It is with an air of cautious optimism that I welcome Ofsted’s Inspection Framework. There will obviously be challenges around developing a consistent approach to grading quality and conflicts of view on the length of short inspections, for example. However, the document has also tried to respond to criticisms around a focus on attainment and progress measures that, for some, have resulted in the narrowing of the school curriculum. The new section devoted to Quality of Education begins to address some of the issues. There has also been a realisation that Personal Development deserves its own judgement, which is most welcome. So what will this mean for outdoor learning?
A Broad and Balanced Curriculum
Within the new judgement on quality of education there is a clear statement of intent around the need for a broad and balanced curriculum. Like many, the Outdoor Learning sector has been calling for schools to effectively implement a broad and balanced curriculum, something that is stated quite clearly in the National Curriculum itself. The Social Mobility Commission in their report ‘Time for change: an assessment of government policies on social mobility 1997-2017’, recognised that ‘The attainment gap between poorer children and their wealthier counterparts at 16 is as large as it was twenty years ago’. In response to this they recommended that there is a need to: ‘Develop a more balanced curriculum incorporating social and emotional learning, alongside careers advice, within the formal school timetable.’ The recognition, by Ofsted, that schools must develop a broad, rich and flexible curriculum is extremely welcome although there will still be a challenge, for many, to match this against the pressures to ‘achieve in examinations and tests’. We are not alone in having to manage such pressures. There have been similar concerns voiced in the United States, where a recent report stated:
‘During the last 20 years, the negative consequences attached to low standardised test scores have influenced schools and teachers to narrow the curriculum so their efforts can be focused on test preparation. Consequently, untested curriculum and time intensive, student centred, experiential learning that integrates subject matter in meaningful ways have been de-emphasised or eliminated’.1
So what do we mean by Breadth and Depth? Even Sean Hartford, Ofsted’s National Director of Education, has difficulty in pining this down. In presentations and a recent interview he states that he feels there is some uncertainty about what ‘broad and balanced’ means. For instance, when does a broad curriculum become a narrow curriculum and visa versa?
As a starting point Ofsted suggest that the curriculum should build on knowledge and apply that knowledge as skills. This is seen as particularly important in the local context of a school where particular skills and knowledge may be lacking in a pupil’s local and home environment. Within this it is recognised that both literacy and numeracy play an important role across the curriculum and that the development of subject knowledge and vocabulary should underpin this. Another key thread is the importance of progression and sequencing in the development of knowledge, understanding and skill acquisition. In addition, there is an explicit mention of the need to equip pupils with the knowledge and cultural capital to succeed in life.
So, a broad and balanced curriculum should be a progressive and sequenced experience that builds on knowledge to develop the understanding and skills that can enable a young person to succeed in life. It should be underpinned by the acquisition of literacy and numeracy skills that support the development of subject knowledge and vocabulary and reflect the needs of the pupils and their local context. For me, it is not necessarily the content that is important but the approach.
The extract, below, from a presentation given by Joanna Hall, HMI, gives us a further clue, where she takes an example from a Primary school in the West Midlands to illustrate breadth and depth:
‘The curriculum is planned carefully to make it relevant to pupils in the school. It is broad and balanced, providing pupils with opportunities to link ideas together through termly themes. For example, in the theme ‘From Frostin to Bostin’ pupils compared the two geographical locations of Chamonix in France with the Black Country.
Each curricular theme has a ‘stunning start’, a visit or visitor and a finale to the project when parents are invited into school. Pupils benefit from a wide range of trips and visitors to school. Team-building opportunities, the curriculum themes, visits and residential experiences captivate the pupils’ enthusiasm for learning and enhance their progress and personal development.’
This theme has more recently been picked up by Amanda Speilman in her HMCI commentary in September 2018.
Primary school leaders also enriched their schools’ quality of education with well-planned regular trips to the local area and beyond that were tightly linked to their curriculums. Several headteachers commented in similar terms: “If children have never visited a castle or dug their toes in the sand at the beach, how can they write about these experiences?”
It is interesting that both of these examples pick on visits and activities outside of the classroom. For me, in working towards a broad and balanced curriculum we should be acquiring knowledge and understanding and applying it, where possible, through a range of experiential learning experiences. This application is the element that is often missing and the one that best helps prepare young people for the world beyond school. Many of us who work in the outdoors with young people will know of the works of John Dewey, who emphasised that experiential learning is an essential ingredient in meaningful and comprehensive student learning. A recent study by James and Williams1 demonstrates this well, they conclude their study by stating that:
‘For the past two decades, the emphasis in education has increasingly been on improving academic achievement and raising standardised test scores. This has led to a narrowed curriculum where active, experiential, in-context learning has been de-emphasised or eliminated….Analysis of the field observations and participant interviews has led to a rich, comprehensive understanding of the value of school-sponsored experiential outdoor education. It is obvious from student responses that they engage in learning and acquire knowledge best when instruction is meaningful, active and experiential. As teachers, we need to strive to immerse our students in concept learning of this nature whether in the classroom or in the field. Outdoor education that effectively bridges classroom and field learning is also beneficial.’
