A Learning Away journey, from activity centre to historic dockyard

Key features

  • Large-scale camping residentials
  • Residential planning and logistics
  • Recruiting new, enthusiastic teachers

Canterbury High School is a large secondary academy on the outskirts of the city of Canterbury in Kent, predominately serving two local housing estates. Residentials have long been embedded at the school by the youth service team, but prior to Learning Away there wasn’t a history of curriculum-based residentials involving teaching staff.

Over the past five years, the school has grown a residential for 30 targeted C/D borderline English/maths GCSE students into an annual large-scale, low-cost camping model that focuses on core and option subject GCSE attainment over five days/four nights for 80 – 100 students. Subject content is delivered predominately by their teaching staff and relates to the context of the chosen residential site; these have included two activity centres, a purpose-built campsite and two heritage venues.

The school wanted to develop the initial residential “because we saw the potential of the impact that it could have” (Learning Away Coordinator). Short and medium term data analysis carried out by the school throughout the programme, and focus group data, has shown:

  • improvement in coursework grades
  • improved ability in mastery of subject-specific techniques, and improved ability to recall these in test situations – and therefore improved test scores
  • increased attendance for those students with low attendance prior to residentials
  • a reduction in incidents of poor behaviour for students who were persistently disrupting learning prior to residentials
  • better engagement with learning observed by both students and staff
  • sustained good relationships between students and staff attending residentials.

The long-term aim of the residentials is to improve GCSE attainment for those students who attend, as well as attendance and/or behaviour where these are an issue for students. Learning Away has been collecting data from Canterbury High School over the past five years and the analysis of this will be produced in the final evaluation report (June 2015).

This case study focuses on the journey the school has undertaken to achieve its long term vision of “a sustainable programme that we can apply to any context, that will include as many subject areas as we can and as many pupils as we can” (Learning Away Coordinator). It will highlight key areas that have ensured the success of the model as well as those the school is still developing.

Starting Out (2010)

In October 2010, Canterbury High ran a residential for 30 C/D borderline GCSE students to Bewl Water, an activity centre in Kent. The residential’s focus was on improving English coursework grades and maths techniques, with the overall aim of increasing attainment for these students at GCSE level.

English and maths curriculum activities, taught by two school staff, were directly linked to adventurous water-based activities led by centre staff. Accommodation and catering were both provided by the centre. The Vice Principal, who already had the beginnings of a vision in his head for a larger version of this model, led the residential.

Both the Vice Principal and the subject staff saw the potential impact the residential could have on: attainment – particularly coursework, which really benefited from the students’ real-life experiences during the residential; and staff-student relationships, which were significantly strengthened through the residential and have lasted over a long-term period back in school.

A gradual shift to the larger, lower-cost model (2011-12)

Encouraged by the impact of the small-scale pilot, plans for the first version of a scaled-up model were begun. The school looked for another activity centre that was: fairly local (to keep transport costs down); could cater for larger groups; and offer the school the flexibility they were looking for in terms of a mix of curriculum-based and adventurous activities. They settled on Carroty Wood, a Rock UK centre in Kent.

Over 2011-12, the school stayed at Carroty Wood twice, using it as their base to “move to a low-cost accessibility model … adapt the activities and pick and choose our activities from a broader range” (Learning Away Coordinator). This move came about by:

  • shifting from a fully-accommodated to a part-camping, part-accommodated residential model, bringing in the school’s sixth form Chef’s Academy to take charge of catering as part of their NVQ course; and
  • increasing the number of subjects and teaching staff involved in the residential, therefore increasing the curriculum offer to students.

The original focus on English coursework and maths techniques was retained as a core offer of four hours per subject over the week, but the school now added science and also different option subjects including art, PE and drama. All subject content was related directly to the Carroty Wood site and/or the adventurous activities incorporated into the programme. As the Learning Away Coordinator explains “the principle is to incorporate the adventurous activities to engage the pupils, to motivate them, build up their team spirit, their enthusiasm and their self-belief, which they then apply to the subject lessons.” Read more about boosting GCSE attainment at Carroty Wood here.

Having such a diverse programme was an initial challenge in terms of timetabling, but once the first model had been completed, the Learning Away Coordinator used this as the basis for all subsequent residentials.

Pre- and post-residential assessments again showed improvements in students’ understanding and attainment across all subject areas, and both staff and students reported better relationships as a result of the residentials.

The initial scale-up: key factors for success

Several factors were crucial in this initial scale-up:

1. A strong camp lead

The Vice Principal’s role as camp lead was vital, not just in terms of knowing how to set up a camp physically, but how to run it as a community. His ability to bring a large group together as an extended family for the week meant that when hard times hit – bad weather or a challenging session – everyone stuck together and encouraged each other rather than withdrawing. Strong community structures are imperative to large-group residentials, camping or otherwise.

