£3m is needed this winter to stop closures of outdoor education centres – and it’s needed now

£3m is needed this winter to stop closures of outdoor education centres – and it’s needed now

by Elizabeth Smith
article from Tuesday 20, October, 2020

THERE IS a very blunt message coming from those who run Scotland’s outdoor education centres and we all need to pay attention. They are telling us that around half of the 36 centres currently operating will probably have to close by this time next year unless government comes to the rescue. 

More precisely, their financial accounts tell us that the rescue package has to be £3m just to get them through what will undoubtedly be a most difficult winter. And there is absolutely no time to waste because we know that some centres have already taken part in administration talks.

In other words, this is nothing short of a matter of life and death for the outdoor education sector. We simply cannot countenance the closure of these centres otherwise we will be depriving future generations of one of the most precious parts of Scotland’s educational experience.

On the evening of 22nd September I held a Member’s Debate in the Scottish Parliament in which there were passionate contributions from 17 MSPs across all political parties and an understanding then, by the Minister Richard Lochhead, about why outdoor education is so important.

But that was nearly a month ago, and whilst there have been several rounds of talks between the Scottish Government and the sector, we are still awaiting the announcement of the necessary support. The sector badly needs that announcement now.

And why? Because, as everyone knows, there is widespread, and compelling evidence from educational research that outdoor educational experiences – most especially those in a residential setting – enrich the lives of the young people involved, that they provide them with a knowledge and appreciation of environments and communities other than those with which they are most familiar, and that they help build confidence and self-esteem.

In particular, these activities teach pupils leadership and communication skills, the need for responsible behaviour, an understanding of the challenges facing Scotland’s environment and eco-system, and how to deal with new challenges and risk factors. Indeed, outdoor education helps young people to discover positive attributes they didn’t know they had. 

And in an age when there is growing concern about young people’s physical and mental health, when Covid-19 is disrupting so many young lives and when there is also growing concern that many children from some of the more deprived areas do not get the same opportunities as their counterparts elsewhere, it is time to treasure our outdoor education centres in the same way that we treasure our schools. 

During the parliamentary debate, the cross party agreement on this was plain for all to see. MSPs of all colours left the public in no doubt whatsoever that they believe education in an outdoor environment provides one of the most valuable and rewarding learning experiences for all young people no matter their backgrounds or abilities.

Like other colleagues, I am campaigning to keep open our outdoor centres and I do so with two very personal experiences in mind; the first, from my own teaching days in the 1980s and 1990s, when I was privileged to take charge of several outdoor education projects across Scotland, and the second as an MSP since 2007, when I have been privileged to be on the receiving end of many emails over the years which have told me just how much constituents value the opportunities which outdoor education affords.

Not only could we lose the centres themselves but also the huge range of expertise amongst those who staff our centres. They are some of the best and most experienced practitioners in the land and we need to support them too. Theirs are skills which are needed more now than ever before – crucial as we try desperately hard to deal with Covid-19 and its effects on young people. We cannot lose them.

All too often education debates are all about numbers; the number of teachers, the number of SQA passes, the percentage scores in literacy and numeracy, class sizes, to name just a few. What we should be doing, is to turn our attention to more of the qualitative aspects of education – aspects which can never be reduced to numbers but which, I would argue, are just as important when it comes to developing life skills. 

To this end, we simply can’t allow our outdoor education centres to close. If we did, we would be guilty of discriminating against a whole generation of young people whose education would be devoid of something very special which goes well beyond what can be learnt in any classroom. 

£3m is needed just to give our centres a lifeline and they need it today.

Liz Smith MSP is a Conservative & Unionist member of the Scottish Parliament for Mid Scotland and Fife. 

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