As outdoor practitioners we have the evidence that what we do has impact on young people their learning and development. It is also clear that the approaches we take in the outdoors are beneficial and not only add to greater engagement and understanding but, in this context, have a key role to play in broadening the curriculum.
Understanding and long-term memory
Of particular interest to me is the recognition in the draft Ofsted framework on the need to develop understanding. Paragraph 169 states that:
‘Learning can be defined as an alteration in long-term memory. If nothing has altered in long-term memory nothing has been learned. …In order to develop understanding pupils connect existing knowledge with new knowledge. Pupils also need to develop fluency and unconsciously apply their knowledge as skills.’
In many ways the link between understanding and applied learning experiences and memory go back to the work that the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority were developing nearly 20 years ago, when they talked about ‘Compelling’ and ‘Memorable’ learning experiences. As an Outdoor Educationalist my ears prick up at this point as this is where I really feel that experiences beyond the classroom help apply and cement learning in long-term memory. As a geography teacher, I knew all too well that my A-level students may not be able to recall that much about plant succession off the top of their heads. However, remind them of getting stuck in the mud on the North Kent marshes and all the learning comes flooding back! The same is true of residential experiences. Ask any number of people about the things they remember from school and it is just such experiences that are recalled. When linked to well-planned work from the classroom setting such experiences not only add value but greatly enhance recall. This should not be seen as something that we tag on to learning but is an integral part of it. For example:
When linked to specific writing intervention a recent Education Endowment Foundation report found that there was a significant impact on learning. This ‘project aimed to use memorable experiences and an approach called ‘Self-Regulated Strategy Development’ (SRSD) to help struggling writers in Years 6 and 7. Memorable experiences, such as trips to local landmarks or visits from World War II veterans, were used as a focus for writing lessons.
‘Overall, the project appeared to have a large positive impact on writing outcomes. The overall effect size for writing, comparing the progress of pupils in the project to similar pupils who did not participate was +0.74. This effect size was statistically significant, meaning that it is unlikely to have occurred by chance, and can be envisaged as saying that participating pupils made approximately nine months’ additional progress compared to similar pupils who did not participate in the intervention’2
In this case ‘memorable’ learning experiences were effectively integrated into class based learning. Something else that was highlighted in the report by James and Williams:
‘While much science is learned in classrooms though teacher lecture, textbook reading, laboratory experiments and interactive discussions, this is not enough to develop in-depth conceptual understanding. Application of environmental science concepts in experiential, real-life field contexts is extremely valuable. Scaffolding the learning from the classroom to the field and back into the classroom results memorable, comprehensive and long term learning’.1
This supports a clear case for blending learning experiences beyond the classroom into the curriculum and should make up part of any judgement about quality. This should all be part of a coherently planned curriculum that is sequenced towards cumulatively sufficient knowledge and skills for future learning and employment. In fact, progressive exposure to learning outdoors provides a route for young people to become more resilient2. They can move from exploring the world outside of the classroom to a first night away from home and onto a demanding expedition in this country or abroad. This progressive process helps develop life-long skills and attitudes that contribute towards healthy and fulfilled lives. Outdoor learning provides opportunities to develop social and emotional resilience, support wider learning and develop broader interests4.
After all it is in the world beyond the classroom that young people will have to end up applying all their learning in the future.
A progressive curriculum
It is pleasing to note that Ofsted have clearly recognised that the curriculum should be seen as a model of progression. In developing a progressive curriculum that ensures young people are well prepared for life beyond and after school they must have opportunities to experience the world beyond the classroom. After all, we are preparing them for the ‘outside world’, where the application of their skills, knowledge, understanding and character will all be needed to thrive. In this sense I feel that ‘contexts for learning’ are really important for applying and embedding knowledge and understanding – making it ‘stick’.
The need and support for progressive experiences within outdoor contexts was highlighted in ‘High Quality Outdoor Learning’, published in 2015 by the Outdoor Council5. This document provides a useful framework for assessing the quality of outdoor learning and how, in turn, this relates to both academic and personal development.
A welcome aspect of the draft Ofsted framework is the division of the Behaviour and Attendance and Personal Development judgement, which was previously a single judgement.
Having behaviour and attitudes as a separate element in the framework provides a clear focus to schools of the importance of a well ordered and structured learning environment. Positive attitudes will come from the clear ethos at a school and a consistent approach to behaviour and attendance. However, the availability of an engaging and purposeful curriculum supported by well-informed and trained staff will also have a key role to play. This will apply to the learning experiences that young people access both within and beyond the school day.
