[Mr Joe Benton in the Chair] — Outdoor Learning

– in Westminster Hall at 12:00 am on 15th December 2010.

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Motion made, and Question proposed, That the sitting be now adjourned.-(Angela Watkinson.)

Photo of Simon Hart Simon Hart Conservative, Carmarthen West and South Pembrokeshire 9:30 am, 15th December 2010

May I say what an honour it is to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Benton, and not for the first time?

I start by declaring an interest. My enthusiasm for this subject started in previous years when I was involved in the creation of a charity, the Countryside Alliance Foundation. That fuelled the fire for this debate and since then, a number of organisations have come on to my radar and helped enormously in shaping my views. I will quickly list them: the Field Studies Council, in particular its excellent staff at West Orielton in Pembrokeshire in my constituency; the National Trust, its Outdoor Britain campaign, and particularly the help of Jonathan Hughes; the English Outdoor Council; the Bushcraft Company; the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds; and the Council for Learning Outside the Classroom. One of the encouraging things about preparing for this debate was the common ground found between so many different organisations.

This debate is not about urban interests versus rural interests; the subject is important to everybody, wherever they come from and whatever their background and aspirations. Neither is the debate aimed at persuading urban children to go out and do things such as skin rabbits; this is about getting everybody-whether teachers or pupils-out of a classroom and into a new environment so that they can find something somewhere that excites them and in which they can excel. In short, the debate is about outdoor education, not outdoor entertainment.

When I looked into this topic, I was struck by the fact that these days only about 10% of children play outdoors, although about 40% of their parents used to do that. A survey conducted a few years ago by Country Life magazine illustrated the challenge that confronts us. A group of children was asked why, in their view, it was important that gates were closed in the countryside. The most popular answer was, "To keep the elephants in." They were asked why it was perhaps more enjoyable to live in rural rather than urban areas, and the equally depressing, but slightly telling, response was, "There are fewer coppers." Those are the challenges and the facts that underpin part-although not all-of this debate. We have a big mountain to climb, but we have the consensus and enthusiasm to climb it.

Emerging evidence suggests that outdoor learning meets every social target set. It is good for education, health, behaviour, community cohesion and, of course, for the natural environment. Everybody who takes part, not just those from a disadvantaged background or those who may not excel in a traditional classroom, benefits from the process. Outdoor learning teaches people, in particular teachers, to understand risk.

Depressingly, 76% of teachers turned down the opportunity to go on a field trip because of fears about health and safety. Such learning, however, is low risk and high reward, and the statistics back that up. Over a 10-year period, only 364 legal claims were tabled because of children injured at school, and only half of those cases ended in any kind of payment. On average, most local authorities paid out £293 over that period.

Photo of James Wharton James Wharton Conservative, Stockton South

I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing this important debate on a topic that I know is dear to his heart. Does he agree that the health and safety culture in this country is hugely damaging, not only in relation to this debate, but overall? A bit of common sense and some good, sensible reforms to encourage people to take reasonable risks when dealing with children, or any other matter, would be of great benefit to our education system and the people of this country.

Photo of Simon Hart Simon Hart Conservative, Carmarthen West and South Pembrokeshire

My hon. Friend makes a good point. The difficulty with health and safety legislation is that we are trying to create a society where risk is eliminated, but no such thing is possible; risk can be limited and managed, but it cannot be eliminated. My hon. Friend highlights that point well.

In 2008, the most recent year for which we have decent figures, 53% of six to 15-year-olds did not go on a single school trip. A further depressing thought is that over the past 10 years, there has been only £4.5 million of funding for that concept. That is in stark contrast to the music manifesto, for example, which attracted £332 million of funding in 2007. About 97% of teachers believe that it is important for children to learn about the countryside within the national curriculum, and 85% of young children and their parents agree.

Some teachers cannot do what they would like because their school or local authority will not fund their cover when they take children on a trip. That is the "rarely covers" conundrum, and perhaps it goes to the heart of the debate Under qualified teacher status 30, trainee teachers are asked only to "recognise opportunities" for out-of-classroom learning. It is a weak standard, but even that is not being reached by some initial teacher training providers.

Photo of Mark Spencer Mark Spencer Conservative, Sherwood

Does my hon. Friend agree that one of the barriers that stops teachers from having the confidence to take kids out of school and into the countryside, to pursue an education about rural life, is that they do not have access to resources and knowledge? Is he aware of the charity FACE, Farming and Countryside Education, based at Stoneleigh in Warwickshire? It offers teachers resources, knowledge and teaching aids to help them form educational lessons and partake in rural education.

Photo of Simon Hart Simon Hart Conservative, Carmarthen West and South Pembrokeshire

I thank my hon. Friend for that intervention. I am aware of that charity and the good work that it does. I am also aware of countless other charities that offer similar, if not identical, services.

I stated earlier that this debate was not about the town versus the countryside. Indeed it is not, and we must be careful not to fall into the trap, as I have myself, of seeing the only benefit of outdoor learning to be that of teaching urban children about rural ways. My hon. Friend's intervention makes it clear that plenty of people are enthusiastic about reaping the benefits of outdoor learning, but cannot do so either because of insufficient funding through the charitable sector, or because of obstacles due to health and safety legislation, bureaucracy or Government funding.

I have two questions for the Minister. First, will she consider reviewing whether current teacher training provides new teachers with the skills to lead outdoor learning activities in the first place? Secondly, will she review the "rarely covers" guide to residential visits and fieldwork, and look at whether part of the pupil premium may be used for that purpose?

Emerging evidence points to the direct and indirect health benefits of outdoor learning, including personal well-being and-the latest catchphrase-"happiness." The current gaming epidemic does not lend itself to our mission of stirring a child's interest in the outside world. A staggering 53 computer games were released on to the market in April 2010, and it is easy to deduce that we cannot leave it to the children to discover the outside world. It is our responsibility to take them there.

Activities such as walking, cycling and riding can burn up to 380 calories an hour. Green spaces can stabilise anger in young people, which can help prevent antisocial behaviour. Outdoor education could therefore play a key role in reducing the amount of permanent and fixed exclusions for physical and verbal abuse in schools, which currently run at the eye-watering level of 300,000 cases per year.

Outdoor learning could also help to reduce the cost of youth crime and obesity, which is estimated at an even more staggering and depressing £5 billion per annum for the taxpayer to pick up. Of course, evidence is an essential prerequisite of any progress that we make on this topic. I shall start with what Ofsted had to say about it. In 2008, Ofsted published a thematic report that stated:

"When planned and implemented well, learning outside the classroom contributed significantly to raising standards and improving pupils' personal, social and emotional development."

It went on to recommend that schools and colleges should

"ensure that their curriculum planning includes sufficient well structured opportunities for all learners to engage in learning outside the classroom as a key, integrated element of their experience" and

"ensure equal and full access for all learners to learning outside the classroom".

In a similar study in 2006, the National Trust stated:

"We looked at whether schoolchildren's learning about their local environment would influence the way they treat it.

We found that not only was this the case, but high-quality out-of-classroom learning also influenced how children behave and the lifestyle choices they make.

It shows the potential for school trips not just to change children's lives, but the lives of whole communities."

Photo of Gregory Campbell Gregory Campbell Shadow Minister (International Development), Shadow Minister (Transport)

I, too, congratulate the hon. Gentleman on the timeliness of the debate. Does he agree that in addition to the issues that he is outlining from those surveys, the battle against childhood obesity can be taken further by learning outside the classroom? It can contribute to that battle, which unfortunately as a society we do not seem to be taking seriously.

Photo of Simon Hart Simon Hart Conservative, Carmarthen West and South Pembrokeshire

The hon. Gentleman makes a very good point. There are direct and indirect health benefits to be gained from this educational concept. The direct benefits are simply from getting people out of a windowless and joyless classroom environment into an environment that is more interesting and more demanding physically. That is a good thing, but outdoor education can also teach people about the value of a different and varied diet, the process of food production and the attractions of exercise and entertainment, in whatever form they might come, in open areas.

