Outdoor education should be reopened because children in Britain are suffering, experts and celebrities have urged.
In an open letter sent to the prime minister on Thursday, explorers, authors and sporting figures joined headteachers, councillors, charities and outdoor education providers to call for residential school trips to be allowed during the summer term, when hotels and B&Bs are due to reopen in England.
Among the 200 signatories are the former England rugby coach Sir Clive Woodward, the children’s author Sir Michael Morpurgo, the Olympic gold medal winning canoeist Etienne Stott and the explorers Benedict Allen and Victoria Humphries.
“Children and young people have been among those most impacted by the Covid pandemic,” the letter says. “As we recover from this pandemic … outdoor education has to be part of the government’s wider reopening of education, with both day and overnight visits allowed to operate.”
With more than 2 million children a year usually taking part in outdoor education, the benefits to health and wellbeing are clear, the letter continues. But a ban on residential school trips since March 2020 has already led to 30 outdoor education centres closing permanently, with 6,000 job losses and £600m in lost revenue.
The letter warns that unless providers can reopen at the same time as hotels from 17 May, the sector will face financial jeopardy, a further 10,000 jobs will be at risk and a generation of children could miss out on the often life-changing benefits of visits.
Jim Whittaker, the chair of the Association of Heads of Outdoor Education Centres, said: “We can play a vital role in helping children get back on track to achieve their potential, but we need help to do so. The pandemic has been financially disastrous for outdoor education. But just as schools and children need us most, our sector is in an incredibly precarious situation. Without urgent action we face the devastating loss of provision for ever.”
Disadvantaged pupils and those with special needs, for whom these visits are often a unique experience, stand to lose the most. Andy Robinson, the chief executive of the Institute for Outdoor Learning, said: “These are often life-changing experiences which, by their very nature, cannot take place in the classroom. If we are to rebuild the resilience and self-confidence of this generation of children we need to start that process as soon as possible.”
Around 1.4 million children are on free school meals, and at least that many are unlikely to be able to have these experiences apart from on a school trip, Robinson added. “The industry is desperate to do what we do best: helping children fulfil their potential, whatever their background.”
Sean Day, the centre director at the Lake District Calvert Trust, said: “We specialise in providing life-changing residential trips for children and adults with disabilities. If you can complete a high-ropes course in your wheelchair or abseil down a 30ft Lake District crag, then everyday challenges at home can become far less daunting.
“If we can’t reopen this summer, the future of this amazing charity is at risk, and it is children with disabilities who will suffer. We are desperate for schools to come back.”
Gavin Williamson, the education secretary, is due to decide next week when school trips can safely reopen. The School Travel Stakeholder Group, which represents providers of outdoor education, last week proposed a fixed reopening date of 17 May for day and overnight school visits.
Under the proposals, centres would adhere to new Covid-secure protocols and ensure all visits adhere to the government’s school bubble requirements.
“We are ready to play our part in the recovery and believe that the Covid-safe protocols that we have developed will enable us to open safely,” said Whittaker. “We have put in place so many safety measures to ensure we can operate with everything that schools and hotels do and more. We opened over the summer to families and didn’t have a single recorded case.”
The letter also calls for a £50m culture recovery fund for school travel providers. A petition calling on the government to provide financial support to the sector has had nearly 15,000 signatures.