Will UK Government funding cuts deny kids access to their natural heritage?

Another news bullet in about Government funding cuts pops up on my screen. This time it’s the Change4Life and Play England budgets that face the axe – a campaign and organisation that respectively centre on encouraging healthy lifestyles and children’s play. While I’m under no illusion about the dire state of the public finances and the need to cut necessary waste, the latest casualties concern me about what lies ahead for the future funding of the Learning Outside the Classroom program.

While we’re constantly reminded about the mistakes made by the previous government, the publication of their Learning Outside the Classroom Manifesto put outdoor learning back on the agenda and focused stakeholders to increase provision of it, something they should not be chastised for. But their inability to appropriately fund outdoor education deserves criticism and I hope that the current Government does not cut further into the already lean budget allocated to outdoor learning.

Outdoor learning has a key role to play in re-connecting children with the countryside because youngsters have fewer opportunities to explore the natural world in their spare time. Over 60 per cent of young people said they play indoors at home more than any other place and nearly half of them are unable to identify an English oak tree. These are frightening figures and we simply cannot afford to ignore them. I believe adequate funding must be available to ensure our children aren’t denied an education about their natural heritage.

So just how much has been allocated to outdoor learning and how secure is its future funding? Learning Outside the Classroom has, since 2006, received just £4.5 million, which stands in stark contrast to the £332 million announced in 2007 for the Music Manifesto. While the funding for outdoor learning is meagre in comparison to that dedicated to music it is still vitally important for enabling children to experience outdoor learning. However, the future doesn’t look rosy because the core funding for the Council for Learning Outside the Classroom, the organisation responsible for taking forward outdoor learning, ends in 2011 and as yet no further funding has been agreed. Not only does this uncertainty have implications for future provision but it risks turning the tide back on the good progress made on quelling fears around health and safety.

Teacher fears around health and safety is the main barrier to outdoor education. In response to this the previous government introduced the Quality Badge in 2008. This badge is a national accreditation scheme for providers of outdoor learning combining the essential elements of provision – learning and safety – into one easily identifiable and trusted badge. Even before the current austerity drive concerns about the sustainability of the Quality Badge were aired, with stakeholders complaining about the lack of funding available to promote the badge among schools. The badge can greatly reduce the administrative burden and anxiety associated with organising school trips because schools that use badge facilities don’t have to do their own risk assessments. However, if schools are unaware of the badge and the specific benefits it offers, then outdoor education providers have no incentive to differentiate themselves from other providers by opting into the scheme, and ultimately it will fail. Such an outcome benefits no one and would be a waste of the time and effort stakeholders put into developing a scheme that gives teachers greater confidence in using outdoor learning more widely.

The recent announcement that Lord Young will lead a review on health and safety legislation is a real opportunity for Government to demonstrate strategic thinking by adequately funding the Quality Badge, a scheme that adopts a common sense approach to tackling health and safety fears and reduces the red tape required for teachers to organise school visits. We will be feeding into the review with our recent research on the extent of litigation for injuries occurring on school trips, highlighting how disproportionate fears are when analysed against the hard facts.

I understand the financial constraints the Government is under but I would urge not to cut funding for outdoor learning. Given that 89 per cent of teachers think the countryside could play a greater role in the curriculum I believe Government must respond by reinstating funding for outdoor learning to 2006 levels at the very least, a mere £1.7 million. While Government rightly scrutinises every penny spent, it should remember Einstein’s wise words that when it comes educating the next generation about our natural heritage, “not everything that can be counted counts and not everything that counts can be counted.”

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