Of course that will have a positive effect. That used to be just conjecture on our part and on the part of the experts; there is now evidence to support the view that that is the case. That is what is encouraging: we are going beyond just speculating to being able genuinely to point to evidence that supports that view.

The Select Committee on Children, Schools and Families also came up trumps. It stated:

"Learning outside the classroom is important, and the Department must provide adequate funding to achieve maximum impact...there should be an individual entitlement within the National Curriculum to at least one out of school visit a term."

On the back of those third-party endorsements, I shall pose two more questions to the Minister. Will the Government reconsider plans to include an entitlement to outdoor learning for everyone in the curriculum? Also, can outdoor learning be included as part of the Ofsted inspection protocol? There is a feeling among members of the teaching profession with whom I have contact that if it is not inspected, it is not important. It is clearly important; Ofsted and the Select Committee have said that it is important. If it is important, let us include it in the inspection protocol, so that everyone knows that it is important and we can cement that in the minds of those responsible for outdoor learning projects.

I represent a seat in west Wales and should therefore like to consider for a moment how the Welsh Assembly Government view the issue. It is encouraging that they are a few lengths ahead of Westminster on this topic. I recognise that the matter is devolved, but we can learn lessons from the Welsh Assembly in this regard. The foundation phase is the Welsh Assembly Government's approach to learning for children aged three to seven years. My own children have benefited from initiatives such as the Forest school. That involves a perfectly non-contentious regular monthly trip into the great outdoors of Wales, which benefits children from quite a young age in many different ways. The Welsh Assembly Government recognise that. Their framework states:

"The Foundation Phase environment should promote discovery and independence and a greater emphasis on using the outdoor environment as a resource for children's learning."

They say that they will aim to

"Provide opportunities for children to experience the outdoor learning environment and to become active learners through the play-based Foundation Phase curriculum."

I say to the Minister that if that is good enough for the Welsh Assembly, surely it is good enough for the UK as a whole.

To conclude my short contribution on this important topic, I shall make these points. We can now prove that outdoor education improves health, education and social benefits for children, young people and society as a whole. We can increasingly prove that if we can obtain those benefits for children and young adults, the economic benefit for the taxpayer in the long term could also be huge and well worth the investment required now.

I want to finish with two case studies. In my last job, I was involved with a project called Fishing for Schools. We took people who often had severe disadvantages and just put them in an environment that they were not used to. We used to marvel at the way in which lives could be transformed as a consequence of that simple project. We had one pupil called Zach on that programme. His teacher wrote to us after the course had finished and said:

"Zach had been suffering from bullying and was often in trouble with regard to behaviour in school, but since the course he has worked hard, been positive, behaves well and is a more mature and sensible young man-wow, what a difference."

Alex McBarnet, founder of The Bushcraft Company, came into the world of outdoor education as a result of difficulties that he had had in traditional education. Using his own get-up-and-go spirit and his own inspirational zeal, he started his own company. He said:

"Children who struggle a bit more in the classroom have an opportunity here to shine, and you can actually watch their self esteem grow by the day, which is fabulous."

Photo of Jim Shannon Jim Shannon Shadow DUP Spokesperson (Health), Shadow DUP Spokesperson (Transport)

Does the hon. Gentleman agree that there are many outside bodies that can contribute to outdoor learning? One is the Countryside Alliance, which the hon. Gentleman might have an interest in. Does he see a role for such bodies, whether we are talking about the British Association for Shooting and Conservation or the Countryside Alliance, that could help to benefit young people?

Photo of Simon Hart Simon Hart Conservative, Carmarthen West and South Pembrokeshire

The hon. Gentleman makes a point that he knows I will approve of-and I had deliberately not been making it, for exactly that reason. I think that any way in which we can take young people into interesting, challenging, different and adventurous environments and teach them skills that they do not know and introduce them to ways of life, people and communities that they may not usually have any contact with, must be good.

The more of that we can do, the better. I do not say that just as someone who had a personal and professional interest in it, and to some extent still does. I say it because I have seen many examples of people who have benefited. They are not just rural or urban or suburban people, or people from poor backgrounds or rich backgrounds. Everyone who has had the fantastic privilege of coming into contact with the outside world, whether formally or informally, has come away feeling that they have gained something that traditional education could not provide to them. We all have a social responsibility to encourage youth in that respect, but we need help from central Government to break down the barriers that sometimes prevent us from being able to do that.

That leads nicely to my final question to the Minister. I and other hon. Members and organisations out there in the real world think that outdoor learning could bring benefits to the nation and benefits to people who sometimes struggle, through no fault of their own-and often through no fault of their local authority's or the Government's-to obtain benefits from the type of education system that we have.

We have a golden opportunity now to improve the lives of people in a number of communities through a few simple initiatives. Of course, that requires funding, but it does not require obscene levels of funding. In fact, it is not funding but an investment, because the downstream economic consequences of doing it will be profoundly beneficial to the nation. It will save us millions of pounds in the long term if we get it right.

I hope that the Minister will grant an audience with herself and my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State, not only for hon. Members who may be interested in the issue but for representatives of the wide range of outside bodies that have contributed to the debate and made strides in the right direction. If we could get together early in the new year to see whether we could convert what at the moment is a struggling dream into a deliverable reality, this debate will have been a worthwhile use of our Wednesday morning.

Photo of Andrew Percy Andrew Percy Conservative, Brigg and Goole 9:49 am, 15th December 2010

I congratulate my hon. Friend Simon Hart on securing the debate on this hugely important matter. It is timely, as it was only about three weeks ago that I was on Goole moor, in my constituency, meeting Natural England to highlight the opportunities for our local schools on that nationally important nature reserve. Following that, I have worked with our fantastic head teacher at Goole high school to find innovative ways of using the moor and the site for educational and health purposes.

As a former school teacher, I would like to appeal to the Minister over the Ofsted framework; if something is going into the framework, can there be a one-in, one-out principle or, preferably, a one-in, two-out principle? There are huge pressures on teachers already from the inspection regime, and, due to how the profession is structured, naturally, we tend to teach towards Ofsted, rather than the young people whose education we are there to enhance. I make that small appeal to the Minister.

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Carmarthen West and South Pembrokeshire on his knowledge of the teacher training process. Although trainee teachers are required to prove that they can organise and undertake a trip as part of their postgraduate certificate in education, it is normally a well structured trip to a museum, so they do not come away from the training with particular skills in organising trips outside. There are so many pressures on teachers in terms of advice, risk assessments, and so on, that it can be incredibly difficult to organise trips outside the classroom.

Photo of Justin Tomlinson Justin Tomlinson Conservative, North Swindon

I thank my hon. Friend for giving way on that point. One problem is the cost of minibus insurance for teachers. If something could be done about that, it would make a considerable difference. It often costs more than £1,000, and is a particular barrier to short trips to local open spaces.

Photo of Andrew Percy Andrew Percy Conservative, Brigg and Goole

That is absolutely key, because there are huge costs, and other pressures such as extra staff. When I was training as a history teacher and doing my final teaching practice at Endeavour high school in Hull, we were studying the industrial revolution. The area I taught in had a fantastic outside resource in its buildings from the industrial revolution period. I simply wanted to take my class of year 8s outside to look at some of those buildings, but I was told that I would have to do a risk assessment and get three members of staff, because there were 30 kids in the class and the ratio has to be 1:10. By the end of the day, those kids were running home across those same streets and past those same buildings, but we did not go out and ended up sitting in the classroom looking at pictures instead. Although the teaching profession can certainly do more to enhance outside learning, we need the structures in place to support them and we need to remove some of the pressures. Following some of the sensationalised reports in the press about school trips, my former union advised us not to take them, which, again, is a reaction to all this bureaucracy.

