The Learning Away schools found that to make the most of this potential, residentials needed to be thoroughly planned as learning experiences and, as a result, some partnerships used the theory of change approach.

The theory of change approach to planning is widely used in the public sector (particularly international development) and voluntary sector as a way of promoting and supporting social change. For our purposes, in relation to brilliant residentials, it is a tool that enables schools to move on from a ‘We’ll do this because we did it last year’ approach to one that is purposeful, meets students’ identified needs, and takes into account long-term aims and related outcomes – not only of the residential programme but of the school, or partnership of schools, as a whole.

What is a theory of change?

“A theory of change defines all building blocks required to bring about a given long-term goal.”

It can help you think about, plan, deliver and evaluate a programme effectively, maximising the chance of it achieving its hoped-for long-term aims.

The building blocks of a theory of change include:

  • The problem or opportunity to be addressed by the plan.
  • Long-term aims: the main change/s you want to see long-term from the programme.
  • Outcomes: medium-term changes that happen as a result of the programme, and that support the long-term aim/s.
  • Outputs: short-term, direct and measurable ‘products’ that happen as a result of the programme (what the programme ‘puts out’).
  • Inputs: what you put into the programme to achieve the outputs.
  • Assumptions: your own theories about the relationships between what you do and what you want to achieve.

Using this approach for a residential programme means schools start by identifying an issue or set of issues that could be addressed through a residential, for example an element of the school improvement plan or a concern/need highlighted by class teachers, subject/phase teams or pastoral staff. The residential planning team then agrees aims and outcomes (long- and medium-term changes) they want to see in their school or in particular young people, and plans backwards; rather than starting with ‘let’s go on a trip to…’ they choose a setting and activities (inputs) that give the best chance of achieving their aims.

The planning team also records the assumptions they make about how they think change will happen so they can test these both during and after the residential. This testing means that any mistakes in the team’s thinking will be identified and plans can be adjusted for future residentials, maximising their impact.

What are the benefits of planning in this way?

A theory of change approach to planning gives you:

  • a shared vision and understanding of how to achieve a desired change that is linked to the wider school improvement agenda
  • a clear visual representation of the change that can be shared within and, if needs be, across schools
  • a robust framework that encourages focussed, needs-led, planning that often generates innovative ideas
  • a robust framework within which to test assumptions about how change will happen and then use these findings to influence subsequent plans for change
  • an understanding of why evaluation is important and how to integrate it with your planning.

When using this approach you can also make sure that the residential experiences you are planning help to contribute to the wider school improvement agenda, e.g. responding to Ofsted and/or your School Improvement Plan.

Read more about the benefits of using this approach to planning in relation to brilliant residentials here.

How do you plan using a theory of change?

The Getting started page of this resource pack gives further information about how to plan using this approach, and advice about factors that the Learning Away partnership schools found it useful to think about when planning, both in general and using a theory of change approach.

It also introduces practical templates to help you start planning your own brilliant residential, using a theory of change approach.

External resources

To learn more about theory of change and how it is used in education and beyond, these external links serve as a useful starting point: