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Learning outside the Classroom

Volume 624: debated on Wednesday 26 April 2017

[Ian Paisley in the Chair]

I beg to move,

That this House has considered learning outside the classroom.

We are considering the subject of out-of-school learning, or learning outside the classroom, as it is known on the Order Paper. I do not want to get your title wrong, Mr Paisley; are you Dr Paisley or Mr Paisley? I want to get it right.

I am being barracked: the comment “Not that educated” is coming from behind me.

I have been involved in the issue of out-of-school learning for a very long time. I had a very good run as Chair of the variously named Education Committee—it had a number of names, including the Children, Schools and Families Committee. Indeed, the Minister who will answer this short debate was a brilliant member of the Select Committee. We had great fun working together on a lively Committee.

I became somewhat obsessed with out-of-school learning, for two reasons. When one is Chair of a Select Committee of that kind, it is one’s job to visit as many schools as possible, in all parts of the country and at every level. In those days, we covered topics ranging from pre-school learning and nurseries right through to further education, apprenticeships and higher education, so it was a wide-ranging brief. However, when I got to schools, particularly in the primary and secondary sectors, I found that those schools that had the ability to take children outside the classroom transformed young people’s lives. All the research that has now been done on the issue shows that. A report that we did goes back 10 years. We did not have so much research evidence, but since that report came out 10 years ago from the Education Committee, we have been able to conduct research to show just how much young people are stimulated by getting outside the classroom and particularly into the countryside, and I became passionate about getting children out of the classroom and giving them an experience.

One of the wonderful things about getting a class of 30 kids out of the classroom is that we can do wonderful things for them and with them. Let me describe what all the research showed when we did our first inquiry. We have a treasury in London and in Northern Ireland, Scotland and Wales because we have free museums—what a wonderful treasury, what a wonderful learning experience. But tragically, when we delved into who among our children goes to those museums, we found the following. We found that more middle-class children went to them with their parents regularly. Going to them is a wonderful experience. Now, in London and Leeds, there are all-night stays in museums. That is an incredibly innovative and fun thing to do—sleep-ins at the museum, sleeping with dinosaurs. What a wonderful experience. However, all the research showed that more ordinary kids, from more ordinary, less affluent homes, did not go to the free museums—not even the free museums.

If the people from a less privileged background did go to the free museums, they went with their school. All the research showed what we needed to do if we wanted to reach out to all the children in this country, not just the more privileged—and I do not mean 5% or 10%, but something more like 60%. A very high percentage of kids living in this country, in our towns and cities and in the countryside, do not visit those wonderful museums unless their school takes them out of school to do that. They do not do it, or certainly they do it in lesser numbers and on fewer occasions, so I became dedicated to the view that it should happen.

Then I mixed up one passion with another. I do not know whether I should be indiscreet, when we are getting close to the general election, about falling in love with someone—it might get in the popular press—but I fell in love with John Clare, the English poet. He has been dead a long time: he lived from 1793 to 1864. When I went to school, I had the privilege of having a wonderful teacher who loved John Clare and imparted some of that enthusiasm to me, and I became dedicated to John Clare and giving him a wider audience.

When John Clare was alive, he had only 100 poems in print. The special thing about John Clare is that he was not a posh vicar or a Member of the House of Lords, as many poets were. He was an ordinary working man; he was called the Northamptonshire peasant poet. He was a day labourer, a farm labourer, and his father was a farm labourer; they threshed together in the village of Helpston. However, John Clare went to a dame school and learned to read and write, and after he left school at 12, he never stopped reading and writing. He briefly became popular in the Victorian period, when rustic poetry was popular, and 100 of his poems were in print when he died.

Then, in the 1960s, a treasury of wonderful poetry by John Clare was found. We think that his mental challenge was that he was bipolar. He could have been treated easily these days, but he was bipolar. The well-wishing people who looked after him put him in the Northampton general asylum. He was there for many years—he lived until his early 70s—and we discovered in the 1960s that he had been writing and writing and writing, even better poetry than the poetry that he had already published. One thousand of his poems are now in print, and more are being published.

Then I had the strange fortune of my eldest daughter marrying an academic who happened to be a John Clare scholar, from Cambridge University. He is now senior tutor at Fitzwilliam College and he has written a book about John Clare. I do not know how this happened, but I became the chairman of the John Clare Trust; I bought John Clare’s house; and we raised £3 million to turn John Clare’s cottage into a centre for children to visit. It is for everyone to visit, but we have a particular campaign called Every Child’s Right to the Countryside. I have seen the work that we and other people in the same field have done transform the lives of children; their lives are transformed by going to the countryside. One does not have to love poetry, art, music or what I often called—all my daughters studied English at famous universities—arty-farty people. They do not like that, but you know what I mean, Mr Paisley. I am a social scientist, trained at the London School of Economics in economics, so I can sometimes be disparaging about some of the more literary pursuits.

However, I know that if we take a child into the countryside and use technology, innovation, science or any subject under the sun, we can transform the experience of that child in that environment. Of course, John Clare writes about the woods and hedgerows and the plants and animals of our country, many of which are now very challenged in terms of their very existence. What we found in our work, which we did in partnership with others, was that if we want our country to have a countryside and our people to love it, they must visit it. Our secret—but not very secret—mission is to get people in this country, especially new generations of young people, to come to the countryside to learn and to really find their spark. I come across so many people in this country, even my own constituents in Huddersfield, who would benefit from that. I am sure that other hon. Members feel the same.

It is always nice to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Paisley—I think this may be the second or third time.

The hon. Gentleman raised those who wish young people to see and be involved with the countryside. I am very aware that in Northern Ireland we have under-achievement by Protestant males because they are not academically inclined, but their disposition might be towards the countryside. One organisation that has enabled those people at least to achieve something from a physical point of view is the Prince’s Trust. Has he had any opportunity to work with the Prince’s Trust to enable people who are not academically inclined to look towards the countryside, because they might find a job and perhaps a realisation of what they could do there?

The hon. Gentleman reminds me that we are not talking about an exclusive society of brethren. There are a lot of us, including the Scouts, the Prince’s Trust and lots of other wonderful organisations. The wonderful chief executive of the National Trust came to visit John Clare’s cottage in Helpston only a month ago. We need to work with the National Trust and all the organisations that can offer wonderful destinations to more and more schools. I would be wrong not to mention the Institute for Outdoor Learning, whose chief executive Andy Robinson was very helpful as soon as he heard that I had secured this debate. There are a lot of organisations out there.

All the research shows that it is good for children to come to the countryside. It shows the real improvement in academic subjects, as well as in achievement across the board, from getting children out for a day in the countryside, a museum or somewhere they can get a different perspective on their learning.

I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on securing this debate. I absolutely share his passion for outside learning. My most vivid memories from primary school are of visits to museums and nature walks in the countryside, but I never got to visit a mosque, a synagogue or a Hindu temple. My own children are now at school. What better way to illustrate a religious education lesson about Judaism than with a visit to a synagogue? Does he encourage schools and other organisations to do that for our young people as well?

The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right; I was going to come on to historical places. He is also right about mosques, synagogues and the diversity in our country of religious buildings in which young people can learn and can better understand the lives of other people who live not far from them.

I secured this debate because not only does all the research show that it is good for children to go out into the countryside, but it highlights a problem that still exists. More privileged children, from homes that are better off and have more money, get the chance to go to the countryside regularly, but a very substantial number of young people in this country never get that chance. Many children in our urban centres and in not so urban centres never go off their estate. That is a shame, but the research shows that it is true. There are children in Huddersfield who do not often go even into the centre of Huddersfield, let alone into the lovely, medieval Bradley wood or to the perfect hunting lodges of Henry VIII that are still around. What a wonderful habitat for them to visit if they had the opportunity!

What is the secret? I have a very good proposal for the Minister. I want him, or somebody, to give me a little bit of money—do you know, Mr Paisley, that there is a magic sum of money if you go to a school? In the old days, when we did our first inquiry—the Minister will remember this—people used to say, “No, we don’t want to go.” One of the big teaching unions said things like, “No, we’re not going to co-operate any longer”, “It’s a bit stressful for teachers”, “It’s more than our jobs are worth”, “What about health and safety?”, and all that. Our report put the lid on that. Health and safety has become not such a big issue; the forms to fill in have been made much easier and the guidance is much better.

The real secret of a school that opens itself to adventure and takes children out is having staff who want to do that and who see its value. When schools do it well, it is nearly always because they have trained one or two members of staff to be the experts who know about the subject or the organisation, who are inspired and who have the passion. That gives comfort to the school and gives focus to the challenge, so that children end up going to the right place at the right time in a safe and rewarding way. We need teachers who are trained and up to speed.

