Learning outside the classroom in unprecedented times

Group of school children wearing bibs and school uniform outside on the grass with their teacher. One of the boys is holding a soccor ball.

During Covid-19, ‘Learning outside the classroom’ has come to mean something entirely different. Simon Brent and Catherine Brennan explore the ways in which this has impacted their students.

The term ‘Learning outside the Classroom’ has come to specifically represent learning in the natural world. In this article, we will explore ways of using the term more widely. This will include a range of environments, some of which we are happier to embrace than others.  

In the strange and disorienting world we find ourselves , reflection on the meaning of teaching, learning and life is inevitable. As senior leaders in an independent special school for children with SEMH, between the demands of lateral flow testing, new variants, anxious staff, parents and children, we have found ourselves pondering the impact of the global pandemic on the way students access the curriculum and interact with us as a school community. COVID-19 restrictions have illuminated inequalities which have always been present among our cohort. They are brought into stark relief when seen against the backdrop of access which is limited by the demands of social distancing.   

Barriers to education

SEN students face a range of barriers to full inclusion in mainstream education. In our setting, these include developmental trauma, autism, ADHD and extreme social anxiety. These barriers manifest in a spectrum of behavioural difficulties. We do not restrain, and rely instead on a needs-based approach which holds relationships at its core. Like all SEN providers, we aim to help students learn and develop as people who can achieve and contribute. This routinely involves building strong relationships and ‘banking compassion’ in the face of refusal and rebuff from the students.

To engage students who have not thrived in other settings, all students in the school are disapplied from the National Curriculum and a bespoke programme. The programme is relevant and meaningful to their needs and aspirations. 

Outdoor education

In normal times, outdoor education forms 20% of the core curriculum, and 50% of learning in all subjects is embedded in outdoor activities.  Like many children in alternative provision, our students have had unhappy and unfulfilling experiences in previous placements. There are often significant gaps in their learning and in their ability to regulate emotions. The evidence we have gathered shows improvement in attendance, engagement and attainment across the curriculum. Outdoor education also enhances social and emotional skills development.

“It’s been noticeable that, for some, the home environment enables them to be very productive”

Other ways of learning outside the classroom

Important as it is, however, the outdoors is not the only way learning takes place outside the classroom. The curriculum is comprised of five core subjects: Maths and English at Functional Skills level, Outdoor Education, PSD and Food Studies. All of these are delivered with a hands-on approach and are located, where possible, in real life experiences. Students learn through a combination of classroom and off-site activities. These include shopping, cooking at local industry kitchens, buying tickets, practicing independent travel and interacting with the community. 

Facilities on site include engineering workshops where vocational skills are developed alongside academic and social emotional learning. The organisation owns several businesses. We have an outboard engine repair shop, a small digital printing business and a small coastal centre where students can undertake supported work placements in authentic settings. Work placements , like outdoor education, are sources of learning across the curriculum and develop confidence, communication, teamwork and problem-solving skills. All of these skills are essential to function well in the world, particularly in terms of work readiness. Maths and English are embedded in all these activities.  

The impact of Covid-19

What does all this mean, though, in a world where it is no longer easy for people to be together in the same space or business? Our model depends to a great extent on the relationships we build with students, and on the ability to travel with them in cars to the various offsite activities on which curriculum delivery relies. These days, we need to be at least 2 metres apart, which means car journeys with students or colleagues have become impossible. Putting our heads together (literally) over an engine or a damaged canoe is simply not possible at the moment. Even our usual small groups pose unacceptable risks, so all students are on one-to-one programmes until the crisis has passed. Additionally, social distancing rules mean we have fewer students on site at the same time, further restricting what we can offer.

Online education

Since March last year, educators have been forced to embrace a less welcome form of learning outside the classroom, namely distance learning. In SEN, we have continued to work face to face with children throughout all three lockdowns. This has become increasingly challenging as Covid cases have increased and the risk in working with students has escalated.  It’s more difficult to bank on compassion when contact happens through a screen.

Additionally, there is the unpredictability of internet connections and the hustle and bustle of home life in the background. Some of our students have surprised us by doing very well with the new blended approach. It’s been noticeable that, for some, the home environment enables them to be very productive in terms of written work. Other students have struggled to manage online learning, and their anxieties have been elevated by the change in approach. The lack of ‘real’ contact with a trusted adult has affected the wellbeing and progress of all our students. The global pandemic has taught us that online learning is here to stay, and it’s crucial that we are creative in discovering ways to make this work for our staff and students. We’re getting better, but we’re not there yet.   

What we’ve learnt

For children who face barriers to inclusion because of their SEN, engagement with education relies on new and different approaches. In our experience, the primacy of authentic connections with the adults in their lives is key. Students also thrive on the ability to take managed risk, to experience agency and to achieve and make progress. Learning outside the classroom, in all its forms, has always offered excellent opportunities to enhance learning and the joy of being alive for all children. We would argue that in SEN, COVID-19 has impacted access in ways which are more complicated and potentially more far-reaching than in other settings. This highlights the need for educators in the sector to embrace the challenges involved in overcoming technical and logistical barriers. We need to balance safety with opportunity as we go forward co-producing outcomes with our students.  

For more articles on outdoor learning, click here and here. For the Releasing Potential website, click here.

A photo of Jan Brent. He has short dark hair and a beard and is wearing a blue polo shirt
Simon Brent
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Simon Brent is employed as Trainer of Professionals in the Releasing Potential Institute where he delivers on behaviour management courses at levels 3 and 4 as well as on a range of CPD for staff in the independent school. Simon has always had a passion for outdoor education and adventurous activities, with a particular focus on ‘soft skills’. Simon has a background in tertiary and higher education, having taught on undergraduate courses in outdoor and adventure education at Southampton Solent University and the University of Chichester and Chichester College of FE. Simon takes great pleasure in facilitating environments which enable participants to reflect on behaviours and emotional awareness/intelligence.

A photo of Catherine Brennan. She has short black hair and is wearing a blue lanyard and black shirt
Catherine Brennan
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Catherine Brennan is Senior Executive Officer at Releasing Potential, an education charity which includes an independent special school for children with social emotional and mental health difficulties where outdoor education is a core subject on the curriculum. Catherine oversees the work of the Releasing Potential academic institute where she designed and delivers on the Institute's suite of courses on the management of challenging behaviour. Catherine 's PhD is in feminist and post-colonial theory; she has taught at undergraduate and post graduate levels at the University of Portsmouth, has contributed to undergraduate courses at the University of Chichester and has taught on the inclusion unit at the University of Derby's BA in Outdoor Leadership and Management. Catherine's most recent research, carried out in collaboration with the University of Portsmouth is on the efficacy of social pedagogical approaches (including outdoor education) in improving outcomes for pupils at risk of permanent exclusion.


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