Due particular praise is the recognition of the valuable role of personal development in the growth of young people. Singling out Personal Development picks up on much of the recent research around the importance of developing young people’s life skills in preparation for life beyond the school. The Social Mobility Commission, Sutton Trust and the Education Endowment Foundation have recognised the importance of addressing issues around personal development in terms of narrowing the gap between pupils from more disadvantaged backgrounds and their peers.
Developing pupil’s character, resilience and grit will help in their learning journey and add value to the quality of their learning. When linked to a high quality curriculum the outcomes are extremely favourable.
Once again we see the role of experiences beyond the classroom as being key in bringing both the curriculum alive and preparing young people for the world of work and family. Enrichment activities linked to a broad and balanced curriculum are important components and we welcome Ofsted’s recognition of this. Work experience, off-site visits, opportunities to develop and encourage healthy lifestyles all play a role.
The outdoors has often been referenced as ‘character building’ bringing people together to overcome common challenges. The personal and social impacts of outdoor learning have been identified in a number of studies6 with such impacts being particularly marked when young people take part in residential experiences. Residentials are a surprisingly powerful developmental experience7 and young people have been found to develop their social skills and foster new relationships both with their peers and accompanying adults8. The impact of which is often sustained back in school or other settings. The integration of residential experiences9 and indeed all outdoor learning experiences back into the school setting is seen as key in maximising learning impact and getting the most value for learning from these experiences. This is when the learning is embedded and sustained and in fact a majority of schools that sit at the top of the current accountability framework and success measures use outdoor and residential programmes ‘as an important and valuable part of the education they provide’10
Progressive exposure to learning outdoors provides a route for young people to become more resilient3 .They can move from exploring the world outside of the classroom to a first night away from home and onto a demanding expedition in this country or abroad. This progressive process helps develop life-long skills and attitudes that contribute towards healthy and fulfilled lives. Outdoor learning provides opportunities to develop social and emotional resilience, support wider learning and develop broader interests6. ‘Numerous studies have shown that character attributes are correlated with educational attainment, school attendance and positive attitudes towards school. A recent review from the Early Intervention Foundation (EIF) found that good character attributes at the age of 10 were more important than ‘cognitive skills’ (using measures of literacy and numeracy) at that age when it came to predicting mental health and life satisfaction in later life’6 .
I would urge that this opportunity is taken to raise the profile of learning in different contexts and raise the bar in terms of the opportunities pupils should have to develop both their learning and personal development.
‘Education in its broadest sense is not just about delivering a curriculum. It is about giving children the chance to extend their life skills. It is about developing confidence. It is about fostering resilience and a sense of responsibility. And- let us not forget – it is about the enjoyment, engagement and excitement about venturing out into the real world, with all its capacity for uncertainty, surprise, stimulation and delight.’
Linked to all of this is the growing recognition of the value of being outdoors in terms of improving the mental health and well-being of young people and, of course, staff! Such experiences can cost nothing and exist just the other side of the classroom wall.
So go on, get outside, you know it makes sense…and so do Ofsted!?
Chair – Outdoor Council
- James. J., Williams, T., (2017). School-Based Experiential Outdoor Education: A Neglected Necessity. Journal of experiential Education, Vol. 40 (1), 58-71
- Torgerson, D and Torgerson, C: Co-authors: Ainsworth, H; Buckley,H; Heaps,C; Hewitt C: Mitchell, N. (2104) Improving Writing Quality – Evaluation Report and Executive Summary, Education Endowment Foundation.
- Allen, J; McKenna J; Hind K (2012) Brian resilience: Shedding light into the back box of adventure processes, Australian Journal of Outdoor Education, 16 (1), 3-14.
- Dillon, J (2011) Understanding the diverse benefits of learning in the natural environments. King’s College London
- English Outdoor Council (2015) High Quality Outdoor Learning https://www.englishoutdoorcouncil.org/wp-content/uploads/2049-High-quality-outdoor-learning-web-version.pdf
- Malone, K and Waite, S ((2106) Student Outcomes and Natural Schooling. Plymouth: Plymouth University
- Williams, R (2012) Woven into the fabric of experience: residential adventure education and complexity. Journal of Adventure Education and Outdoor Learning
- Carne, P and Sian, W (2017) Brilliant Residentials and their impact on young people: Making the case for high quality residential learning, Learning Away
- Kendall, S and Rodger (2105) Evaluation of Learning Away: Final Report, York Consulting LLP)
- Kerwin Nye, A and Niman, T (2018) Work on the Wild Side: Outdoor Learning and Schools, NotDeadFish
- Fägerstam, E., Blom, J., (2013). Learning biology and mathematics outdoors: Effects and attitudes in a Swedish high school context. Journal of Adventure Education and Outdoor Learning, 13(1), 56 – 75
- T. Gill (2010) Nothing Ventured …Balancing risks and benefits in the outdoors. EOC, p22