The other thing that we need to do, which is most important, is go to schools with £500 in our back pocket. We have found that that is the magic sum for getting a school much more interested in travel. The organisation goes to the school and says, “This won’t cost you anything. We’ll take 30 of your children into the countryside to have wonderful learning experiences of various types, beautifully mediated by trained teachers or mediators. We’ll take care of the travel and look after the children for the day.”

I have a wonderful challenge for the Minister and any Member who is listening to the debate. I hope that we can go back to it in the new Parliament—I hope that you, the Minister and I will all be re-elected on 8 June, Mr Paisley. I want to continue my programme of challenging every Member of Parliament to raise £5,000, which would cover 10 schools in their constituency—as long as I can persuade them to include schools that do not usually visits.

I am selling some wares in this debate, because we need children in this country to learn better. We need to find and liberate that spark, that talent and that potential in them. If we can do it through the medium of getting them out of school, we will have learned a lesson from good research and good experience. It works here and it works for other countries like ours, so we can draw conclusions from that.

My message is simple. I want more children to come to the countryside and fall in love with it. I want more children to go to museums, mosques and synagogues and learn outside the classroom. There is nothing wrong with a classroom, as long as the teachers in it are good, inspired, well qualified, well motivated and well paid. I will not go into political territory today, but we all know that it is much easier to get kids to go outside the classroom in Maidenhead than in Huddersfield. I am sure that it is very comfortable in the Royal Borough of Windsor and Maidenhead, but I do not represent a constituency in it. Like you, Mr Paisley, I represent a much more diverse constituency, where I look at the schools and want the children in them to have all the same advantages as children who live in the Royal Borough of Windsor and Maidenhead.

Mr Speaker—sorry, Mr Paisley—I want several things. I want every school to dedicate itself to being open to more out-of-school visits. I want every Member of Parliament to be energised to find 10 schools right across their constituency to go into the countryside and learn. I will not be parochial. They do not necessarily have to go to the John Clare cottage, although we always like to see people in Helpston, which is a lovely place just between Peterborough and Stanford, and halfway to Huddersfield. They could come to Huddersfield to see some of our attractions; it has more listed buildings than Bath or York, as I am sure you knew, Mr Paisley.

If children want a day out, they can go to Huddersfield, to the John Clare cottage or to the Minister’s constituency. Let us inspire them. Let us get them thinking in a totally different way about the countryside, about their lives and about their potential. That is the message of my speech and my reason for trying to secure this debate for some time: it is vital that we get children out of the classroom to learn.

I congratulate the hon. Member for Huddersfield (Mr Sheerman) on securing this debate. I very much enjoyed his passionate contribution. I know how long he has championed learning outside the classroom, all the way back to his chairmanship of the Children, Schools and Families Committee. When I was still a fledgling Member of Parliament, he showed me the ropes in the ways of Parliament and I am indebted to him for giving me an insight into how to make things happen in this place. Obviously I now have to do it through a different route as a Government Minister. Nevertheless, he gave me a sense that this place can make a difference, on this issue and on many others.

The hon. Gentleman will appreciate that, because of the timing of this debate—it is the penultimate Westminster Hall debate of this Parliament—I am unable to set out anything more than the current Government policy on learning outside the classroom or to commit to any further funding or policy. Be that as it may, it is clear that learning outside the classroom has a key role to play in children’s education. His most successful route to championing it during the next six weeks may be to influence his party’s manifesto and to see whether his proposal can be taken forward. We are all beavering away trying to ensure we get our own ideas into the literature of our respective parties.

When outside activities are structured and organised effectively, they can provide young people with stimulating experiences that build on the knowledge and understanding they gain through the formal lessons with which most of us are familiar. It is up to individual schools and teachers to use their professional judgment to decide how learning outside the classroom meets the needs of their pupils, and to plan lessons and use their budgets accordingly. There are plenty of excellent examples of schools doing just that, which I will say a little more about later.

The national curriculum includes specific requirements for schools in relation to learning outside the classroom in certain subjects. For instance, the national curriculum programme of study for PE includes specific requirements for outdoor and adventurous activities through key stages 2 and 4. Geography is another such area, with outdoor learning through simple fieldwork and observation of key human and physical features in the surrounding environment. There are opportunities through the national curriculum for children to get outside and envelop themselves in what the environment has to offer. Under the new geography GCSEs and A-levels being taught in schools, GCSE pupils need to carry out at least two pieces of fieldwork outside the classroom—that requirement was not there before—and fieldwork is required in both A-level and AS-level content for geography.

