From canoeing and caving to mountaineering and axe-throwing, outdoor adventures are being banished from the childhood memories of a generation because of coronavirus regulations.
Outdoor centres that provide environmental education for young people from inner cities, including those who may be deprived or disabled, are warning that they face collapse due to a lack of government support.
Residential outdoor centres – many of them charities, not-for-profit or small, family-run businesses – have been closed since March and will not open again until April 2021 at the earliest, under Department for Education guidelines. Of the 15,000 teachers and instructors employed in the sector, about 6,000 have lost their jobs and several centres have permanently closed.
The centres are classified as “open”, however, because they are allowed to offer day trip activities – and so English and Welsh centres cannot receive the financial support available to businesses such as nightclubs that are closed because of the pandemic. Scotland, where outdoor educational trips are part of the curriculum, has provided £2m to save its centres.
Mill on the Brue, in Somerset, is reporting a 98% fall in revenue this year and has sold a house to stay afloat. Aylmerton Field Studies Centre, in Norfolk, has seen its annual turnover drop from £1m to £1,000. Bendrigg Trust, a charity in Cumbria which provides wild adventures for young people with special needs, must plug a £100,000 financial black hole. Some centres, such as Holt Hall, which is owned by Norfolk county council, have already permanently closed.
Outdoor educators accuse councils of using Covid as an excuse to sell off outdoor centres, many of which are potentially lucrative properties. They are warning that the most vulnerable young people who have suffered most from the coronavirus crisis are missing out on a transformative part of their education.
“For some children it will be the only chance they get to come out of the area they live in and experience the wilder landscapes of the UK and contact with nature, the only time in their life they’ll sit in a boat or go up a mountain or visit a beach,” said Sara Jones, a former teacher who runs Rhos y Gwaliau centre in North Wales with her husband.
“We have children who have never seen a sheep before or never walked on uneven ground, only concrete and tarmac. For these children, it’s huge, but it’s important for every child and makes a difference for every child,” Jones said.
According to Mark Holroyd, operations manager at Aylmerton, small centres such as his only ever take two schools; “bubbles” sleep in separate dorms and can eat separately, with instructors teaching outdoors at a distance.
“We really struggle to see why bars and pubs and cafes are open where total strangers come together, while outdoor education is seen as so dangerous,” he said. “We’re talking about kids who have been indoors for a year, we’re talking about mental heath and physical health and the environment – all really key things at the moment. It’s a good industry. It just seems bizarre. Where are our priorities as a society?”
Nick Liley, principal of Bendrigg, which normally provides outdoor activities for 4,000 young people with special needs each year, said it appeared the government views outdoor education as “a nice to have”, not a life-changing experience for the most deprived of a deprived generation. “It’s not a holiday, it’s a wellbeing personal development course which is absolutely essential,” he said. “It’s a sector of society that has been forgotten and it’s been absolutely horrendous.”
Gareth Davies of Arete, a not-for-profit outdoor centre based near Caernarfon in north Wales, who has launched a #saveoutdoored campaign, said: “The pupils are the silent sufferers – they haven’t got a voice. No one is thinking about them. It’s desperately sad that we can’t provide these pupils when they need more help.”
Tim Farron, co-chair of the all-party parliamentary group for outdoor education, said the government must follow Scotland’s example and provide financial support for centres in England and Wales but also allow residential stays.
“Outdoor education centres are as safe as schools,” he said. “This is a really important part of educational provision that is at risk of dying. We could see a halving of the sector overnight and that won’t come back.
“It’s not just about saving these centres – it’s about deploying them. There’s a whole bunch of young people who are disengaged at school, with mental health problems and behind on their studies. This is the moment where outdoor education centres can build people’s capacity for learning, develop their teamwork, confidence and resilience and give them all the mental and physical benefits of being outside.”
A Department for Education spokesperson said: “Since the start of term, schools have been able to run non-residential trips.
“We recognise the enormous benefits overnight residential educational visits can provide for children and will review our guidance in February, based on the latest scientific evidence.”
Outdoor centres say even if the government announces in February they can reopen at Easter, that will be too late to secure summer bookings because schools require months to plan residential trips away.