Making outdoor learning happen

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What goes into planning a residential activity trip for pupils with SEN?

Last year, I wrote about the positive impact that learning outside of the classroom in a residential setting can have on pupils with SEN, especially in the areas of developing independence, realising abilities, practicing socials skills and, hopefully, being a catalyst for continued physical exercise in everyday life (SEN Magazine issue 80, Jan/Feb 2016). We also covered some of the basics to consider when organising a trip, in terms of making decisions about suppliers to use and setting learning objectives in line with the participants’ abilities and the ethos and approach of the school.
So, in the real world, how do you best go about planning an outdoor learning residential for these pupils, keeping the pupils and parents on board while ensuring you deliver a fun yet organised and educational experience for all participants, including the staff.

Overview and preparation

Astley Park School in Chorley is an SEN school with pupils from Reception up to Year 11, catering for children who are sub-GCSE at Key Stage 4 and the subject of a statement of SEN or an education, health and care plan. Chorley is significantly above the national average for the proportion of children qualifying for free school meals, with Astley Park being marginally below the average for Chorley. While many of their pupils will have been in the school from reception, some will have moved from mainstream primaries and have an acute sense of failure and perceived behavioural issues as a result of their experiences.

The school is focused on learning outside of the classroom and already has a forest school and cycling trail onsite. For many years, they have run outdoor education residential trips for their Year 7 and Year 10 pupils. They view these residential trips as so important to their pupils’ development that every child gets the opportunity to go, with all costs paid for by the school, who fundraise in conjunction with the Parent Teacher Association – although parents are asked for a voluntary contribution. As a result, their Year 7 and Year 10 trip in February 2017 was for 33 people, including teachers and assistants.

With all pupils getting the opportunity to attend, parents and guardians were invited to a launch presentation at the school where key points were covered. These included:

  • development aims of the trip – educational (ASDAN), personal (for example, independence through tasks and activities) and team (social interaction)
  • the residential centre to be used and why (location and travel time, matching of group requirements) including facilities, rooms and staff
  • staffing levels from the school and staff members’ specialisations
  • activities to be undertaken
  • required personal information, including medical forms, medicine requirements and consents
  • spending money, personal belongings and other housekeeping items.

Some of the pupils (and their parents) were initially nervous about the idea of being away from home, so staff took a small number of pupils for a pre-visit tour of the chosen location.

Pupils were also given the opportunity to discuss with their teachers which activities (from a selection) they particularly wanted to do – a great group exercise. This was then relayed to the centre as part of the discussions between the school and the instructors prior to the visit.

The trip

Astley park took 27 pupils and six staff to their chosen supplier, the Lake District Calvert Trust, a specialist centre for the disabled, chosen in part due to its relative location to the school and associated travel times.

Their party was then split into activity groups of 11, who did all activities together for the duration of their stay under the direction of a dedicated lead instructor.

Having a larger overall party allowed the school to put pupils with similar abilities and confidence levels together in the same group, which then allowed the centre and the school to tailor the activities accordingly. A more confident group could do a more demanding walk than their peers, as well as opting for more demanding activities such as ghyll scrambling.

Out of hours

It is vital to consider evening activities, which are rarely provided by residential centres, although they may have additional facilities such as a pool. In this instance, Lancashire County Council have specific guidelines for schools in their jurisdiction stating that pupils using a pool must have a suitably qualified lifeguard in attendance at all times. Fortunately for this school, one of their teaching assistants has the relevant qualification, otherwise alternative arrangements would need to have been made.

To make sure pupils are constantly busy and interacting with each other, it is important to look at what other facilities the centre has. Is there a reading room, a TV room and a quiet room? Is there space to play movies and run quizzes? Organisers also need to ensure they bring enough DVDs and quiz questions, or that they plan for other activities to keep the party amused in the evening. School groups can also run events like an awards ceremony at the end of their stay, presenting awards to pupils in categories such as “Best Behaved”, “Most Improved” and “Most Courageous”. Trophies and certificates will all need to be sourced or created and arranged in advance?

