Tuesday, August 27, 2013

The slow death of outdoor education in the UK

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.......



  1. fantastic to the point article .how can society ask skint kids to be social if they are excluded from outdoor activitys and therfore exclusive locations ,as for places like plasy brennin only posh people are allowed in there ,this seams like recreational genocide eg only posh people on the crags ,an lets be honest that is the general wish of climbers no skint kids shouting on crags .it has to stop

  2. I worked in 'I.T' in Speke Liverpool and remember Wrexham/Chester and Plas Madoch well. Your article is true where centres like PyB can continue whereas other 'shake the can' or worse fold. Part of the problem though was a reluctance (or inability) of providers to evidence their practice as successful in taking young people outdoors. Do that, and under any government you will get a blank cheque. We are moving into 'pay by results' and given so many outfits out there 'not' doing a very good job, the time is just right for Outdoor Education to make a real go at doing this empirically...good luck to them!

  3. There is hope! Widehorizons is a charity that believes every child should have access to what we call Adventure Learning. We've assembled a team of professionals from a variety of backgrounds and disciplines to lead the development of our organisation to address the very issues described so eloquently in this article and subsequent comments. We're not the only answer either, there are a few other progressive, forward thinking organisations in the sector putting in the work to make sure that all children continue to experience life changing adventures. Check out the Paul Hamlyn funded Learning Away programme, for example.

  4. ‘The slow death of outdoor education in the U.K’ a statement that should send shivers through the policy makers watered down and disingenuous interest in helping and supporting the development of modern day youth. I am sure it won’t but then I am a born cynic, so those in authority have often told me over the past forty odd years of working in this medium, including working as an Adventure Activities Co-ordinator at a 30 day residential I.T. Unit in Carlisle back in the 1970’s.

    It is clear to me that successive Governments have voiced a disingenuous interest in the welfare of this Country’s youth and have ‘pruned’ services left right and centre (and I don’t mean Politically either), to such a degree, that what ever youth adventure programmes are still standing, is financed, run and delivered by the private and charitable sectors. Now it seems, that the ‘pruning’ is still to continue, insidiously through financial constraints, legislation that stifles the basic ideology of ‘any sense of risk taking through adventure’, and of course, making sure that those working in this medium have little bits of paper which states that they are able to lead this or that activity within safe parameters. Nothing about having the ability to ‘connect’ with their client group, no understanding of group dynamics, nu understanding or experience of dealing with challenging behaviour, and certainly no idea (generally) about the potency of ‘apparent risk taking’ in relation to the growth and development processes of young people.

    Of Outdoor Adventure Education, much can be said for its past; little is said about its present; and, nothing will be said about its future as this will in essence, be its past!

    Unless of course,policy makers and purse string holders see the folly of ignoring a Natural resource that can be used to help young people grow and develop towards becoming an integrated member of society in whatever guise or format that exists.

  5. The Up and Under Foundation is an organisation trying to fill the holes in an ever more leaky dam. We work with schools and Scouts (currently in S Cheshire) to help to fund access to adventure and outdoor activity for less well off youngsters.

    We are constantly trying to boost the funds we have available and therefore to expand the areas in which we operate. If you can help look us up on facebook https://www.facebook.com/UpAndUnderFoundation or at www.upandunderfoundation.org. We still have limited funds available for qualifying scout groups for 2013. For details see the web site.