Outdoor education has a particular role for excluded children and children with special needs. As any teacher has to, I have worked with children from across the spectrum. It was often the most challenging children who benefited most from being taken outside the formal school setting-where they were still learning. I referred to this during my maiden speech; it is expensive to deliver education outside the classroom, but, for those children, the value of doing so cannot be quantified. I have seen kids go off on particular courses outside the classroom and come back significantly changed, so that education has a particular role. As the Minister is about to undertake a review into special and additional needs, I hope that that can be taken into account.

With a change in curriculum, the Government have, rightly, outlined how we intend to move to more vocational or joint pathways. There are huge benefits and opportunities not only for visits but to get skills outside school. I was talking to Natural England on the nationally important nature reserve-I will plug it once again-about potentially putting a curriculum together, which kids could access from our local schools, on countryside management. There are not only health benefits, which my hon. Friend the Member for Carmarthen West and South Pembrokeshire rightly highlighted, but educational benefits.

Photo of Mark Spencer Mark Spencer Conservative, Sherwood

Is my hon. Friend aware that the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs has funded a higher-level entry scheme, which includes educational visits to farms by schools? I understand that the scheme is now closed to new entrants. May I take this opportunity to encourage the Minister to pressure DEFRA to clarify whether that scheme is indeed closed to new entrants?

Photo of Andrew Percy Andrew Percy Conservative, Brigg and Goole

I am happy to be a conduit for my hon. Friend's point. I am sure that, through me, the Minister has heard him and will respond appropriately.

I close by congratulating my hon. Friend the Member for Carmarthen West and South Pembrokeshire again on securing the debate. It is an important area, and it is pleasing to see that so many Members from both sides of the House have attended, particularly my hon. Friends. I look forward to the Minister's response. Thank you for allowing me to make a small contribution to the debate, Mr Benton.

Photo of Alun Cairns Alun Cairns Conservative, Vale of Glamorgan 9:56 am, 15th December 2010

It is a privilege to contribute to the debate under your chairmanship, Mr Benton. I congratulate my hon. Friend Simon Hart on securing the debate and on his excellent contribution, which enhances the subject.

My hon. Friend touched on the foundation phase and the different approach taken in Wales. I want to spend a little time on my experience in that area. I declare an interest in that my son was one of the first children to go through the foundation phase in Wales under the new education structure for key stage 1. It has had an impact and influence on him and on education and the wider community in Wales.

By way of background, it is worth underlining that key stage 1, or the foundation stage as we refer to it, requires 50% of teaching time to be spent outside the classroom. My hon. Friend and others referred to visits to farms, museums or other outside extracurricular activities. They are important, but the point of the foundation phase is to mainstream outdoor learning as part of the education structure. That throws up lots of problems and issues that need resolving, which I shall come on to in a moment.

It is important to underline the significant benefits that children have drawn from the new approach to learning: social skills, their interaction with each other, their individual approach to risk and personal management, the innovation that it allows children to explore and express, and how it helps-although it is too early to assess its contribution-with the challenges of inactivity and obesity, as has been mentioned. It is also about lifestyle and leadership that allows children and teachers to develop. Those are some benefits that the new approach has brought to children, particularly in an environment where computer gaming seems to be the obvious choice and parents, naturally, worry in a different way about children playing outside than they did when we were growing up.

Teachers, as well as children, obviously benefit as well. I am told that some teachers feel claustrophobic because they are kept in the classroom no matter what the weather. They are stuck there, particularly on wet days when the children are not even free to go outside during break time. The new approach has allowed the teachers to innovate, try new approaches and use the environment around them. It is important to say that that is not only true in rural schools, but in urban schools that have been able to adapt learning practice and curriculum to respond to the environment. The children and teachers have been able to react in a first-class way to those demands.

I should add that there have also been benefits for parents, schools and governors in general. The stipulation that 50% of teaching time should be spent outside the classroom has enabled more people to access schools in higher demand. Current guidance limits the number of pupils in classrooms, but I am familiar with a number of admission appeals. In that respect, I should declare an interest in that my wife, who is an education lawyer, has represented children who wanted to gain access to a particular school. The National Assembly for Wales guidance to teachers relates directly to the floor space available and to the number of children who can go to a particular school. However, if, as my wife has argued, children spend half their time outside the classroom, the guidance is out of date and needs to be changed, because it can be argued that half the classroom is outside. That has been accepted in some admission appeals.

As I suggested, the 50% target has thrown up problems that have not been fully resolved. There was a significant need for capital spend, because we needed to ensure that classrooms had better access to the outdoors. There was also a need for investment in wet-weather gear. This might come as something of a surprise, but it is not always sunny in Wales, and if we are to achieve the 50% target, investment in effective, proper wet-weather gear is essential. I regret to have to draw hon. Members' attention to the fact that, at some schools, it was the parent teacher association that raised the money to deliver that gear. We have talked about having outdoor learning in prosperous and more deprived communities, but it is essential that the same wet-weather equipment is made available to everyone.

The target has also raised challenges and questions in relation to teacher training. My hon. Friends the Members for Brigg and Goole (Andrew Percy) and for Carmarthen West and South Pembrokeshire highlighted the need for such training to reflect the demands of modern parents and pupils.

I want to close by asking how we take the culture of outdoor learning forward into key stage 2 and beyond. Without question, it has become central to learning in key stage 1.

Photo of Andrew Turner Andrew Turner Conservative, Isle of Wight

I am learning today about the difference between Welsh and English education for youngsters. Many things that would be decided by a school, or at least by a county council, in England are decided at national level in Wales. Is the English approach of making decisions at local level not more sensible?

Photo of Alun Cairns Alun Cairns Conservative, Vale of Glamorgan

My hon. Friend makes a good point. It is fair to say that education structures in Wales are far more centralised than those in England. Of course, it is up to the devolved Administration to decide how best to deliver education, but it is regrettable that some of the freedoms that are to be offered to schools in England will not be offered to those in Wales. That aside, my point in highlighting the merits and benefits of the foundation phase in key stage 1 is that it has allowed teachers and pupils to express themselves and to learn in different ways. I would encourage free schools, whose numbers will increase in England, to learn from the benefits and merits of the different approach taken in Wales.

Photo of Kevin Brennan Kevin Brennan Shadow Minister (Education)

Does the hon. Gentleman seriously think that an aspiration to carry out 50% of learning outside the classroom could be met without that direction from the Government in the curriculum?

Photo of Alun Cairns Alun Cairns Conservative, Vale of Glamorgan

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for his question, but, yes, I do think that that is possible. In free schools in England, greater power will be devolved to the head teachers and governors, who will be able to decide how best to approach these issues. The rigid 50% approach taken in Wales may not be right for their school, depending on its environment, its location and its children's needs, which that school can better reflect.

My point in highlighting the merits and benefits of the different approach taken in Wales is that it has made outdoor learning central to education at key stage 1. That has significant advantages, and I hope that free schools in England will look at that approach and apply it to their pupils' needs. My hon. Friend the Member for Brigg and Goole reflected on the requirements of children with special educational needs and on how outdoor learning can better reflect them. Surely, the way in which a school wants to approach outdoor learning will depend on the nature of children's special educational needs. Although the model in Wales is centralised, and I would disapprove of that, the thrust of outdoor learning at key stage 1 is beneficial overall. Should teachers and governors be given the freedom to introduce such a scheme under the system in England, they could adapt it, and that would be much more beneficial in terms of meeting their pupils' needs.

In closing, I underline the need to advance the approach taken in key stage 1 and to underline its benefits, although there will be drawbacks, which we will need to learn about. We also need to understand how outdoor learning should be approached in key stages 2 and 3. Outdoor learning is central to education in key stage 1, and it would simply be wrong to cut it at key stage 2. It needs to make that transition so that we can meet the needs of older children. I take on board the comments by my hon. Friend the Member for Carmarthen West and South Pembrokeshire about the essential need to have outdoor learning throughout education, rather than just at key stage 1.

