Covid: Outdoor education centres bid to reopen after Easter

By Judith Burns
Education reporter

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Allowing outdoor learning trips will boost children's wellbeing after the pandemic, say specialists

Overnight education trips should be allowed to resume after Easter, having been suspended in the lockdown, say outdoor learning leaders.

Outdoor education has a vital role in rebuilding children's confidence and mental health after months indoors, they argue.

But centres have been closed for nearly a year, with thousands of jobs lost.

A government spokesman said England's guidance on residential school trips would be reviewed this month.

In the next few weeks, schools are expected to begin to reopen to all pupils on timescales which vary between the four nations of the UK - and the outdoor education industry hopes to play a part in pupils' educational and emotional recovery from the lockdown.

The School Travel Sector Stakeholder Group was convened by England's Department for Education but represents outdoor education and school travel businesses across the UK.

Its "Roadmap to Reopening" proposes a phased restart of domestic educational visits in the summer term.

The document argues that the guidance, which has seen overnight educational stays blocked since March 2020, should be amended to allow visits to go ahead, depending on background transmission rates of the virus.

It urges the government to adopt:

  • a Covid-safe operating protocol, already developed with Public Health England, to allow centres "to operate safely within existing school bubbles"
  • a government backed insurance policy to provide cover if trips are cancelled due to the virus
  • targeted government support for businesses providing educational travel.

The group warns that without these measures the sector could be "snuffed out".

The group say they are among the sectors hardest hit by the lockdown, having been closed to their main customers for almost a year, even during periods when other businesses, such as pubs, hotels and restaurants, were allowed to open.

"Our industry is on a knife edge," warns Andy Robinson, chief executive of the Institute for Outdoor Learning.

"If no action is taken and no additional support is provided, the sector stands to lose all its 16,000 jobs, snuffing out a vital British industry."

Confidence and resilience

Alternatively, with the right support, the sector could help boost the self-confidence, resilience and teamwork skills of a generation of children who have been cooped up for almost a year with few opportunities to connect with each other or with nature, the group argues.

"This is particularly true for disadvantaged children and the thousands of inner-city schools, students and parents for whom outdoor education is a unique and life changing experience," says Jim Whittaker, who chairs the Association of Heads of Outdoor Centres.

Image source, PGL

In a statement, the government 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."

Ministers would be reviewing the guidance "once again, this month", said the spokesperson, adding that the furlough scheme had been extended until April, while next month's budget would "take stock of our wider support, and set out the next stage in our economic response".