2. A methodical, thorough and patient logistics lead

The Vice Principal had the vision and experience to begin the scale-up, and a good support team behind him to manage the camping, but he needed a right-hand person with the time and ability to take on the logistics planning as the residentials grew. This person came in the form of a new Learning Away Coordinator, a science teacher who was also the Educational Visits Coordinator (EVC) for the school; she had the essential mix of knowledge and skills to understand the vision, plan with school staff, negotiate with the centre and come up with a timetable that worked for everyone.

3. Developing the staff team

The Vice Principal and the new Coordinator formed the kernel of the team at the centre of the scale-up. They were also key in recruiting a larger group of teachers to form a core team of curriculum staff. In addition to talking about residentials in staff meetings, they also employed a more direct strategy. They identified teachers who they thought would bring skills and enthusiasm to the residential, and sent teachers who had already been on a residential to talk to them and recruit them to the next one. This was more successful than a general invitation, because “only by those staff actually sharing their experiences are they really going to get the people on board” (Learning Away Coordinator). The Vice Principal and Learning Away Coordinator found that once staff came on one residential they were enthusiastic about the idea and wanted to come again because they found the experience so valuable. Supporting and nurturing this core team once it’s in place is important: as the Learning Away Coordinator points out “they are the ones who make it work on the ground, who make it possible.”

4. Developing staff confidence about camping

The Vice Principal was experienced at camping with smaller groups and had trained others in the school’s youth service team, so there was already a group of support staff confident about camping. Some of the teaching staff were less experienced, so the staged move to camping was also useful in developing their confidence.

5. Providing a curriculum that links directly to the residential environment

In Canterbury’s experience the value of the residential curriculum is the “real-life experiences of those things that we’re talking about all the time.” For example, giving students an experience in their ‘stretch zone’ (high ropes, climbing wall) then asking them to talk and write about it, or teaching Pythagoras directly after using the abseiling tower, has proved more successful for Canterbury than asking students to use their imagination in a classroom.

At this point (July 2012) the vital components for a shift to a lower-cost, full camping model were in place and the school’s evaluation data continued to show positive impacts. The next obvious move would have been towards a full camping model on a purpose-built site. However, never one to miss a good opportunity when one was presented, Canterbury’s next residential was slightly different!

Hampton Court Palace residential (2013)

In July 2013, the school was given the chance to take the first ever group to stay on site at Hampton Court Palace. This site required them not just to camp with 80 students, but also to be responsible for all logistics – toilets, showers, mobile adventurous activities, refrigeration facilities etc.. As the Coordinator identified “it was quite a big jump going from a residential centre, where everything’s there, to a field“, and particularly a field on the site of a 500 year old royal palace given all the protocols, policies and procedures that come with such an important heritage site.

Working with the heritage sector brought more people into the equation, all with different priorities, as the Coordinator pointed out: “We all had different ideas of what we wanted to get out of it … it was all a kind of careful balance, fitting in with their strict regulations.” For the Coordinator, this balancing act made developing and agreeing the plan for the residential with Palace staff “quite daunting”, but she was also clear that the opportunities that the site presented meant that “you very quickly get over that and work through every kind of small problem to make it happen.”   More details about the school’s residential at Hampton Court Palace can be found in a separate case study here.

The unique setting, and the fact that there were no adventurous activities available on site, gave the school the opportunity to further expand its curriculum offer. GCSE subject areas, and therefore the staff team, grew to include history, DT, drama and modern languages. In order to give the week coherence and bring subject areas together at the end, it was themed around the marriage of Henry VIII and Anne Boleyn and culminated in a banquet. Read more about the residential itself here and about how theming the residential worked here. As part of the residential, the school brought some mobile adventurous activities onto the site to break up the students’ experiences and support the residential’s aims around confidence and motivation. However, the focus of the residential shifted from linking learning to adventurous activities to designing practical, on-site curriculum sessions that linked learning directly with the site and what it could offer.

The residential continued to show positive impacts in relation to the curriculum although, as the GCSE curriculum changes shifted the focus back from coursework to exams, measuring progress started to become more difficult in some subject areas. Students continued to talk in focus groups about being re-enthused about learning and more engaged in their lessons. The Coordinator has also noticed that staff who participated in the residential are more “open in the way that they teach and willing to try new ideas, which they’re then mentoring new staff to be able to do.

A further key success factor: site visits

Canterbury’s planning with Hampton Court Palace meant that all staff went on at least one site visit (with more for the camp and logistics leads). The value this brought to the curriculum sessions has led the school to build site visits in for its staff for all curriculum-focussed residentials.