Photo of Robin Walker Robin Walker Conservative, Worcester 10:06 am, 15th December 2010

I congratulate my hon. Friend Simon Hart on securing this debate on such an important subject. I also congratulate other hon. Friends on their contributions.

Many children and teachers in my constituency and in the county of Worcestershire benefit from outdoor education. As my hon. Friend made clear, the benefits are substantial. We do not live in a classroom, and it is vital that education provides children with the tools and skills they need for real life. Outdoor education recognises the fact that we live, not in the controlled environment of a classroom, but on a living, breathing planet. As we seek to give future generations a better understanding of issues such as climate change and pollution, learning outdoors gives children a greater appreciation of the importance of our natural environment. Crucially, some skills, such as teamwork, leadership and an appreciation of risk, are far more effectively developed through outdoor education than they ever can be in a classroom.

Coming from an urban constituency in a rural county, I know that outdoor education has a further advantage for the children of my city of Worcester. It teaches them to appreciate the wonderful countryside around them and to understand better the way in which it works and the opportunities that it offers. For centuries, Worcester has been a county town, and the interaction between city and countryside was automatic. In the age of supermarkets, television and video games, however, things are not always that way. Without outdoor education projects, many children in my constituency who live within a mile or two of wonderful woods and fields would quite literally never visit them. The Wii Fit and the X Factor are a powerful draw away from the benefits of the outdoors, and parents who are themselves working flat out to support their families are not always able to take their children into the countryside as much as they would like.

Fortunately, Worcestershire long ago realised the benefits of outdoor education and was an early adopter of the forest school scheme, which is enjoyed at many of our primary schools. Having talked to pupils and teachers at schools from Cherry Orchard and Perry Wood to Dines Green, Gorse Hill primary and Lyppard Grange, I have heard countless stories of the enjoyment and benefit that the scheme brings. More important than the stories, however, is the experience itself. In the case of outdoor learning, seeing really is believing. Seeing the excitement of children who are taken out of the classroom and into the natural environment for the first time, one can see how outdoor learning helps to engage some of the most difficult and easily distracted pupils. Seeing the way in which children learn new respect for teachers who can show them physical skills and relish the opportunity to escape the confines of the classroom, one can immediately understand why forest school status is an important tool for retention at many local primaries.

However, outdoor learning is not, and should not be, restricted to the primary sector. At Tudor Grange academy, in the heart of Warndon, outdoor learning is being developed as a key tool and a key opportunity for engaging students. This new academy serves a large population that will benefit from the pupil premium. It replaced a school that struggled for many years to engage its students and to deal with truancy, apathy and high levels of special needs.

Photo of Jim Shannon Jim Shannon Shadow DUP Spokesperson (Health), Shadow DUP Spokesperson (Transport)

Does the hon. Gentleman agree that today's young people, whether in primary or secondary school, have great awareness of the environment, climate change, litter control, recycling and such things? Does he agree-I think from his remarks that he would-that more needs to be done, and what is already happening needs to be continued?

Photo of Robin Walker Robin Walker Conservative, Worcester

Absolutely. I completely agree. Through outdoor learning we can give people more of an opportunity to understand those things even better. That is one reason why it is a positive benefit.

Through outdoor learning, the new and energetic leadership of Tudor Grange has found a way to engage some of the most difficult pupils and provide a pathway to work for some of those who were simply uninterested in an academic education. By taking pupils out of the classroom for part of their day and engaging them in work and learning outdoors, staff have found that behaviour is much improved on their return to the classroom. Pupils who would previously disrupt academic classes are prepared to get down to work in maths and English much better, having spent part of the day outside. A local employer, Cobb House fisheries, has given the academy access to its resources, and the environment is used for forestry, animal husbandry, angling and orienteering. It forms part of a year 12 access to work programme but it also provides an environment for engaging 30 at-risk students who have a bespoke curriculum utilising outdoor education as their key hook.

The academy also works closely with a local farm, and a group of very vulnerable students has achieved the BTEC certificate in agriculture there in one year. The students are now doing a BTEC countryside and environment course as part of their programme. Those students are making significant progress in their literacy and numeracy from a very low baseline. They were not engaging with a mainstream curriculum before, and two students on that route had not attended school for two years before the academy opened the courses. They are now in year 11 and on track to achieve the equivalent of a minimum of six GCSEs, with improved attendance and better results across the board.

Outdoor learning at Tudor Grange extends to a cadet force branch and a course in public services, which is proving particularly popular in the academy with students who presented with extreme behavioural difficulties. The course includes a lot of personal health and fitness units, and local residents are now familiar with the sight of groups from the academy running in units around Worcester as part of their training drills. The principal tells me: "This is developing tenacity and determination in students we would never have attached such attributes to before".

Speaking of the benefits of outdoor learning in Worcestershire, it would be remiss of me not to mention some of the wonderful work that goes on beyond the boundaries of my constituency. My hon. Friends the Members for Mid Worcestershire (Peter Luff) and for West Worcestershire (Harriett Baldwin) would no doubt speak passionately about the excellent schools in their constituencies that provide fantastic opportunities for outdoor learning. However, they are kept away from this debate by ministerial and Select Committee responsibilities respectively. I would like to give a couple of examples of how the positive influence of schools in their patches has been felt as far afield as my own constituency.

Top Barn farm, just beyond my boundaries, is a hugely inspiring centre for outdoor learning and a test base for the care farming movement. Hon. Members will be aware of that movement, and some may feel that it is beyond the scope of the debate, but the work that is being done there, to bring, in particular, children with special needs on to a farming environment, and ensure that they can benefit from learning opportunities there, deserves a mention.

Another institution that I visited recently, which hugely impressed me, was the Madresfield early years centre in west Worcestershire. That wonderful school-my hon. Friend the Member for West Worcestershire was there on Friday-is the product of a vision for outdoor learning and the boundless energy of its founder Alice Bennett, a farmer's wife who has devoted her life to bringing outdoor learning into a farming environment. It brings children on to the farm as their learning environment and caters for a broad cross-section of society, from those receiving state support and living in social housing to the children of the grandest houses of the area. Each child has at least two half days a week out of doors and children are encouraged to engage with the environment, take constant exercise and relish the opportunities offered by the countryside.

Perhaps I should conclude with the words of the very inspiring head teacher, who recently returned from a visit to Denmark, where she was looking at how outdoor learning is integrated into the system there. She concluded that

"outdoor education should be a human right. Its benefits in motivation and engagement, teaching co-operation and leadership, fitness gain and better attitude are beyond question."

She also spoke of the miracles that happen outside with special needs children. I hope that the Minister will carefully consider the miraculous benefits of outdoor learning for her forthcoming Green Paper on special needs education.

Photo of Mark Williams Mark Williams Liberal Democrat, Ceredigion 10:14 am, 15th December 2010

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship this morning, Mr Benton. I pay tribute to my hon. Friend Simon Hart for securing this important debate. Perhaps I should declare an interest: like my hon. Friend Andrew Percy, I used to be a teacher. I was a teacher for 12 years and am still a member of my union, the NASUWT.

I very much endorse what other hon. Members have said, which is that this is not simply a debate about rural areas. My hon. Friend the Member for Carmarthen West and South Pembrokeshire has a proud record of championing rural areas, and I concur with him on many of those issues, but he was right to make the point that outdoor education is about urban schools as well.

I start with a couple of anecdotes. One of the most successful field trips I ever organised involved leading a group of children from a deprived school in north Devon down to the city of Plymouth. It was an excellent day's work that examined the architecture, the effect of the Blitz, the new buildings that went up in Plymouth, the naval town and the economy of the area. Those children would not have experienced that-it is a long way from Barnstaple to Plymouth-had we not given them the opportunity.

