"Fantastic" to see Sunderland children return to outdoor education but leaders warn it will "take years" to recover
Education leaders and outdoor instructors across the city have been celebrating the return of children to outdoor education this summer but believe it will take “many years to recover” from the “devastation” inflicted by the Covid pandemic.
Figures from the Institute of Outdoor learning show at the peak of the pandemic, 70,000 children per day were missing out on outdoor education, costing the industry an estimated £275m and putting at risk almost a quarter of outdoor instructor jobs.
Although the situation is now improving, outdoor education charity Adventure Sunderland saw their operation decimated by the pandemic with all of its staff having to be furloughed.
Centre manager Mike Clapham said: “We completely lost last year’s summer income which would help get us through the winter and there were real question marks about how we were going to carry-on.
“With the easing of the restrictions the signs are good but we are about to enter another winter and the charity is still feeling the impact of the pandemic.”
While the charity diversified to offer family activity days and is looking to run additional instructor training courses, it’s still dependent on the support of local schools when children return next month.
Mike added: “We do have some bookings for September but we are down on where we would normally be.
“With all the uncertainty, many headteachers are still being very cautious but hopefully as confidence grows things will continue to improve.”
One of those to be furloughed was instructor, Jasmine Donnelly, who has seen many of her colleagues at other centres being made redundant and now turning to other careers.
Jasmine, 34, said: “I know a lot of centres which have now closed permanently and many friends who work in the industry have had to find different careers.
“They’ve had no choice as for those who were self-employed there was simply no help available.”
News throughout the pandemic has often been dominated by education, including the cancellation of exams and prioritisation of the reopening of schools.
However Jasmine feels an opportunity has been missed to support the city’s children by not prioritising outdoor education.
She added: “I feel the sector was somewhat forgotten by the government but it was something which needed to be there for young people to help with both their physical and mental well-being.
“We could have operated outdoors and I really think it would have helped to reduce people’s anxieties. Hopefully in the future we can be given similar priority status as schools.”
However, with restrictions now having eased, children have been able to return to the centre and are once again enjoying all the benefits it can bring.
Mike said: “It’s fantastic to see the children returning this summer. The benefits are immeasurable.
“As well as benefiting the children physically through being able to be active again it also builds confidence, allows them to socialise and develops life-skills such as being able to meet up and interact with new people.”
One youngster delighted to return is Finley Bell, 14, who has been attending the centre since he was seven and would like to train as an outdoor instructor.
The Southmoor Academy pupil said: “Not being able to take part in sports and outdoor activities during the pandemic was really hard as I found it really helped me with my mental health.
“You learn lots of new skills such as teamwork and communication and it’s really uplifting now the centre is open again.”
Also taking part in the summer activity days was Lilly Cheape, 10, from New Silksworth Academy.
She said: “It was really difficult during lockdown not being able to do all the things I like. I’m really looking forward to going body-boarding and being able to do some climbing.”
Also severely impacted by the pandemic was Derwent Hill in the Lake District which is owned and operated by Sunderland City Council. As a residential venue, the centre had to wait even longer to welcome back children.
Centre director Matthew Ellis said: “The main challenge facing the Centre during the pandemic was the uncertainty of how long we’d be closed for.
“When we were finally able to open it was wonderful to hear laughter and the wheels of travel cases coming up the drive.
“We teach children and young people how to rock climb or canoe, but the main objective of our courses are to learn about each other and most importantly, themselves.
“Given all the challenges the pandemic has created for children, it has become clear that resilience has been that vital key ingredient that has got many people through these challenging times.”
One of the first schools to return to Derwent Hill was Seaburn Dene Primary School.
Headteacher John Howe said: “Outdoor learning improves children’s health, engages them with learning and leads to greater connection with nature.
“It not only teaches critical life-skills such as resilience, teamwork and creativity but is central to enjoyment of childhood.”
Adventure Sunderland runs subsidised activities which aim to make participation affordable for disadvantaged children. To find out more, contact the centre on 01915144721.
As a former secondary school teacher of 16 years I know first-hand the enormous benefits outdoor education can bring.
In my role as head of geography I would often take students on both fieldwork visits and activity weekends where you would often find those children who may struggle academically in the classroom would excel in this environment as learning was brought to life by more practical tasks.
For many students it may be the first time they’d ventured outside the comfort zone of their home town or village and it was such excursions which they would often fondly recall when I would bump into them after they had left school.
As headteacher at Seaburn Dene Primary School John Howe said: ‘Outdoor Education is about creating memories.”
Hopefully the importance of this vital sector of education will not be forgotten as we emerge from the pandemic.