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Outdoor learning study

The Blagrave Trust funded some research attached here, into the outdoor learning sector, which has just been completed.   This is an area where we receive many funding applications and support a number of charities, as well as having run an outdoor site ourselves in Hampshire at Linkenholt for the benefit of many children and young people.

The purpose of the study, conceived with the Institute of Outdoor Learning and others, was to bring together existing evidence: what do we know about the effectiveness of outdoor learning? What is its scale? What outcomes are organisations working towards? What is known about good practice?

What did the study find? Well, in a nutshell, it’s a mixed picture. On the one hand the outdoor learning sector (broadly defined and encompassing a wide range of activities) seems to be growing, but on the other, broader concerns about reductions in funding, particularly in the youth sector where much of the targeted work is delivered, may be affecting it.   There is no comprehensive survey of the scale of this work, though it’s known for example, that only approx 10% of children access learning outside the classroom through schools and even less in disadvantaged areas.

The evidence base is extremely spread out – the studies that exist focus across population groups, interventions, settings and outcomes. The majority of research is in the area of adventure or residential activity, as opposed to within school settings for example. The outcomes focus primarily on social and emotional skills development – which we know to be important for the achievement of positive life outcomes – but explicit links to educational attainment or employability for example, are rare.   Many of the studies and evaluations reviewed as part of the research, lacked clear theories of change or achieved what would be considered to be strong levels of evidence i.e. used control groups. Or the work had been replicated in several places to provide a more robust sense of impact.   In other words, weak study designs and non-standardised outcomes measures, make it extremely hard to draw clear conclusions.

What the research did find is that almost all outdoor learning interventions have a positive effect. As with many social interventions the effect attenuates over time – and therefore repeat, overnight or multi-day activities had a stronger effect than shorter ones.

Initial implications for Blagrave and its funding:

Whilst there is clearly value for universal, school based, initiatives to complement curriculum and develop skills beyond academic attainment in young people, they are not all ‘outdoors based’ and can be part of the core ethos of schools.  There is also significant energy going into outdoor learning with schools that cross cuts areas such as health, heritage and arts, natural environment and sports and has the support of government departments.

Out-of-school outdoor learning programmes, particularly for at-risk, or disadvantaged young people who would be less likely to benefit from such opportunities at home, are marginally better evidenced and provided they are not one-off, can have a lasting impact.  These often tend to be ‘adventure’ based but not exclusively. Schools also play a key role in helping to identify and support such initiatives. We are indeed funding a number of collaborations between schools and third sector organisations where young people are enabled to take regular time out of school in the outdoors to build their confidence and address negative behaviour, for example. They tend to be delivered by third sector organisations, are sometimes linked to social action initiatives and because of their targeted nature, tend to be more expensive (and perhaps more at risk of cuts given there is no statutory obligation).   The existing evidence base alongside numerous discussions with delivery organisations we fund, gives us sufficient confidence in the value of these interventions and the importance of continuing to support them. We know that the relationships between the young people and the youth workers are key to their success and unless there is investment, these are at risk of disappearing.

Nonetheless, the quality of evaluation and evidence is very weak. This report presents an opportunity for the outdoor learning sector to gets its house in order, to mobilize the sector in order to identify priorities areas for research moving forwards that can help to better inform what programmes work and why; strengths and weaknesses, to enable improvement in delivery. We hope that this research report will assist practitioners moving forwards, particularly in identifying research priorities together.

As Blagrave we will continue to help convene partners in this area to share learning and thinking; to ensure that those we fund are able to articulate their ‘theory of change’ and continue to ensure that we only fund evaluations that are robust and will support broader evidence and learning. Ensuring that young people are involved in giving regular feedback and evaluation will always be central.   But, we are left with a question. Should we be working with our partners to develop a standardised evaluation framework for the element of outdoor learning that is of particular interest to us? Would this assist the sector as is could be piloted with a number of partners. Or, will that simply be adding further confusion, at worse duplication, to an already fragmented sector?

The Existing Evidence base about the Effectiveness of Outdoor Learning – Executive Summary – Nov 2015

If you would like to see the full report, it’s available on the authors website Giving Evidence and the Institute for Outdoor Learning’s website.