Closer to home, I think of the scheme that we embarked on in Powys. We set up a partnership scheme between a local organic farm and our school. We acquired a plot of land and visited each term. Every child in that small village school visited the farm every year, nurtured the plot and grew vegetables. They took the vegetables back to school to make meals.

Photo of Julian Sturdy Julian Sturdy Conservative, York Outer

My hon. Friend makes a good point about the need for farmers to play a role in outdoor learning. What worries me is the fact that so many schoolchildren do not understand where their food comes from. That is quite frightening, especially when, if we ask some schoolchildren where their potatoes or chips come from, they say, "McDonalds". Does my hon. Friend think that the National Farmers Union and farmers need to play a key role in such education, and in improving understanding of where food comes from?

Photo of Mark Williams Mark Williams Liberal Democrat, Ceredigion

Absolutely. One of the benefits of the project that I was involved in was that we considered the seasonality of fruit and vegetables. I think that it is assumed that because children live in a rural area they have automatic access to farms and to schemes of the kind that the NFU and others, such as the Farmers Union of Wales, have put forward. That assumption should not be made. That is why the debate is important, for getting some clear guidelines. It is beginning to seem a little like a Welsh debate-I am proud of that, but I shall not stray on to devolved matters.

Every year at the school where I taught we took the year 5 and 6 children to stay at an outdoor pursuit centre in Montgomeryshire, where they could do kayaking, orienteering, rock climbing, mountain walks and canoeing-the very kinds of activities from which many children with special needs, who were not high achievers in the classroom, really gained. We were teaching concepts of teamwork, collaborative work and team building. Those were important opportunities for the children.

Photo of Guto Bebb Guto Bebb Conservative, Aberconwy

The point that my hon. Friend makes about the outdoor pursuit centre is important. My hon. Friend Andrew Percy made the point that health and safety is an issue when taking children out of the classroom, and such outdoor pursuit centres have health and safety covered; they have the skills to deal with pupils safely and give them the experiences that have been described.

Photo of Mark Williams Mark Williams Liberal Democrat, Ceredigion

I agree very much. One of the nice things for a teacher organising such trips was that there was no need to get embroiled in the bureaucracy of organising a risk assessment; it had already been done by trained professionals.

This is a core debate, not a peripheral thing. It is not a trendy lefty debate about the effectiveness of group work or topic work-debates that have happened in the past. It is about enhancing learning in the classroom, teaching in context, teaching in the real world and broadening horizons in the strongest way. As I reflect on my education, I recall that the only such opportunity that I had in secondary school-there was little in primary school-was the Duke of Edinburgh's award scheme. That is a great scheme, with great opportunities for young people, but very much curtailed and limited.

Was there, in the three schools where I taught, always a dedicated member of staff with expertise, responsible for developing the outdoor curriculum? If there was, in some instances it was not very visible. Should we give more prominence to outdoor education in initial teacher training? I did a PGCE course, from which I benefited; I gained my qualification and enjoyed my 12 years in the classroom, but there were limitations with respect to outdoor education.

To repeat a question that has been put to the Minister, is the initial teacher training that we provide giving teachers the skills that they need to lead outdoor learning? It is all very well talking about identifying opportunities; teachers sit there developing their lesson plans and identifying opportunities. It is a matter of whether those opportunities for outdoor learning can be delivered. It is not about burdening the curriculum. I agree with the direction of travel: it is about scaling down the curriculum.

Years ago, I worked as a researcher in the other place. When the national curriculum was introduced in 1988, I remember the huge number of representations from different organisations in favour of including subjects in the national curriculum. That was an over-burdening experience.

I also remember, years later when I was in the classroom, the minutiae of detail directed from the centre about how I should deliver a numeracy hour and a literacy hour, down to the five minutes of a plenary session at the end. We are moving away from that over-prescriptive period. There is a consensus among all who have spoken so far that we are seeking to build meaningful cross-curricular links in key areas of the curriculum-notably geography, history and science-for which outdoor activities are appropriate.

As my hon. Friend the Member for Carmarthen West and South Pembrokeshire mentioned, the Select Committee on Children, Schools and Families produced its report in April 2010. I want to draw on three of its conclusions. First, the report talked of the ability of families to pay, or their inability to pay, for trips and the deterrent to schools in offering opportunities to pupils. At one school where I taught, there was a blanket policy. We could not countenance any outlandish trips, because we knew that the parents in the deprived wards of that area would be unable even to subsidise their children's trips.

The Select Committee recognised the principle of subsidies for children from low-income families for school trips, and I think that that should be endorsed. The report also talked about an individual entitlement within the national curriculum to at least one school visit each term. That is integral to the curriculum that needs to be delivered. I would like to hear the Minister's comments on that individual entitlement to outdoor education.

Photo of Andrew Turner Andrew Turner Conservative, Isle of Wight

I draw attention to another thing. When I was a teacher, it was perfectly acceptable for one member of staff to take one class into town. What has happened since then?

Photo of Mark Williams Mark Williams Liberal Democrat, Ceredigion

My hon. Friend is right. The answer came from my hon. Friend the Member for Brigg and Goole when he talked about the one-to-10 rule. That is very hard, and it is also sometimes hard to engage parents to become involved in outdoor pursuits. We think of a captive audience of parents eager to accompany their children on trips, but that is not always the case.

There is a fundamental need for schools to have a policy on learning outside the classroom. As I said, it is not just a matter of having a policy, with words in readiness for the Ofsted or Estyn inspections; it is about being able to deliver. The Government do recognise the importance of outdoor learning-as, to their credit, did the last Government. It is important for the Council for Learning Outside the Classroom to get on with the job. I regret that the Select Committee's recommendations on additional resources and Government regulation and monitoring guidance were not accepted.

We had a little spirited debate about Welsh Assembly Government policy. I do not want regulation and rules to be over-prescriptive, but we do need some clear guidelines from the centre. Most professionals in most of the schools I have been involved with fully recognise the importance of that, as my hon. Friend Alun Cairns mentioned. They are delivering the foundation stage with great effectiveness-I have two young children experiencing the foundation stage now. However, that is not always the case across England and elsewhere in the UK. We need those rules and that guidance.

I will not repeat all the figures about the effectiveness of outdoor education mentioned by my hon. Friend the Member for Carmarthen West and South Pembrokeshire. I do, however, want to say something about the risk-averse culture developing in our country, and the characterisation of many children's lives as "home to school and back home again"-from the classroom to the sitting room, or wherever the TVs are in the house.

I do not agree with everything that the much-maligned Lord Young says-far from it. However, his work "Common Sense, Common Safety" was important. It was a welcome attempt to rebalance the risk-averse culture in the country that has considerably damaged the tradition of school trips, with teachers and schools inevitably concerned about liability if things go wrong.

I remember the frustration and bureaucracy of trying to organise trips. It is not surprising that 76% of teachers identify health and safety risk assessments as the main barrier to delivering outdoor learning. We should not throw the baby out with the bathwater. Despite the few but tragic cases where things have gone wrong, there has to be a measure of sensible risk assessment. Action should be taken where negligent behaviour occurs, but we must do all we can to rebalance the system.

In his foreword to Lord Young's report, the Prime Minister states that we need to

"focus regulations where they are most needed; with a new system that is proportionate, not bureaucratic; that treats adults like adults and reinstates some common...trust".

Some of us may disagree about what that constitutes, but I hope we can all agree with the sentiment.

The Department for Education launched its "Learning Outside the Classroom" manifesto in 2006. That report highlighted research on the way the brain works. Reading it took me back to teacher training and some of the lectures and seminars I participated in. The research showed that learners can be re-engaged with the world as they experience it, known as "authentic learning".

