid age, when there is growing concern about young people’s physical and mental health and lifestyles, and when there is also concern that many children from some of the more deprived areas do not get the same opportunities as their counterparts elsewhere, it is only too obvious that residential outdoor education has a large part to play in the recovery.

Indeed, I am struck that this is the key point raised by many of the stakeholders who are so keen on Liz’s bill. They want to see a levelling up of opportunity for all young people, irrespective of income or background.

Aside from all the compelling educational arguments there is another reason, and that is to do with the fact that so many of our outdoor centres find themselves facing extremely challenging financial circumstances.

Covid restrictions have been devastating for their income flows – so much so, that there is talk that around a third of them might have to close down. If that happened, not only would Scotland lose the bed space available but also the vast wealth of experience and commitment amongst the staff. We simply can’t allow that to happen.

Like any Member’s Bill, there will be challenges along the way even if there is cross-party support for its principles. Liz is in no doubt that the main challenge in her Bill relates to local authority resources, most especially in an environment of increasingly tight budgets.

I know she has ideas about how these challenges can be addressed and I am sure they will be raised during the formal consultation stage which is just starting at Holyrood.

There are other issues too; those relating to staffing and coping with the ever-increasing health and safety issues which accompany all school trips, but they are not insurmountable and, given the strength of support for this Bill in principle, there is a determination out there to make this work.

If there is one thing which sums up the need for this Bill, it is the building of resilience in our young people. Covid has made us reassess our educational priorities and I am in no doubt that residential outdoor education has a critical role to play.

If we ignore it, we will be guilty of discriminating against a whole generation of young people whose education would be devoid of something very special which goes well beyond what can be learnt in any classroom.

Murdo Fraser is a Scottish Conservative MSP for Mid-Scotland and Fife

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