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