That is particularly important when we look at the sciences. The Field Studies Council has seen a decline in the number of people studying secondary science visiting their residential centres across the country, with a drop of 18% between 2008 and 2010. We need to engage with the people who have the potential interest, if it can be captured and promoted in a positive way. It was a sad reflection that only 47% of six to 15-year-olds went on a visit to the countryside with their school in 2008. I am not going to talk about the foundation stage in Wales, other than to say that it has been a huge success.

There is much in the Government's agenda that suggests that they are keen to encourage more activity. They are keen on volunteering and we have had Lord Young's review. I hope the Minister will be able to outline what steps are being taken to ensure that more outdoor learning can take place at schools and translate support into concrete achievement.

One final point: I want to commend the young artisans scheme in Ceredigion, in the Penparcau ward of Aberystwyth. It is a deprived area-we have deprived wards in rural Wales as others do across the country. That scheme has largely worked with low achievers and people with special needs, taking the craft, design and technology curriculum out of the classroom. It takes youngsters from years 5 and 6 to work with employers and local colleges, out of the conventional classroom, so that the young people can see links with the real world. It is a pioneering scheme that has been going for years. Later, as 16-year-olds, some participants have found decent gainful employment on the back of an outdoors education policy.

Several hon. Members:

rose-

Photo of Joe Benton Joe Benton Labour, Bootle

Order. Before I call the next speaker-there are two people standing-I should say that I propose to start the wind-ups no later than 10.40 am.

Photo of Guto Bebb Guto Bebb Conservative, Aberconwy 10:28 am, 15th December 2010

I will be brief to ensure that every hon. Member who wants to contribute can do so. I congratulate my hon. Friend Simon Hart on bringing this excellent and positive debate to the House.

My hon. Friend Alun Cairns declared an interest because he has one child going through the school foundation stage in Wales. I have twin boys and another three children going through the educational system in Wales, so I, too, need to declare an interest. When we talk about the educational benefits of outdoor activities, we in Wales are very fortunate. I do not want to dominate the debate by referring to Wales again, but as a child I used to go to the Urdd Gobaith Cymru centre in Llangrannog in the constituency of my hon. Friend Mr Williams. When I was slightly older, I went to the centre at Glan Llyn, where I learned canoeing and white-water rafting. The terrible thing is that I am now old enough to see my children getting the same experiences.

The concept of getting children into the outdoors and enjoying pursuits is important and I fully subscribe to the comments made by several hon. Members.

I wish to focus on a slightly different aspect of the importance of outdoor activities to the educational sector-its economic impact on constituencies such as mine. My constituency of Aberconwy includes a large tract of Snowdonia. The area has had to struggle to create employment and economic opportunities, and we have had to make the best of the facilities and the environment that we have. Agriculture is obviously important, as is food production and our specialist food producers, but a growing part of the economy in my part of the world has been the outdoor activity sector.

That sector is not entirely dependent on educational customers, but they allow companies to offer an all-year service, with year-round employment for young people from my constituency. I could give numerous examples- they will challenge Hansard-of organisations and companies in my part of the world that benefit from providing services to schools in all parts of the United Kingdom.

For instance, Plas y Brenin at Capel Curig is renowned as a mountaineering centre. We have an outdoor education centre at Conwy, which brings young people to the Conwy valley to enjoy white-water rafting and so forth. Tree Top Adventure offers excellent facilities at Betws-y-Coed, but it depends on school trips to allow it to offer employment every day of the week and all year round; it makes an important contribution to the economy of my constituency.

We also have specialist companies that deal with the health and safety aspects. They offer a safe environment for young people to experience the adventure and the challenges offered by the environment in areas such as mine. Snowdonia is not there only for the enjoyment of people who can afford to pay for an expensive hotel or a slightly cheaper bed and breakfast for a weekend visit. The environment of Snowdonia should be enjoyed by young people.

In addition to private-sector companies offering services in my constituency and throughout Snowdonia, we have a number of other centres, including the Oaklands Centre at Capel Garmon. Oaklands is owned by Wirral borough council. It is about an hour and a half down the road from the Wirral to my constituency. Young people are brought from an industrialised area and taken to the beauty of Snowdonia where they can enjoy the challenge of getting involved in outdoor activities. The contribution made by the Oaklands centre is also economic. For instance, it employs local people to ensure that there is food on the table when the young people arrive.

Throughout Snowdonia, numerous centres are in danger of being lost because of the priorities of local authorities, which may not emphasise the importance of their contribution to the educational sector. I am therefore concerned about the future of centres such as Oaklands. They are important not only because of the opportunities that they give the young people who visit them, but because they give people in my constituency the opportunity to stay and work in a rural area, often in highly skilled positions. It needs to be said that the opportunities afforded by the outdoor activity centres in my part of the world are extremely important because of the quality of the jobs that are created. Taking responsibility for groups of young people going mountaineering or out on rivers is a highly skilled position.

I applaud the local authorities in my part of the world. We hear a lot about the need for local authorities to work across boundaries. In north-west Wales, Isle of Anglesey county council, Gwynedd county council and Conwy county borough council have come together to form the North Wales Outdoor Partnership. It was developed to give young people from that part of the world an understanding of not only the enjoyment that can be had from the environment of Snowdonia, but the economic opportunities that exist. The partnership takes young people out to enjoy mountaineering, kayaking and so on, but it also highlights the economic opportunities that can develop from becoming skilled in such activities. Numerous young people have found employment as a result of the skills gained through the partnership.

Menter Iaith Conwy, a local company, has highlighted the need to train young people to be responsible for taking people out on to the mountains. The fantastic thing is that the company is training people through the medium of Welsh or English. Again, it highlights the fact that economic opportunities are available through outdoor education.

Government spending is not necessarily the way forward for every part of the economy; those organisations and companies could develop employment opportunities in the private sector. However, the educational market is important in ensuring proper employment all year round. When such decisions are made, it is important that we take account of the economic impact of those activities on the rural economy.

Photo of Justin Tomlinson Justin Tomlinson Conservative, North Swindon 10:35 am, 15th December 2010

I fully support this excellent debate, which was secured by my hon. Friend Simon Hart. First, I shall say why I am supportive. I shall then make a plea to the Minister, which I hope will be helpful.

Many of my hon. Friends spoke of the significance of engagement. I have visited Crowdys Hill school in my constituency; it is an excellent school for children with autism and autism spectrum disorders. It is fortunate enough to have a small livestock holding on site. To see at first hand the sheer joy and engagement of the children during their hands-on involvement with nature is fantastic.

Not many schools have livestock holdings, but several have some form of nature reserve. It concerns me that many modern private finance initiative schools do not have the space. That is a real challenge, as we look forward to the next wave of schools being built.

We have the headquarters of the National Trust in my constituency. In its contribution to the debate, it says that, generation by generation, we are spending less and less time with nature and reducing our capacity to understand, respect and conserve the natural environment.

Having spoken on similar subjects before, and having been a councillor for 10 years, I know that back gardens in new-build houses are a third of the size that they were in the 1960s. Parents are concerned about letting their children venture too far, but nowadays they cannot venture out even on their own doorstep. New developments are often concrete jungles, with limited open space. That is a major concern.

The outdoors provides a wealth of leisure opportunities for a healthy, active lifestyle, and is often available at no cost. As a lead council member for leisure, I considered investing in leisure centres, and I support that. However, the outdoors gives families and people of all ages a wonderful opportunity to be active without having to spend huge amounts of money. That is why I call it the great outdoors.

I have many happy memories of growing up and charging around Arley and the Malvern hills with my classmates, doing orienteering and burning off huge amounts of energy. My hon. Friend Andrew Percy will be pleased to know that we often got lost, partly because we were not supervised, but we learned some good teambuilding skills. Certainly, my map-reading skills benefited greatly.

I touched on the subject in an intervention, but my plea is about insurance for schools. If the cost proves to be a barrier, it limits access. I believe that the Department for Education should negotiate a national insurance contract to cover all schools. Putting all those insurance renewals together would be one hell of a piece of buying power, giving potential economies of scale. That would be benefit sport and many other activities for which schools need to bus children elsewhere. It would be a constructive thing for the Department to do.

