John Newton was the head of Barrow C of E Primary School from 2013-2021. In this time John steered the school away from closure to Ofsted Outstanding rating. He credits the school’s success to adopting an outdoor learning ethos to contextualise the curriculum and pin learning to experiences in the real world. This outdoor learning ethos won over Ofsted and established the school as being back on track.
Back in 2012 the numbers on roll had dwindled down to the mid-twenties and existing staff were deflated. Earmarked for closure, a mass exodus was underway. In July of that year the school closed for the final time as a maintained school. Under the ‘Free School Legislation’ led by a trust of passionate and invested people, the school reopened after the summer. Enter new staff, a new head teacher and, as a result of marketing and a compelling vision, more pupils.
Small stone, big ripple
Yet by July 2013, the school was without a head teacher, staff retention was already becoming an issue, the curriculum was not developing consistently, standards were low (at the floor standard by the end of Y6) and morale had taken a bruising. OFSTED were due anytime from September and John was arriving as a first-time head teacher. The new staff team met to discuss the core of their ambitions – what do we want for our children in light of the system we’re working in and the world we are preparing them for?
In the past decade, five significant, independent reviews have been conducted both nationally and internationally which focus on the impact of children learning in the natural environment. Each of them provide compelling evidence that outdoor learning can and does make a significant, positive impact on children’s mental health, physical health and social and academic progress.
“Proximity to, views of, and daily exposure to natural settings increases children’s ability to focus and enhances cognitive abilities (Wells, 2000) supporting self-directed learning and has the capacity to improve academic performance.”
The staff at Barrow realised that learning in nature, providing hands on experience, lent itself completely to achieving the ambition of:
- Healthy & happy in mind, body and spirit
- Confident, sociable, reflective
- Creative, resilient, adaptable and empathetic
- Contributing, active, self-determining citizens
Help! I’m meant to be teaching outside!
John himself grew up in an urban environment and attended a school with thousands of pupils. In his own words, ‘there was one tree on the whole school site!’ During his education, like for many of us, he never left the classroom. Therefore, he had no experience or understanding of the benefits of this approach.
As an incoming head to a school in crisis with standards through the floor, instinct told him to follow the trend – the rules – and to do what he’d always done. Some of the perceived barriers to even considering the vision are:
- Outdoor learning is not rigorous – it won’t improve standards and impact can’t be measured
- We can’t go outside until behaviour improves
- We don’t have the facilities, tools or expertise
- Not everyone is on-board so we can’t proceed
- If someone is hurt, we’ll be sued. It’s not worth it!
- Our priority for developing teaching is: Questioning/ feedback/ differentiation/ challenge
However, with the help of a strong and supportive team of governors he was prepared to give the outdoor learning vision a go for 6 months. If there was no impact on standards at this point they would go back to the chalkboard. They decided to take the plunge, commit as a team and work together to take the first, small steps. They agreed to the working principle of ‘Tiggers, not Eeyores’.
The team used their existing skills and expertise such as Forest School leaders and enthusiastic volunteers and worked collectively to reduce workload. Teachers drew on the growing bank of existing resources and planning and engaged in meaningful professional development. They started with Forest School, and then found that the links across the curriculum were unlimited using this approach. With the addition of a minibus, pupils could leave the school site and marry understanding with real life experiences.
The impact of an Outdoor Learning ethos
Embedding outdoor learning and hands-on experience in the school’s drive for improvement and delivery of the curriculum had an immediate impact:
- Attainment across the school rose dramatically, so that outcomes sat consistently above national averages at all key stages
- The progress of vulnerable groups matched and often exceeded other children
- Attendance rose immediately – close to 98% school-wide with no persistent absence
- Productivity, resilience and self-determination began to impact pupil outcomes across the curriculum, which was reflected in internal and external monitoring
When Ofsted returned in 2016, John was concerned about the extent to which they had been doing things differently. He felt it would either go, “really bad, I’d get a wrap around the knuckles and have to leave” or, he hoped the inspector would be sympathetic to and believe in their vision. That year they were rated ‘outstanding in all areas.’ By this time John had learned, “you can deliver a really challenging curriculum through outdoor learning.”
If John were to take on a new school in an urban environment:
“Children struggle with the abstract. The first thing I would do is find opportunities to learn beyond the classroom. It doesn’t mean learning needs to be in a rural environment, rather learning in an environment other than a classroom. There’s no real substitute for taking learning from the abstract to the concrete through experiences. If all we did is learn the instructions but then never actually put anything together then are we really learning anything?”
What John proposes for education in England is a shift in culture,
“The solution is to not be doing more intensely what we’ve always done, such as focus on the deficits, league tables and SAT results. We need more schools to understand that it’s about our children being confident, happy and engaged.”
What would it be like if this was what a school shouted about after their Ofsted?
We’d love to hear your ideas for outdoor learning in summer. Share your thoughts with us here.