Journalist and Writer
Hilary Wilce specialising in all aspects of education
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Learning outside the classroom

Published By: The Independent - 20 Sep 2007

Pupils in Lambeth do it by chalking poems on the playground. A school in Brixton does it by growing lettuces in raised beds. In Devon, children go out to climb tors on Dartmoor, while in Leeds students study urban development by walking from one side of the city to another.

Slowly more and more schools are waking up to the fact that the best learning often happens outside the classroom. And if a new government move proves effective, this kind of experience will soon become routine in school life.

Last autumn the Learning Outside the Classroom manifesto was launched by the Department of Children, Families and Schools (then the DfES) to bring together organisations working in the field of outdoor education. It aims to get schools using their grounds and local environment as an outdoor classroom, as well as taking pupils on more outside visits and trips. “Learning outside the classroom should be at the heart of every school’s curriculum and ethos,” pointed out former education secretary Alan Johnson. “Educational visits and out-of-school learning can bring learning to life by deepening young people’s understanding of the environment, history and culture and deepening their personal development.”

“It’s very clear now that a lots of pupils, especially boys and special needs students, learn best through doing,” explains Mary Jackson, senior development officer of the Learning Through Landscapes, the environmental education charity dedicated to helping schools develop their grounds as learning environments. “Teachers are always telling us about children who absolutely shine once they have the opportunity to learn things in a different way. And then there’s the health agenda. When pupils grow their own fruit and vegetables, they are much more likely to eat them.” Surveys have also shown that learning outside significantly reduces stress, bullying and bad behaviour.

However there are problems. Most schools do not yet see outside learning as something they want to spend time and money on, while many teachers are worried about health and safety, and profoundly risk averse. In addition, parents can be fearful of outside activities and funds for school trips and visits remain tight. Whether the manifesto will have enough clout to overcome these obstacles remains to be seen. Its first months have been taken up with backroom work, and with its tiny budget of £2.7m, and no celebrity name to front it, it looks unlikely to have anything like the impact of the £30m, high-profile schools music manifesto which is up and running at the same time.

“We absolutely support what it is doing,” says Chris Southwood, education development coordinator for Groundwork, the environmental regeneration charity, “and there is all the right documentation in place for the sector to come together and for a council be set up, but none of that is an answer in itself. Having a manifesto is great, but that doesn’t mean it’s going to happen.”

So far the manifesto has attracted nearly six hundred signatories, ranging from major national names such as the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds and the Arts Council, through museums and field studies centres, to individual teachers and schools. And this summer it got its first public boost when The Growing Schools Garden, designed to highlight its aims, won a gold medal at the Hampton Court Garden Show.

This garden, a cheerful hotch-potch of habitations was created with the several hundred school pupils, and prompted delighted exclamations from the long line of visitors who snaked their way around it, peering at the pond and vegetable plots, examining the mosaics and sculptures, and laughing at the wickerwork pigs.

Chris Beardshaw, the garden’s designer and television presenter, says, “I honestly believe that there is no area of learning that can’t be improved by being out in the fresh air, getting your hands dirty, or getting close to nature. The more young people experience the wider world, the more informed, inspired and engaged they become.”

But using your school grounds as a classroom is not only about outside activities, explains Jackson. “It’s about everything. If you are writing a poem about a tree, why sit inside? If you are doing the Great Fire of London, you could go outside and set something on fire to show how quickly fire spreads!” Even the most cramped school can, at very least, create a traversing wall where pupils can climb. “And although people worry about risk, it’s the barren playgrounds that are the most risky because all children have got to do is to run around and crash into each other.“

At Hampton Court, schools groups were present throughout the week to show visitors how the outside environment can be used for learning. A group from Bertie’s Playgroup in Faversham, Kent, sat on the grass to make tree mobiles, while a handful of children from St Ives Infants School, came to play ‘mood music’ under the trees. Back in Cornwall these same children tend a school garden where they grow broad beans and potatoes, and use a local woodland area for learning. “We are trying to use the outdoors a lot more now, in everything we do.” says teacher Ann Buckley. “And they love it. These are the sort of experiences they will never forget.”

The prize-winning garden was backed by quarter of a million pounds by the DCSF and show-cased various kinds of outdoor learning including story corners, a geological display, a poetry garden and an evolutionary garden with some of the world’s oldest trees and ferns. It contained 3,000 plants, more than a hundred of which had been grown by seed by 10 schools, and 25 types of fruit, and is now being re-created at the Birmingham Botanical Gardens as a permanent resource for schools, backed by a website showing how the garden’s features were made and how they can be used for teaching and learning.

The manifesto points out that learning in ‘real’ situations improves exam results, develops independence and nurtures creativity, and aims to encourage teachers to do everything from planting a windowbox to taking children away on overseas trips. And this includes all schools. “People always think this sort of thing is most important for urban schools,” says Jackson, “but often it’s the rural schools, on tiny sites, that struggle most to get pupils outside.”

Ruth Taylor, head of education at the Royal Horticultural Society, points out, “The manifesto is not just about promoting the idea of getting children out of the classroom, but also out of school, and will help give teachers more of a reason to make a visit. And there’s an obvious advantage to bringing people together. Even just having a website where venues are listed, so teachers know that they are good sites where everything is in place, will help. And there is such impact in getting children outdoors. We’ve seen it with our projects. The effects on children’s work, and their attitudes, and their ability to work together, and to show different sides of themselves is absolutely amazing.”

Most of the money ear-marked for the campaign is expected to go towards training new and existing teachers to use the outdoors as a learning resource. However, without a Jamie Oliver, who headed the campaign for better school meals, or a Howard Goodall, who fronts the drive for school singing, to put the idea over, campaigners fear that the message could be slow to catch hold.

However the real test will how much impact the manifesto will have had in two or three years’ time. So far, when it comes to persuading schools to use their school grounds more productively, it is clear that progress tends to variable. Early years groups are increasingly enthusiastic, but secondary schools remain slow to see them as anything more than a space where children can use up their break-time energies.

“If the advisory groups get it right then there will at least be national, government-backed, creditable agenda that teachers can refer to and that will help give them confidence in what they are doing,” says Southwood. “But it’s a slow business convincing people that this area is important, and where’s the work with the governors, and with school leaders? Is that being highlighted as well? Because it needs to be. These are the people who need to be convinced, and it all needs to be done together.” She is in no doubt that more money is needed to run a truly substantial campaign. “It’s as if, at the moment, we’re only oiling one wheel, and then another, and not all four wheels at the same time.”

Learning Outdoors

Thirty one schools helped make the Growing Schools Garden. Pupils from Portway Junior School, in Andover, took to their school grounds to discover what lived there. They collected soil samples and examined mini-beasts, then used rubbish and copper wire to make sculptures of them. They built ‘bug hotels’ and made bat boxes with the help of secondary school pupils. Older pupils studied primroses, then sculpted them in clay, and studied the Green Man legend and used plastic milk bottles to make images of the character which were then hidden around the garden. The head of the school gardening club, Wendy David, says that the garden-oriented activities enhanced learning right across the curriculum, from science and geography to design and technology and citizenship. A secondary school, Costessey High School, in Norwich, which works extensively on environmental education, made gabions filled with local rocks and decorated with students’ artwork of local wildlife, and also grew eight different plants from seed, including parsley and cornflowers. Pauline Williamson, a senior science technician, said working for the garden had helped to demonstrate how the school was improving the environmental education of the whole local community.