Where do you go from a royal palace? (2014)

Whilst the school would have loved to go back to Hampton Court Palace (and had received their hefty deposit back in full so would have been welcome), significant staff re-organisation there meant it was not possible. Instead, for July 2014 Canterbury reverted to what would have been their ‘Plan A’ following the Carrotty Wood residentials, and settled on a large Girlguiding campsite for July 2014, Willow Tree Centre in Middlesex.

Logistically, this was an easier site as it was purpose-built for large camping groups. Planning was also simpler as the school was able to plan the curriculum and adventurous activities on its own. With the timetabling model now well-established, the Learning Away Coordinator was able to adapt it to the site, using a mixture of on-site and day visit activities to deliver the curriculum/adventurous activities mix.

To heritage or not to heritage – looking to the future

Unsurprisingly, the Learning Away Coordinator described the Willow Tree Farm planning as “less stressful” than working with a heritage provider, as there was less at stake if something were to go wrong (although nothing did apart from London traffic!). In addition, the days off-site meant that there was less ‘carouselling’ of groups around the site and the timetable was therefore simpler, plus the visits out also helped with breaking up what can be quite an intense week on one site.

So … having stayed at a residential centre, a camp site and a royal palace, are there advantages to staying on a heritage site, particularly given the additional set-up work they can entail and the additional relationships that need to be nurtured and managed?

The Learning Away Coordinator’s view is that for the students “being immersed in that environment for the whole week” brings significant added value for curriculum-related learning and makes the heritage sector worth the work and the more intense experience. She is also clear that staying on-site in the environment is more effective for the curriculum than going on day visits from a camp site then “coming back to sit in a field and try and talk about it.”

In focus groups staff talked about the students absorbing a huge variety of experiences first hand over an extended period of time on a heritage site, with the result that they seem to learn more deeply. Students also talked in focus groups about being inspired by their surroundings on a heritage site, and about the privilege of staying in such an environment – they were fully aware that they were experiencing a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.

Ultimately, the decision comes down to the aims of a residential, and of course the availability of heritage providers who will entertain the thought of large groups staying on site. Canterbury’s experience shows that, once you have settled on a model that works for you, the curriculum can be successfully adapted to wherever you stay. As the Learning Away Coordinator puts it “from our experience at Hampton Court Palace we know what works, we know what doesn’t work, we know how to manage it [the residential] and the kids … we’ve got the confidence to be able to do it again.

This adaptability is a real strength of the model and for Canterbury it means that they will continue to look for interesting partners with whom they can work both within and outside the heritage sector. In July 2015 they’re off to Chatham Historic Dockyard to camp and sleep for at least one night on an historic ship – HMS Cavalier.

Some challenges

Inevitably, setting up and embedding this residential model has had its challenges for Canterbury, which remain areas for development. These include:

  • Working with staff to make the residential’s curriculum outcomes more measurable and specific within the new GCSE frameworks. Creating a new evaluation structure to measure outcomes is a priority for the school for 2015.
  • Continuing to improve the ways in which staff related the curriculum to the context of the residential setting, particularly when this is a heritage site. Hampton Court Palace was a good first try at this, and the Learning Away Coordinator hopes for even better curriculum links at Chatham Historic Dockyard in 2015. The site’s relative proximity to the school will make site visits easier for staff, and make it easier for them to form relationships with education staff on-site prior to the residential.
  • Student recruitment: Selling a five day curriculum-based camping trip to 14-year-olds can be tricky. Canterbury have opened up their residentials to all GCSE students, not just those identified at the C/D borderline and students an also participate for two years running if they so wish. They have a long lead-in time (December for a July residential) and find they usually have two main sign-up rushes: just after the launch and then during the last few weeks before the residential. Family financial constraints have also proved challenging at times – families are willing for their children to attend, but the cost (£150 for the week) or worries about not having the right equipment are constraints. As a result the school uses Pupil Premium to subsidise students attending. “We never stop any student going on the trip for money reasons; we always find a way to make it work and I’m always adamant that that’s going to be the case” (Learning Away Coordinator).
  • Staff turnover: Canterbury is a large school and there is always some turnover, both as a result of people leaving and (in their case over the last few years) for maternity leave. This is where the school’s strategy of asking staff to approach other suitable staff comes into its own.
  • Staffing: taking such a large number of students out for a week inevitably has an impact on classes for those who remain, and on staff who have to cover for those on the residential. The Vice Principal and the Learning Away Coordinator have worked hard with senior and middle managers so that they understand the significant impact the residential has on all those who participate – students and staff  in order to minimise issues that arise over staffing.

In conclusion

Over five years, Canterbury has made its residential part of the entitlement curriculum offer for GCSE students at the school. On top of that, it has forged a path for others who wish to work residentially with the heritage sector, and been part of a milestone for the Historic Royal Palaces education team.

The school continues to think innovatively about its residential model, addressing problems as they arise, and challenging itself to take the next step in its long-term vision. We wish them luck for the future.