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Schools: Outdoor Classroom Day

Volume 789: debated on Thursday 15 March 2018


Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government how they plan to support Outdoor Classroom Day, to be held on 17 May; and whether they intend to increase the opportunities for children to learn in an outdoor environment.

My Lords, learning outside the classroom can provide children with stimulating experiences, building on knowledge gained through formal lessons. Teachers may take opportunities within the national curriculum for such learning, and events such as this serve a useful purpose in raising awareness for outdoor learning. We leave it to teachers to use their professional judgment to decide how to plan and deliver their lessons, including whether to participate in events such as Outdoor Classroom Day.

My Lords, I thank the Minister for his positive response and for recognising that there are benefits. However, does he accept that the benefits are much greater than he has suggested? Several studies have shown that academic achievement is raised, behaviour is improved and everything across the range of children’s activities benefits from substantial time spent in outdoor learning? Does he agree with Sir David Attenborough, the patron of Learning through Landscapes, which runs Outdoor Classroom Day in the UK, that unless children understand nature they will not be able to protect it when it is their generation’s turn to do so? Will he ensure that his department introduces a minimum time for children to spend outdoors in a quality, natural environment?

My Lords, I very much agree with the noble Baroness that connection to nature is vital. I grew up on a farm. At 14 years old I was sent out by the farm manager to do some straw burning on my own and I ended up needing 13 fire engines to deal with the issue. I learned on that day that you do not light a fire with the wind behind you and that if you cut a firebreak it needs to be commensurate with the strength of the wind. I learned that smoke is as dangerous as fire. So you do not have to convince me. We are moving forward: in the January environment plan we announced £10 million of funding for initiatives including school visits to natural environments, the nature-friendly schools programme and an expansion in care farm places, which I hope I can expand on in a moment.

My Lords, is the Minister aware of the enormous work that is done between the farming community and local schools, in particular with the agricultural societies that are all around the country? They host open days at their shows to which schoolchildren, particularly those of primary school age, are encouraged to go. One difficulty is the cost of getting a bus to transport the children, but it is a very good scheme. There is a lot going on apart from on the day that my noble friend Lady Miller mentioned.

My Lords, I agree with my noble friend. Open Farm Sunday is a very good example of this. Last year, 270,000 visitors visited more than 350 farmers on one day and it is happening again this year. Indeed, it happened with my own farm manager on his farm. He had 4,000 visitors, mostly children. Such initiatives are educating children about life in the countryside.

My Lords, should outdoor education not form part of personal, social and health education in schools, which has recently become mandatory, developing, for example, self-esteem and self-confidence, as well as knowledge about fire and so on? Should this not be considered by the Government as part of their scheme?

My Lords, we have recently initiated a consultation on personal, social and health education. The call for evidence closed on 12 February and we expect to consult on draft guidance by the summer of this year. I will certainly take on board the comments of the noble Baroness to ensure that we are including such useful things as she suggested.

My Lords, the Minister briefly mentioned care farms. Does he agree that they are an ideal way of encouraging children who have become disaffected with school and, indeed, disaffected with society, bringing them back into society when they are not suited to desk learning? They can learn through such things as looking after animals, growing plants and working in forestry. This is an ideal way of bringing them back from the desert they have found themselves in.

The noble Countess is correct. Preparing for these Questions is always a somewhat anxiety-inducing exercise, but it is a way to learn about how Britain works. I admit that a week ago I had never heard of care farms and now I discover that there are 230 in England and that some 300,000 children are visiting them. We have committed to trebling that number of children. There is strong evidence to show that they can help children with mental issues; they can help to improve mood, and reductions in depression and anxiety can flow from these farms, so I was hugely encouraged to discover them.

My Lords, has the Minister heard of forest schools? There is a strong movement of forest schools in the UK: given the Minister’s own formative experience of outdoor education, how can we encourage the development of more forest schools? Maybe there is an opportunity, with the Government’s announcement of the northern forest, to ensure that its development includes outdoor education opportunities for young people.

My Lords, again, forest schools were a new discovery for me this week. I gather that we have some 400 of them in the country and that they play a very useful role in education about the outdoors for children. I can refer the noble Lord to one organisation that I used to be a trustee of 10 years ago. It is called the Country Trust and its purpose is to organise visits, particularly from inner-city schools, to farms and indeed to forests. So I support the sentiments of the noble Lord and anything we can do to encourage this is good.