‘We’ve fallen off the radar’: outdoor centres in crisis over lack of Covid help | Society

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Outdoor education centres that provide inspirational experiences in nature for some of the most deprived children are in crisis because the government refuses to fund a rescue package or even confirm when they can reopen.

One small family run centre is seeking a judicial review of the failure by the education secretary, Gavin Williamson, to set a date for when centres can welcome back residential groups of primary-age children for outdoor learning.

Mark Holroyd, of Aylmerton outdoor education centre in Norfolk, says the government’s lack of a plan for reopening centres is disadvantaging underprivileged groups who would normally be taken on residential school trips this summer, giving many urban children their first experience of wildlife, countryside or the seaside.

An activity at Aylmerton outdoor education centre in Cromer, Norfolk.

An activity at Aylmerton outdoor education centre in Cromer, Norfolk. Outdoor centres can be part of the recovery from the pandemic, particularly for children, say operators. Photograph: Tony Buckingham/The Guardian

“Disadvantaged children will suffer disproportionately because of a rule that isn’t based on any scientific evidence,” said Holroyd, whose centre normally hosts thousands of children, mostly from urban state primaries, every year. “Opening centres is a real chance to rebound after a miserable year for children. In the next few years we’ll see the repercussions of what’s happened to children during the pandemic. I’m not sure the government understands children or cares.”

A number of outdoor education centres have closed permanently in recent months, with the sector barred from hosting school residential stays – the bulk of their income – for a year.

Centres in Northern Ireland have received a financial rescue package and the Scottish government has given outdoor centres £2m support but in England and Wales the government has deemed them “open” to day trips between lockdowns – even though school trips are against official advice – and so the centres have been ineligible for the financial support offered to “closed” businesses. The average UK business has suffered a 12% fall in turnover but at outdoor centres it has slumped by 80% on average, according to the campaign Save Outdoor Education, citing a survey by the Office for National Statistics.

While boarding schools have been open alongside day schools, activity centres have been deemed too dangerous to reopen by the Department for Education. Those running centres such as Aylmerton say visiting classes would remain in their bubbles at all times.

Martin Read, the owner of Hilltop, a centre in Norfolk that is supporting Aylmerton’s legal action, has seen its £1.7m turnover fall to £40,000 with the loss of 13 members of staff.

Step 1, part 1

All pupils and college students return fully. People can meet one other person outside, not just for exercise. Care home residents can receive one regular, named visitor. The “stay at home” order will otherwise stay in place.

Step 1, part 2

Outdoor gatherings allowed of up to six people, or two households if this is larger, not just in parks but also gardens. Outdoor sport for children and adults will be allowed. The official stay at home order will end, but people will be encouraged to stay local. People will still be asked to work from home where possible, with no overseas travel allowed beyond the current small number of exceptions.

Step 2

The official outline plan states that the next steps will rely on data, and the dates given mean “no earlier than”. In step two, there will be a reopening of non-essential retail, hair and nail salons, and public buildings such as libraries and museums. Most outdoor venues can open, including pubs and restaurants but only for outdoor tables and beer gardens. Customers will have to be seated but there will be no need to have a meal with alcohol.

Also reopening will be settings such as zoos and theme parks. However, social contact rules will apply here, so no indoor mixing between households and limits on outdoor mixing. Indoor leisure facilities such as gyms and pools can also open but again people can only go alone or with their own household. Reopening of holiday lets with no shared facilities, but only for one household. Funerals can have up to 30 attendees, while weddings, receptions and wakes can have 15.

Step 3

Again with the caveat “no earlier than 17 May”, depending on data, vaccination levels and current transmission rates.

Step 3 entails that most mixing rules are lifted outdoors, with a limit of 30 people meeting in parks or gardens. Indoor mixing will be allowed, up to six people or, if it is more people, two households. Indoor venues such as the inside of pubs and restaurants, hotels and B&Bs, play centres, cinemas and group exercise classes will reopen. The new indoor and outdoor mixing limits will remain for pubs and other hospitality venues.

For sport, indoor venues can have up to 1,000 spectators or half capacity, whichever is lower; outdoors the limit will be 4,000 people or half capacity, whichever is lower. Very large outdoor seated venues, such as big football stadiums, where crowds can be spread out, will have a limit of 10,000 people, or a quarter full, whichever is fewer. Weddings will be allowed a limit of 30 people, with other events such as christenings and barmitzvahs also permitted.

This will be the earliest date at which international holidays could resume, subject to a separate review.

Step 4

No earlier than 21 June, all legal limits will be removed on mixing, and the last sectors to remain closed, such as nightclubs, will reopen. Large events can take place.

Peter Walker Political correspondent

When Boris Johnson was questioned about the fate of the sector in February, the prime minister wrongly suggested they could reopen with schools on 8 March. Read said Johnson appeared not to know what outdoor centres were. “That was scary. I was devastated,” he said. “We help young people develop respect, self-esteem, cooperation and responsibility, and we employ young people, but nobody seems to be aware of us in government.”

The Lib Dem MP Tim Farron called for the centres to reopen immediately after Easter and said he had pressed Williamson as well as the health secretary, Matt Hancock, on the issue.

“Outdoor centres are uniquely damaged, almost more than any other sector,” said Farron. “We need to do more than just save outdoor centres, we need to deploy them. They’ve got exactly the talents we need to engage a disengaged generation and help kids relearn a love of learning. There’s a date for nightclubs to reopen but outdoor centres seem to have fallen off the radar.”

Forest walk.

Outdoor centres warn many more will close, particularly with the government’s reluctance to say before the Easter holidays when they can reopen. Photograph: Tony Buckingham/The Guardian

Tricia Rawlingson Plant, of the Mill on the Brue, outdoor centre in Somerset said: “We are not even mentioned in the roadmap, along with strip clubs. It is ridiculous that nightclubs know when they can open. Outdoor centres can be part of the recovery from the pandemic, particularly for children. We can help but only if we can reopen. Once centres have closed they are lost for ever.”

One permanently closed centre, Holt Hall in Norfolk, has been listed as an asset of community value as local campaigners try to prevent its sale to private developers. Local charity Friends of Holt Hall has been given a short period to identify partners and crowdfund an attempt to buy the hall and continue running it for children.

Tom Green,the chair of Friends of Holt Hall, said: “During the pandemic we’ve witnessed the life-changing benefits that being in nature gives to everybody. We must make provision for places that can give this magical experience to children. This has become even more urgent because the less privileged have been denied the exposure to the good health and mental wellbeing that being outside can give.”

But outdoor centres have warned many more will close, particularly with the government’s reluctance to say before the Easter holidays when centres can reopen, which the centres say leaves it too late for schools to plan residential trips in the summer term.

A government spokesperson said: “Throughout the pandemic we have kept our guidance on both residential and non-residential visits under review, in line with Public Health England advice.

“We’ve taken action to protect lives and livelihoods, including the extension of the furlough scheme and wider support for businesses to continue to support jobs.”

The Department for Education continues to advise against “educational visits” in its schools guidance.

Sara Holroyd from the Aylmerton centre said: “Gavin Williamson really doesn’t understand – we’re not just like a pub and we can’t open our doors and suddenly have 50 children here. We’re desperately trying to cling on for the summer because residential trips would be fabulous for the kids.”

Hafta Ichi
Source: The Guardian
Keyword: ‘We’ve fallen off the radar’: outdoor centres in crisis over lack of Covid help | Society

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