Raising GCSE attainment through outdoor residential experiences

Key features

  • Evidence of significant maths attainment outcomes
  • Linking challenging activities to classroom teaching
  • Increased confidence, self-belief and success

Longrigg Outdoor Centre has been involved with a number of schools in developing a residential model aimed at helping students to raise their GCSE exam achievement especially in maths. The Radcliffe School and St. Paul’s Catholic School, two secondary schools in Milton Keynes have worked with Longrigg over many years to provide students with an opportunity to experience the benefits of outdoor residential learning. In this case study Dave Hollingham, the Head of Centre at Longrigg, describes their work with St. Paul’s School and its impact on the students involved.

Longrigg Outdoor Centre is a small self-catering centre near the village of Sedbergh in Cumbria. The adventurous activities we provide are set in the stunning environment of the Yorkshire Dales, the Howgill Fells and South and Eastern Lake District. Formerly run by Milton Keynes Council, the centre is now owned by Action4Youth, a youth development charity. It currently cater for groups of up to 24 from the main centre and, if needed, hires different accommodation locally for larger groups.

The residential model

The basic model is a blend of classroom based maths sessions delivered by visiting staff, with outdoor activity sessions unrelated to maths but aimed at raising confidence levels and domestic duties around the centre’s self-catering accommodation.

Student selection

Students are identified as needing extra help to improve their maths results. Typically this is done based on Year 10 exam results or possibly Year 11 mock exam results. The main target has been students who are achieving a D at this stage and the aim is to enable them to improve this to a C.

Funding

The cost of the residential is met through a combination of Pupil Premium funding and parental contributions. School sometimes further subsidise the cost of these residentials themselves. The parental contribution is seen as an important part of fully gaining the commitment of the students who attend.

Planning

Teaching staff from St.Paul’s (and the other secondary schools involved) plan key areas of maths to deliver  with the students during the residential eg. algebra, transformations, past papers, etc. These are selected based on the areas which the students need improvement identified through exam performance.

The centre has a dialogue with the school to establish the particular needs of the school and specific student group, and consequently designs a programme of outdoor activities. These are aimed at boosting self-confidence and achievement through ‘challenges’ such as abseiling, caving or mountain climbing and giving the appropriate amount of support and encouragement to enable success.

Timetable

A typical day for the students involves a maths session after breakfast followed by an outdoor activity, and then maths sessions before and after the evening meal. This means that the students get about 4 ½ hours of maths tuition each day in small groups. In addition the students keep their rooms tidy, outdoor kit organised and help with meal preparation and other domestic tasks.

Ethos

The ethos of the centre is to create an intimate community atmosphere where everyone has a role to play in making the week a success. This helps to foster positive relationships between students and with the visiting staff. Self-catering is an important part of this mix – it enables students and staff to interact in a different way to the classroom environment and stronger bonds are created which prove beneficial back at school.

Maths tuition is delivered by visiting staff in small groups focussed on particular subject areas. This enables students to feel much more able to ask questions and get to grips with the subject matter. This atmosphere helps to grow the student’s confidence as they start to become more successful in their maths. During the week students gradually ask more questions and look forward to tackling harder topics.

How do outdoor activities help with the teaching of maths?

This is an understandable question! The initial aim of the outdoor activities is to make the experience appealing, after all extra maths tuition can be and is being delivered within the school. So initially the outdoor activities are a break from the maths tuition and also serve as a carrot to entice young people to engage in the course. However we believe that the personal development benefits of engaging in challenging outdoor activities in a residential setting add a significant element to the recipe.

By facing a challenge such as going into a cave system, exploring passages of different sizes and difficulty and pushing themselves to achieve, students are able to learn and live out the reality of a growth mindset. From the initial reactions of “I can’t do that”, through encouragement and support and presenting selected, progressive, achievable challenges we end up with “I’m going to try” and ultimately “I want to do that” and “I can do that”.

Part of the activity review process is to then make the link between attitudes to challenge in the outdoors and the joys of success reaped from applying effort and then to apply that to the challenge of tackling topics in maths.

What do the students achieve?

We have seen that the benefits to students are significant. In a hard data sense initial results and feedback from St Paul’s have shown that 85% of students attending the residential go on to achieve a C or higher at GCSE, compared to 50% from a comparison group who did not attend.

But this is not the only benefit. Students report feeling more confident, being successful with their maths, being able to ask questions when they don’t understand and being able to work better in other subjects. Teachers report improved engagement, students taking more ownership of their learning and increased attendance.

Let’s talk about one particular young person, I’ll call him Josh. Josh came to Longrigg with St Paul’s on one of these maths attainment residentials. Talking to Josh three months after his visit, he told me how he felt things had changed in his life:

“I used to have problems with self-control and managing my anger. Now I’ve learnt that there are other opportunities. I’m playing badminton and other sports and finding local hills to climb (just not quite so big!). The maths is much better now; I can tackle harder problems and understand the stuff we learnt. I’ve also made new friends being at Longrigg that I didn’t really know before, and I can ask my teachers for help.”

The direct and indirect benefits of his visit are huge. Josh now has renewed academic, social and physical interests and has fewer problems at school.

Application to other subjects

Currently we only have a small amount of quantitative data for the impact of these courses, but both St. Paul’s and The Radcliffe School are increasing their use of this model and are expanding it to include English as well. Other schools have also used the residential experiences at Longrigg to work on subjects such as modern languages, geography, PE, business studies and biology.

 

Find out more about The Radcliffe School’s maths attainment residentials at Longrigg by reading their Learning Away case study here.