Photo of Kevin Brennan Kevin Brennan Shadow Minister (Education) 10:38 am, 15th December 2010

I, too, congratulate Simon Hart on securing the debate.

Someone pointed out earlier that the debate had a distinctly Welsh feel. Indeed, we also heard from the hon. Members for Vale of Glamorgan (Alun Cairns), for Ceredigion (Mr Williams) and for Aberconwy (Guto Bebb). I should mention the others who spoke, but I may struggle when pronouncing the English names of their constituencies. We heard from the Member for- was it Wore-ses-ter?-Mr Walker. Andrew Percy contributed, and at the end we heard from Justin Tomlinson, which I think I can pronounce properly.

All contributions to the debate were good. Indeed, I wish I had thought of the last point made by the hon. Member for North Swindon when I was a Minister. It is an excellent proposition, and I hope that the Minister will respond positively. I hope that I have mentioned everyone who spoke in this enjoyable debate. Its reflects the fact that there is a degree of consensus on learning outside the classroom; there has been for many years.

Hon. Members have mentioned the many reasons why this is a good thing. They talked about the health benefits and practical skills that can be gained; the broadening of horizons; and the influence on behaviour, with improving relationships between pupils themselves or between teachers and pupils-adults and children. During my time as a Minister, I was keen to promote learning outside the classroom. I used to say that, for whatever reason, we have managed to raise a generation of battery-farm children and it is time to allow them to go free range. That is what we all think in this debate; we need to liberate children from the bounds of the classroom and get them to enjoy all the benefits of the great outdoors. I am a big enthusiast of that, which is why I congratulate the hon. Member for Carmarthen West and South Pembrokeshire on securing this debate.

Like other hon. Members here, I have also spent time as a teacher and organised field trips. I remember one particular trip to Llanbradach in the Welsh valleys where I confiscated an awful lot of cigarettes, but where we had a wonderful time. I have fond memories of the various trips that I took as a pupil, as I am sure other hon. Members have. As a teacher, I used to say that it is important to make something memorable for students; to give them something that they will remember in years to come. The things that we often remember and that have a positive influence on us are the kinds of experiences that we gain outside the classroom.

Risk, which has been raised this morning, is very important. We must get people focused on the real risks. There are risks; the hon. Member for Ceredigion pointed that out. Irresponsible actions can sometimes be taken by those who supervise learning outside the classroom, but it is the real risks rather than the rare risks on which we should focus in this debate. It is essential to get that message across to teachers, governors, pupils and to everyone involved in organising learning outside the classroom.

Several hon. Members have mentioned the foundation phase in Wales, or the key stage 1 curriculum. I visited Kitchener road primary school in my own constituency last year. Anyone who knows anything about Cardiff will know that one could not find a more urban school than the one on Kitchener road. It is a classic Victorian primary school on a very constrained site, right next to a main road. It is a multi-ethnic school. As part of the foundation phase, the teachers found a bit of scrubland on the school site and held their forest school there. If anyone saw those children gathered around the campfire making toast on the end of a stick, they would not know that a main road was only five yards away. It is a classic example of what can be done with a bit of imagination. It did not need a great deal of resources. Yes, it was a damp day, and the children needed outdoor gear, but that was no reason for them not to go outside. It was absolutely wonderful to see them benefiting from such an experience. I am sure that many of them would not have had that experience had it not been for the fact that the curriculum was organised, as the hon. Member for Vale of Glamorgan pointed out, to ensure that those very young children spent half their time outside.

There is a great deal of consensus in the Chamber about what we need to do and, I think, in fairness, about the fact that the previous Government made a big effort in this area. If hon. Members have done their research they will know that that is the case. I was Minister in the old Department for Children, Schools and Families, which organised and launched the "out and about package" in 2008. The quality badge scheme was designed to assure schools that organisations that are great at offering opportunities for outdoor learning, such as those mentioned by the hon. Member for Aberconwy, can meet the standards and requirements that are needed.

The Government's response to the Select Committee report that was published just before the general election in April states:

"Under the previous Administration, significant progress was made in bringing together organisations with an interest in promoting learning outside the classroom. These organisations have worked together on guidance and support for schools and on the development of the Quality Badge accreditation scheme under the direction of a new council for learning outside the classroom."

I give the Minister credit for that. It recognises the efforts that have been made so far to try to overcome the culture that was getting in the way of learning outside the classroom.

In preparing for today's debate, I was a little surprised to read the briefing from the Countryside Alliance, of which the hon. Member for Carmarthen West and South Pembrokeshire used to be in charge. I met the alliance the other day and we had a very good meeting about this matter. I commend the trust that the hon. Gentleman set up and its aims and what it is attempting to do. None the less, its briefing said:

"The previous government confirmed in its response, which was published at the end of October, that it does not believe outdoor education can contribute to the development of a child".

There is, I think, a typo in there. It was not the previous Government who issued the response to the Select Committee's report; it was this Government, who, the Countryside Alliance says, do not believe that outdoor education can contribute to the development of a child. I do not believe that that is true. I am quoting the Countryside Alliance briefing for this debate; it is not me saying this. I am sure that what it says is not the case and that the Minister will confirm that in a moment, but I can understand why the alliance might be concerned.

I have read the Government's response to the Select Committee's report on outdoor education. It does not make good reading for members of the Select Committee, because it is tantamount to a wholesale rejection of the report. Running through the response is this ideology of laissez-faire that seems to have overtaken the Department. The thinking is that if we let everything go, do not drive anything and let schools and governors get on with it, we will suddenly, miraculously, end up with a situation-as the hon. Member for Vale of Glamorgan believes-in which children will spend 50% of their time outside the classroom. All we need, the Government think, is a general feeling good about things, osmosis and a laissez-faire approach. However, it will not happen.

Clear guidance is needed from the centre, as the hon. Member for Ceredigion pointed out. It is important. Teachers take note of it as do governors, local authorities and providers. We must give a clear indication of what we want to see schools doing. Sometimes, we have to put resources into it and sometimes Ministers who want to get things done will have to apply a bit of stick as well to ensure that it happens on the ground. I am afraid that just wishing will not make it happen.

I will not go through all the Government's responses to the Select Committee report, but if we look at them, we can see that most of them start with the words:

"We do not agree with the suggestion".

For example, one of the responses states:

"We do not agree with the suggestion that an entitlement to one school visit a term should be built into the National Curriculum."

Here is another one:

"We think this is unnecessary and is an issue which should be left to the professional judgement of teachers."

Those are fine words and everyone welcomes them, but the Government will be judged on what actually happens on the ground and whether there is an increase in the amount of time that children spend on learning outside the classroom.

Another response states:

"We are not pursuing the previous plans for a School Report Card"- which was one of the recommendations of the Select Committee-

"but we are looking at the performance tables with a view to providing parents with a wider range of performance information than is currently available."

I hope that learning outside the classroom will be part of that.

Here is yet another response:

"We do not agree that schools should have to provide such information to the DfE, at a time when schools are asking us to reduce bureaucratic and data collection burdens."

Such burdens should be reduced, but whether data are collected can send a signal to schools about what is thought to be important.

In closing, I just want to say that I am afraid that the idea that has been put forward by the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds before this debate that the pupil premium can provide some funding for outdoor learning is cloud cuckoo land, because the pupil premium is a con. It does not add any additional money whatsoever in real terms to the school budget and it will be exposed when head teachers start looking at it. I can guarantee the Minister that, because of the way that the Government have played "funny figures" with school funding, she will have head teachers queuing up to tell her that the pupil premium is a con very shortly.

