outdoor learning

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A recent study suggests that the way to raise academic attainment in disadvantaged children is to get them out of the classroom altogether.

The University of Reading is to publish research that confirms outdoor learning and activity among this group improves exam results.

The three year study, conducted by Reading’s Dr Carol Fuller and the Ufton Court Education Trust, scrutinised the role of outdoor residential experiences on under achieving students from socially disadvantaged backgrounds. They explored whether these activities had an impact on the children’s educational attainment.

The impetus for this research was Carol’s desire to help children achieve and become the best they can be. She asserts that children’s personal achievements benefit society as a whole, producing more resilient, productive adults.

This aim tallied closely with the mission of the Ufton Court Educational Trust, which is to raise the aspiration and achievement of all children and in particular those from disadvantaged backgrounds.

Dr Fuller’s research spanned four years and involved her working closely with pupils from the John Madejski Academy (JMA), which has close links to the University of Reading and teaches many children from socially disadvantaged backgrounds. The study consisted of a mix of outdoor activities and learning, set against the beautiful backdrop of Ufton Court Educational Trust’s Elizabethan manor house in Berkshire.

Carol hoped her studies might help redress social hindrances to children’s learning achievements, like chaotic home lives, lack of resources and a resultant dearth of opportunity. Often children from this sort of background will not feel a sense of belonging at school. They may also suffer low self esteem and this combination can lead to them causing trouble or failing to engage – most likely, both.

Carol suggests that in the formal atmosphere of the classroom, such children can feel curtailed by their poor understanding of social conventions. The many unwritten rules can ensure that already disadvantaged children feel they just don’t belong.

At Ufton Court, the study group of children discovered freedom from society’s rules. They developed the confidence to speak up and participate, sometimes to a startling degree, in a way they wouldn’t have in the classroom.

Most importantly, the children had fun and benefited from the stability of their new opportunity, developing greater engagement with their work and those around them as a result.

What is powerfully interesting is seeing how these very positive effects translated back in the classroom.

Carol compared the outdoor group’s academic results with a second group that did not take part and found her anecdotal evidence strongly confirmed by GCSE results. For the active group, GCSE educational gains in terms of overall attainment, as well as attainment in GCSE English and Maths, showed much better results than the non participating group. Carol’s research also put a spotlight on the difference in attainment between the two groups and found it to be statistically significant.

Dr Fuller said: “This means that we can say, with some confidence, that these experiences have contributed in an important way to the overall educational attainment outcomes for the students in the research group.”

The key to this success is repeadness. “The effects of one trip can wear off, but making the trips a regular event continues to remind the pupils that they have done worthwhile things and are capable human beings. This increases their confidence in the classroom and probably in life afterwards,” said Carol.

Persuasive anecdotal evidence during the study also pointed to the activities having an all-round benefit on the children’s well-being.

There are several remarkable case studies that Carol brings to light, notably “Orlando” (a pseudonym) who at the start of the research was about to be expelled. By the end, he is an ambassador for his school, speaking to 500 prospective parents about why they should choose JMA.

Another poignant story tells of a shy girl who was too fearful even to leave her room at home. She displayed worryingly quiet behaviour and could not socialise with other children or participate in class. But during her field trip, the youngster managed to take part in a night-time woodland walk at Ufton Park. This experience enabled her to turn a corner and she found that her fear of going out had all but disappeared. She reports that she now goes out frequently with her friends back at home. That a tiny thing like a woodland walk can be life-changing exemplifies the value of this research.

Were these results translated to policy, discussion would have to revolve around building teachers’ confidence in outdoor learning. It would certainly focus on current teacher training and whether it can encompass the skills to lead outdoor learning activities. And fundamentally, should Ofsted be including a mark on levels of outdoor learning and activity?

Meanwhile, activities like those at Ufton Court are not part of the formal curriculum, nor are they Ofsted assessed. Yet these are extraordinary results that clearly show struggling young people turning their lives and educational attainment around. Can this be ignored by policy makers?

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