How outdoor education drives up attainment

By Martin Davidson, Scottish Director for The Outward Bound Trust

TESS May 16 In TextCan the many exciting and diverse challenges presented by outdoor residential learning really bring significant benefits for disadvantaged children and help them to become more focused on their studies when they return to school?

In our experience they certainly can. Without a doubt, outdoor residential learning can play a key role in supporting the target of the Attainment Challenge to improve the health and well-being of young people. In addition, it has proven to increase pupils’ efforts once they are back in the classroom.

But to ensure disadvantaged young people can make the most of opportunities to improve and increase attainment there is, first of all, a need to engage and re-engage them with learning.

St Margaret Mary’s Secondary School in Castlemilk, Glasgow is just one school where engagement has led to attainment.  According to Head Teacher Brian Brady, many of his pupils have great potential but low aspirations and often fail to engage with learning. His solution to these problems is to motivate the students by bonding individual S2 pupils into school teams ahead of them selecting their choices. This takes place during a week long programme with The Trust. As Mr Brady explains: “Through developing team working skills, we encourage our pupils to support each other so they raise their aspiration and develop communication skills and resilience. It also instils into our pupils a thirst for higher academic achievement, with many returning pupils opting to select more challenging choices for study as a result.”

A focus on health and wellbeing is already a well-established conduit to pupil attainment at St Machar Academy in Aberdeen. Jim Purdie, Acting Head Teacher explains: “The nature of our school catchment area means that many pupils are directly affected by social issues that impact on their self-esteem, confidence, resilience and mental health.” Every year the school takes its S2 pupils on a week-long experiential outdoor learning course. With a healthy balance of support and challenge the course helps these pupils recognise and develop their inherent skills and qualities. One withdrawn and disengaged boy after attending a course in S2 went on to apply and become head boy. When asked during his interview why he seemed so different and why he was applying, he explained his outdoor residential course had given him belief in himself to achieve more.   

Post-course research collated by The Trust from February 2014 to February 2015 revealed 82% of teachers observed an increase both in pupils’ educational aspirations and in the level of interest that they show in their school work. 80% reported an increase in the effort that pupils put into their studies. 

To shift a pupil from disengagement to engagement and attainment I believe that outdoor experiential learning has a very important and impactful role to play. Only when pupils are fully engaged can we expect any elevation in attainment within Scotland.

Original article featured in TES Scotland – May 2016 issue