The Government are cutting school sport and we are still awaiting an announcement on it. I hope that the Prime Minister has not sold the country a dummy on school sport, because we are still awaiting the announcement about whether the Government will do anything to reinstate the structure of school sport, which is important if we are talking about children's health. The School Food Trust is being abolished and we will see food standards fall as a result. We will be back to turkey twizzlers, with no proper physical education and a lottery for learning outside the classroom.

I hope that the Minister, in responding to the debate, can tell us what she will do to promote learning outside the classroom and to face down the laissez-faire ideology that has infected her Department.

Photo of Sarah Teather Sarah Teather The Minister of State, Department for Education 10:50 am, 15th December 2010

It is a great pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Benton. I was going to say that it is a great pleasure to participate in this debate, until I heard the end-point of the speech by the Opposition spokesperson, Kevin Brennan. His speech began so well and ended with such nonsense, but I guess that the Opposition have to be the Opposition and demonstrate that they oppose everything.

I want to congratulate Simon Hart on securing this debate on a really important topic. It is good to see Westminster Hall so full of people. I am aware of the hon. Gentleman's previous role as chief executive of the Countryside Alliance and of his involvement in charitable work with that organisation to promote outdoor learning. It is really good to see that he is continuing that work now as a Member of this House.

We have had a good and well informed debate. Alun Cairns gave particular detail about the situation in Wales. There were contributions from former teachers, my hon. Friend Mr Williams and Andrew Percy. We have heard about a number of examples of outdoor learning from Members' constituencies. Mr Walker spoke about forest schools. I was very interested to hear about the particular examples given by the hon. Members for Aberconwy (Guto Bebb) and for North Swindon (Justin Tomlinson).

The Government absolutely believe that outdoor learning is vital and provides so many opportunities for young people to expand their horizons and to put learning into context, so that they can actually see what is happening and are not just learning the theory. Moreover, outdoor learning provides opportunities to break down barriers. It is very easy for someone to fulfil a role if they go into the same place and perform the same function every day. However, when a group of people are taken out of that place and put somewhere else, it breaks down the old traditional roles, which of course is exactly why outdoor learning has the impact that it does on behaviour. It is able suddenly to boost the confidence of many children who may not succeed in other activities in the classroom.

Many hon. Members began their contribution by declaring an interest in this sector and I should probably declare an interest too, in that my brother works for the Outward Bound Trust as a fundraiser. When I listened to him talk about the history of the trust, I was fascinated. It is perhaps worth saying something about that history as it is really relevant to the debate.

The Outward Bound Trust began as part of the war effort in 1941, so it will celebrate its 70th anniversary next year. It began because of the experience of people who had watched merchant seamen after their ships had been torpedoed. Some merchant seamen survived longer than others and it was really obvious that the ones who did not survive were the young people. So a lot of young seamen were taken out of their ships and taught survival skills and team-building exercises, and it was found that those activities had a real impact on their ability to cope in strenuous situations. After the war, the effect of that training on those particular seamen was so great that the trust decided to roll out the training to many other young people. Last year, it was able to provide 26,000 young people with opportunities for such training, much of which was funded through charitable donations.

So the Outward Bound Trust is a prime example of the organisations that many hon. Members have spoken about during the debate, from forest schools to Farming and Countryside Education, which Mr Spencer spoke about. Often, those organisations have a very strong charitable arm and so they are able to take young people who could not otherwise afford those outdoor experiences and really change their perspective on life. I want to pay tribute to all the organisations, whether they are private or charitable, that do this kind of work for young people.

However, it is important to say that the Government view outdoor learning as being much wider than just that type of adventure activity. Outdoor learning is not just about getting out into the countryside, although that is absolutely vital. Many of the contributions to the debate have been about the necessity of giving children experience of the countryside. A couple of hon. Members spoke about the fact that many of our young people do not know, for example, how food is produced. All of those activities are part of outdoor learning, but they are not the only aspect. Getting out and experiencing music, theatre or the visual arts is also part of outdoor learning. Furthermore, outdoor learning is a vital part of understanding history and field trips in science and geography are all important.

Not all of those trips have to be trips to places that are a long way away. In fact, the hon. Member for Cardiff West gave the example of a school trip in his constituency that stayed very close to the school. Sometimes such activities can take place just outside the school and even occasionally within the school gates. Getting out of the classroom is what is so vital.

The hon. Gentleman also spoke about the previous Government's record on outdoor learning. I absolutely acknowledge that the previous Government invested an awful lot of effort, time and money in trying to improve outdoor learning. However, as the Children, Schools and Families Committee stated very clearly in its report on outdoor learning, we are not there yet and we are a long way away from being where we need to be. Far too few young people have the opportunity for outdoor learning and there are all sorts of reasons for that, which were drawn out in the Select Committee report. I just want to refer to a few of those reasons.

I think that part of the problem is related to an overcrowded curriculum, which my hon. Friend the Member for Ceredigion spoke about. There are so many compulsory elements in the curriculum that it is difficult to find the space in the day for teachers to explore outdoor activity. A number of hon. Members were trying to request that extra things should be put into the curriculum, particularly in relation to outdoor learning. In the same way that the hon. Member for Brigg and Goole suggested one thing out, one thing in, I am resisting the tendency to put extra things into the curriculum. However, I can perhaps offer a word of comfort to hon. Members who raised this issue. The national curriculum review is particularly looking at what should go into the curriculum. For subjects such as science and geography, it may well be that the review looks at the particular components of outdoor learning. I do not want to pre-empt the review, but I will say that it is ongoing.

Photo of Sarah Teather Sarah Teather The Minister of State, Department for Education

I have only three minutes left and I have quite a lot still to say, so I had better not give way just now.

I am also grateful to the hon. Member for Carmarthen West and South Pembrokeshire for raising issues of health and safety. I absolutely agree with him on those issues and it was helpful of him to put on record the statistics that he cited about how rare difficult events are. The Government take very seriously the report by Lord Young and it is absolutely vital that we get out the message that such difficult events are very rare and that we should take a much more common-sense approach to outdoor learning.

The Government believe that, by offering more flexible funding to schools with less ring-fencing, we have a much better chance of encouraging schools to take up opportunities for outdoor learning. For example, schools are free to spend the pupil premium on supporting particular activities for children from disadvantaged backgrounds. If the priority is to hire a minibus, that might be what a school chooses to do. However, I will undertake to examine the suggestion of the hon. Member for North Swindon about an insurance scheme for schools that is bought en bloc, to see if there is anything that can be done with respect to that suggestion.

The White Paper on schools also speaks specifically about "access to live theatre" and encouraging

"the appreciation of the visual and plastic arts and work with our great museums and libraries to support their educational mission."

That is something that the Government take very seriously.

I have mentioned history, and the understanding of citizenship is also very important, which is precisely why we support the Holocaust Educational Trust in its programme "Lessons from Auschwitz". I have experienced that programme myself and it is a fantastic programme that offers the opportunity to change people's perspectives. For those who have not had that experience at school, the Government are providing extra opportunities through the national citizen service, which will give young people an opportunity to experience outdoor activity first-hand at the start of that scheme and really change their lives.

The hon. Member for Carmarthen West and South Pembrokeshire asked a number of questions. With respect to teacher training, a paper on that subject will be released next year and I will ensure that his comments about teacher training are drawn to the attention of the Minister of State, Department for Education, Mr Gibb, who is the Minister with responsibility for schools.

With respect to the foundation stage, I will ensure that the comments that have been made about it during the debate are fed into Dame Clare Tickell's review of the early years foundation stage.

With regard to the "Rarely Cover" guidance, if schools plan trips in advance that guidance should not really be an issue. However, the Department for Education and Skills is looking at the guidance.

With respect to the idea of an entitlement for one particular outdoor learning activity, I think that this process is much more about understanding outdoor learning as a part of a child's whole learning experience. Just having one trip does not really meet the need for outdoor learning. What we need to do is to mainstream outdoor learning into the whole way that we are looking at the curriculum, which is why I made the point earlier about geography and science trips.