The New Forest Learning Away partnership was a coalition of five primary schools with a history of working in partnership together prior to Learning Away. Each is a small village primary school with a maximum of 120 pupils; all schools are located within or on the outskirts of the New Forest. The main aim of their programme was to educate and inspire children about sustainability, through a progressive residential model, in order that they would then take on leadership roles in this area within their schools, homes and local communities.
At the same time, the partnership schools also wanted to:
- develop children’s independence, emotional and thinking skills
- develop their collaborative skills
- promote social cohesion and respect for diversity and equality.
The initial model
At the beginning of the programme, the partnership schools planned for children to have a progressive residential experience every year, starting with a pre-residential experience in Reception/Year 1 and ending with a four-night, five-day residential in Year 6. These residentials would link to sustainability activities within school, including gardening, recycling, energy measurement and energy-saving activities, and from these children would be encouraged to lead activities as well as take sustainability knowledge and ideas into their homes and the local community. All schools planned to use the same environmental study centre that was fairly local to all of them and shared similar ideals about sustainability. School staff worked with centre staff to plan tailored activities for their children.
Developing the model to ensure progression and sustainability
Two major changes to the model were made in the course of the programme. The first was made quickly as the schools realised that running a residential every year was too much of a financial burden on families, particularly those who had more than one child in school at the same time. The natural set-up of the schools, which taught children from two year groups in one class (Year 1/2, Year 3/4 and Year 5/6), meant that shifting residential experiences from once a year to once every two years made sense organisationally, and eased the financial burden on families. The final model consisted of a pre-residential day visit, a two-night residential in Year 3/4, followed by a four-night residential in Year 5/6.
The second change developed more organically and was linked to the partnership’s aim of progressive residentials. The partnership schools began to feel that three experiences in the same centre was becoming too repetitive for children, and that they ran the risk of them losing interest. This feeling was compounded by some challenges in relation to cost (the centre was charging on a per residential experience basis rather than a per head basis, which was proving expensive) and content (school staff felt they were not being as successful as they wanted to be in working with centre staff to plan different, more demanding, residential experiences for the Year 5/6 cohort in particular).
As a result, schools began to look further afield for the children’s final residential experience. They discovered other centres with a similar interest in sustainability, but with a different activity offer that they felt was more stretching for Year 5/6. This mix enabled the partnership schools to retain the programme’s focus on sustainability, but also pay additional attention to their other aims around leadership, personal development, cohesion and collaboration as children moved towards transition to secondary school. The more flexibile pricing structures of these centres lowered costs and therefore made the partnership’s residential programme more sustainable.
This Slideshare presentation, produced by a teacher at one of the primary schools involved, describes their residential model in more detail.
In terms of children’s knowledge and understanding about sustainability, the partnership schools reported some significant steps towards culture change. The specific learning that took place on residentials was applied by children back in school, and beyond. Energy and water dials in the dormitories at one residential centre, and the reed-bed sewage system at another, were helpful in reinforcing this learning, reminding children constantly about the impact they had on the environment and their power to change this impact. The children appreciated the range of equipment at the residential centres that they could use and the knowledge of the instructors – one school invited a local secondary school eco-club to lead a session with Year 5/6 and this went down particularly well. As one pupil remarked:
“I barely knew anything about eco, but now I know more than I ever thought I would know in my life.”
As a result of this new knowledge and understanding, school councils and eco-clubs began to lead new initiatives back in school, such as ‘Reduce, Reuse and Recycle’ and growing their own produce, which one school sold in their local village shop. Children also began to change their families’ culture around energy, introducing similar activities they set up in school to their homes.
Staff also saw changes in children as they developed personally through residential experiences, which were echoed by children in evaluation focus groups. Children’s confidence and resilience increased, as did their ability to empathise and care for others and their willingness to try new things (especially new activities and food). Their teamwork skills improved, and their respect for each other grew as those children who did not necessarily shine in the classroom did so on residentials, as a result of the different approaches to learning.
Children themselves noted their increase in confidence and the more naturally confident children also realised when they needed to be led less:
“I tell people my ideas rather than just keeping them to myself.” “I learned to stand back and let other people take charge and lead.”
Older students appreciated the independence staff gave them on residentials, and felt that they brought this skill back with them, which had positive impacts for them at both school and home.
Staff talked about the amount they learned about children by being able to take a step back and watch them on residentials:
“If you’re involved you don’t always see it. By us being able to step back we can see what’s going on more.”
Back in school, they talked about the changes the residential experience had had on their pedagogy. Staff said they were more likely to organise group work within the classroom, and set more challenging tasks for pupils whilst in groups – without intervening at the first sign of a problem, but facilitating problem-solving discussions instead. They also talked about encouraging children to use different methods for communicating their ideas, for example mime, lip-reading or drawing in mud, whilst working within different pairings that worked because of the children having been on residential together. Staff described this as a “braver” method of working with children, and one in which the process became just as important as the outcome, with the result that:
“Children that always used to sit back were far more engaged.”
In conclusion, there is no doubt that the progressive model developed by the New Forest partnership led to the outcomes they were looking for. Along the way, they did need to think critically about their progress, and had to be prepared to be flexible with their model; ultimately it was this flexibility and willingness to change plans that enabled them to achieve their hoped-for outcomes.