Traditionally, science has been seen as one of the ways into learning outside the classroom. The national curriculum provides guidance that schools should use their local environment throughout the year—we are a country that has four seasons—to explore and answer questions about plants growing in their habitat, as well as to provide opportunities to support the aspect of working scientifically in the science curriculum. The guidance specifies the understanding of the nature processes and methods of science for each year group that should be embedded with the content of biology, chemistry and physics. We all remember going outside with a quadrilateral, triangle or square to try to come up with some leaf litter that was interesting. Those types of memories when people recall what they learned as a child at school are very powerful.

Does the Minister agree that, in order to learn outside the classroom, pupils do not need to go miles and miles away? West Byfleet Junior School in my constituency has a tiny patch of woodland in the corner of its site. It has turned it into the Willows forest school—children follow a forest school curriculum during the course of a year. It is like going into another world. The school itself is only 50 or 100 yards away, but it is a magical place where younger children can explore nature, animals, bugs and science.

My hon. Friend is absolutely right. There is so much opportunity out there for children if they are given the permission to experience it. Someone who lives in the countryside and is surrounded by fields of cows might learn where milk comes from, but there are also city farms—there is one just down the road in Vauxhall—as well as forest schools. When I was training for the marathon in Delamere forest near where I live, I passed a forest school for early years—two to five-year-olds—run by the Forestry Commission. There are lots of ways into the subject, but we need to give children the chance, rather than making them feel that they have to stick with the classroom for all of their learning experience.

As the hon. Member for Huddersfield said, seeing original paintings, sculptures and historical artefacts in art galleries and museums is a very different experience from seeing printed images. Attending a live concert can enhance pupils’ understanding and enjoyment of music. Seeing a live performance of a Shakespeare play or—dare I say?—a recital of a John Clare poem, which the hon. Gentleman is clearly taken with, can provide pupils with different insights from studying a play or a poem on paper. We have recently updated the subject content for GCSE drama and A-level theatre studies to try to reflect that, and to ensure that students study those subjects with an entitlement to experience live theatre. I am not sure whether the House of Commons would qualify in that regard, but it is an important step forward.

A key element the hon. Gentleman raised was how disadvantaged children can get that equal opportunity of experience outside the classroom. I think back to one of the first children my family fostered. He was four or five years old and we took him on a holiday to north Wales. As we came over the brow of a hill and he saw the Irish sea for the first time, he looked at it and said, “Is that a big puddle?” He had never seen the sea before and did not know what it was. That is the challenge. Yes, we have free museums and we make sure that teachers feel equipped and confident to use learning outside as an important life-skill approach to enhancing learning, but the challenge is to ensure that no child gets left behind when we provide that opportunity.

That is why we support a museums and schools programme to deliver high-quality opportunities for all school pupils to visit museums that are linked to the national curriculum and support classroom learning. Last year, 72,870 pupils from 1,215 schools took part in that programme, including at the Barnsley Museum, the Great Yarmouth museum, SS Great Britain and many others. The £6 million for the programme since 2012 will be supplemented by a further £1.2 million over the next financial year. We are expanding the National Citizen Service for 16 and 17-year-olds.

I hope the Minister is going to mention the critical point that I was trying to put over about having someone in the school who is trained. He and I have put up for too long with a variety of jobs—even careers—that were never done well. It was Buggins’s turn simply because someone had a light timetable and could fill in and do it. We need trained people who know about the potential of out-of-school learning to lead it with passion.

I agree that it is crucial to embed that into the school, and that there should be strong leadership, not just from the headteacher but from governors, who are in a more powerful position than they have ever been to influence what makes a school outstanding.

The John Jamieson School and Technology College in Leeds, just up the road from Huddersfield, is for children aged three to 19 with a range of complex learning difficulties. Every child in that school is given access to a wide range of school activities, and provision is highly differentiated so that no child is excluded. Within that, there will be children who are on free school meals or who have more challenging backgrounds. It is those children whom we need to capture. They need to have that experience and widen their horizons so that I am not in the position I was in when I visited a school in the north side of Manchester a few years ago. When I asked one child whether he went into the town centre much, he said he had never been. He was 10 years old and the town centre is less than a mile down the road. That is still the reality and, although we are making progress, there is clearly still some work to do.

Question put and agreed to.