Ongoing planning
Instructors and the group leaders met after breakfast each day to discuss how the proceeding day’s activities had worked, and then discuss what the groups were scheduled to do that day. This allowed them to finesse the schedule based on the abilities of the groups, making them more (or less) challenging as required and also take into account the weather.

For Tony, group leader with the school, the suitability of the activities depended on recognising physical limitations while stretching and challenging individuals so they can overcome their fears. Activities were also designed to build strong peer relationships, improve communications and develop teamwork. Scrambling was the one that group organisers felt covered all these points the best.

Robin, the instructor for one of the school’s activity groups, said that “Having worked with the group all week, and having already seen what a great group they were, I was excited to see how they took to the ghyll scramble. Although the water was very cold, the group threw themselves into it (some literally). They worked well together as a team, helping each other to cross tricky parts, and some were great at leading us through sections.”
With different sections in the terrain where students could leave the scramble, the activity was great for allowing students to work at their own pace and choose their own level of challenge; everyone returned to the centre wet and cold but happy.

Post-trip

Notwithstanding any issues that happen on a trip (there are always bound to be some, so have contingency plans prepared for different scenarios) it is always good to have a plan for after the trip, be it informal or formal. While the school did not have a formal follow up, they did ensure that there was a special assembly on their return where the achievements of the group were celebrated.

One of the things that many schools note is a profound change in the relationship between the pupils and teachers following a residential trip. 

“The children most definitely get advantages from the trip in terms of self-confidence and empathy with their peers, but what really develops is our understanding of the children as individuals.”, says Tony. “Seeing them in a challenging external, and a domestic, environment means that you learn more about them in a week than you do in a year in the school. It also means that if you are having problems with them in the classroom at a later date, you can refer back to that shared experience to re-engage with them and distract them from whatever is the catalyst for that challenging behaviour”.

The benefits of a residential trip are long lasting for the individual, the school and staff, and hopefully for parents too. So don’t be put off by the complexities of putting such trips together. With some forward planing and a clear idea of what you want to achieve, the trip should run smoothly and provide a wonderful experience for all involved.

Planning a trip: key considerations

  • Does the concept of learning outside the classroom in a residential setting fit in with activities that take place back at the school? If the residential visit is done in isolation it may be more difficult to get both staff and parents to buy into the concept and deliver many of the long-term health benefits of outdoor physical activity.
  • Is your school in a position to make a significant financial contribution to the trip (perhaps through fundraising) so that all pupils in a class or year group have the opportunity to attend?
  • Do you have a clear message on the benefits of the trip that you can communicate easily to parents (for example, improved confidence and teamwork as well as curriculum work)? You could run a parents’ evening to discuss these issues.
  • Does your local authority have any specific rules (such as pool lifeguards) that you need to take into account when choosing a location and the staff who will be attending?
  • Are you in a position to match pupils with others of similar abilities and confidences?
  • Can you involve pupils in helping to tailor the activity programme and does your chosen centre give you the opportunity to do this?
  • Can you take concerned pupils or parents on an inspection trip to the chosen centre?
  • Do you have a plan for evening activities, taking into account that different pupils may want to do different things? Does the chosen centre have enough communal space to be able to deliver these activities?
  • Have you thought about a range of contingency plans for issues that could arise during the trip?
  • Do you want to run your own awards ceremony at the end of the trip? What would the categories be and what are the prizes?
  • Are you going to plan any follow-ups after the visit, either continuing with some of the activities sampled or a more formal tracking of the pupils after their return? A special assembly might be a good idea or videos and photos could be shown post-trip at a parents’ evening.
  • Are the staff going on the trip the same as those teaching the pupils on an ongoing basis, so that connections made on the trip can have an ongoing benefit in the classroom?

Further information

Justin Farnan is Business Manager (Sales and Marketing) at The Lake District Calvert Trust:
www.calvert-trust.org.uk/lake-district

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outdoor education
Lake District Calvert Trust

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