I was reading an article in the Guardian about an outdoor charity group warning that the continual cuts to social and youth services from central government as part of its ideologically driven austerity economic strategy, is seriously impacting on those client groups who benefit most from services provided by these outdoor education organisations.
Back in the 1980’s I was involved with a North Wales charity group which took socially disadvantaged youngsters on outdoor activity weekends. Using bases in N Wales and Langdale in the English Lake District, we would set off on a Friday evening in a mini bus and spend the weekend taking our charges hill-walking, rock climbing, kayaking and sailing. For many of these young teenagers it would be their first experience of the great outdoors. The client base was referred to us by the child services team within the social services. Those referred by the team would be seen as most likely to benefit from a break from their often traumatic home lives. More often than not, living dysfunctional lives within dysfunctional families on some of NE Wales’s lousiest housing estates. In those days, the charity had a great working relationship with what was then known as ‘The Intermediate Treatment Team’ based in N Wales’s largest conurbation, Wrexham .
The IT Team’s mini bus was made available to us and 95% of referrals were put forward by the IT unit.It was a perfect working relationship. Social Services providing the client group and transport, the charity group providing the experienced outdoor activity leaders, outdoor equipment, accommodation and the organization of the activity weekends.
Things went well for most of the decade. Hundreds of youngsters got away from what could be a pretty unpleasant home life and usually had a great time dangling off rock faces, falling out of kayaks and climbing mountains. Apart from the activities on offer, just socialising with a new group of friends and being around adults who were not likely to humiliate or beat the crap out of them was an eye opening experience. Suggesting that there was in fact a life outside of hanging around street corners swigging cider with stoned mates.
However, an event in 1993 sounded the death knell for the group. The Lyme Bay canoeing tragedy which saw four youngsters drowned while canoeing on the south coast, sent shock waves through the system. All too soon, charity and youth groups like ours, found that they just could not get insurance cover or the cover became prohibitively expensive. Organisations like LEA's and the Social Services took fright and fearing expensive litigation, pulled the plug on referrals. Although many outdoor centres carried on, small organisations lacking the professional base that under pinned the larger private and LEA funded centres, quickly folded.
Some would say, and a good thing too. Leave it to those professional outdoor centres like Plas y Brenin ,The Outward Bound Organisation or LEA funded centres like The Towers. Problem is, many of these centres are catering for a totally different constituency. What percentage of say PyB’s clients are from sink estates with a single parent bringing up a family on benefits? My observation of PyB is that it is catering for a largely middle class clientele who can afford the expensive course fees.
Since the group I was involved with folded, hundreds of similar organisations across the UK have folded too. Another factor in the equation has been the number of LEA outdoor centres who despite employing highly qualified staff, have been closed down completely and been sold off as local authorities are forced to cap spending. The selling off of school playing fields-often for housing-to raise funds for cash strapped local authorities- is another element of what could be seen as the unfortunate reality of neo liberal economic policy. State funding of what are seen as non essential services like the provision of outdoor education has been well and truly jettisoned on the alter of right wing economic dogma practiced by both Labour and Conservative governments since the relatively enlightened 60’s and 70’s
Meanwhile in 2013... back on a street corner in Wrexham.......