Martin Davidson: Get the kids to go outside and they will learn more about themselves

Newquay Tretherras Academy Outward Bound Winter Skills Course Loch Eil
Newquay Tretherras Academy Outward Bound Winter Skills Course Loch Eil
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The advantages to young people of outdoor adventure and education have become widely acknowledged in recent years, as evidence has mounted about the positive advantages high quality experiences can bring.

Amongst the benefits are increased confidence, closer bonds with peers and teachers, greater resilience, leadership skills and higher ­academic achievement. The research also shows that at key moments in a child’s school career, such as the transition from primary to secondary school or that of leaving school for work or further education, demonstrating a range of ‘soft skills’ can significantly help a young person’s life chances.

Martin Davidson is director of The Outward Bound Trust.

Martin Davidson is director of The Outward Bound Trust.

From 2008 to 2015, 60 schools in the UK took part in a project, Learning Away, aimed at supporting the schools to significantly enhance young people’s learning achievements using innovative residential experiences.

The initiative, funded by the Paul Hamlyn Foundation, developed new models of residentials, including some co-constructed in partnership with outdoor providers. Each partnership had a distinct identity and focused on different challenges, whether it was cultural cohesion, academic attainment or raising ­aspirations.

The programme developed the ­concept of ‘brilliant residentials’, and this was independently assessed in 2012. The evaluation found compelling evidence that high quality residential learning can impact positively on students of all ages and can help deliver whole school change.

At the Outward Bound Trust, we have been involved in providing top quality outdoor residential experiences for more than 75 years and we have helped advance research on the long and short term impacts for young people. We constantly evaluate our courses and we know that there are huge benefits for young people in experiencing the outdoors with their peers.

A question for us and for similar providers, is whether residentials in the winter are any different from those in the summer. After all, it is one thing to climb a mountain or jump into a loch in the summer sunshine and quite another to do so in the freezing cold, wind and driving rain. Our participation in the ‘brilliant residentials’ programme helped us focus on developing our winter residential courses even further.

One notable success story is that of Newquay Tretharras School in Cornwall. As Tretherras is in the far south-west of England, it rarely gets any snow or really cold winter weather, so six years ago Tretharras began offering its sixth form students the opportunity to attend our winter course in Loch Eil in the Highlands.

The course provides a very different kind of landscape and weather as a context for personal and character development through developing advanced outdoor skills .

The ­students prepare with classroom-based theory before the ­expedition as they need to be ­thoroughly committed to, and knowledgeable about, the challenge. Teachers use the 17-hour journey from Cornwall to Scotland to solidify learning, encourage group bonding and to review the course on the return journey.

The group learn winter survival tips and practice using ice axes, and ­participate in a mini-expedition where everyone digs a snow hole in which they sleep out under the stars. This is the crux of the experience – being out in the elements overnight. A certificate-awarding ceremony and a meal at the base of Ben Nevis to celebrate the group’s achievements marks the end of the course. An important part of the process is to embed learning and to recognise what the students have achieved.

Total immersion in the rugged Scottish winter landscape provides the students with a strong sense of self-confidence, engagement and motivation.

At the Trust, we believe that big adventure and high challenge brings deeper learning. Winter residential courses offer deeper learning opportunities because the ability to work as a team and go up a mountain and back safely is even more impressive when this occurs during inclement weather conditions. These are significant skills and life lessons to gain.

For more information on ­Learning Award and the Brilliant Residentials campaign see and #BrilliantResidentials. To hear more about The Outward Bound Trust’s work contact Martin Davidson at

Martin Davidson is director of The Outward Bound Trust.