When training or working with schools, I am often asked about different award schemes or accreditations. Or more to the point, school staff usually inform me that they are going for X award or Y status. A quirk of outdoor learning is the sheer abundance of awards to provide an incentive and motivation to get out there.
This intrigues me. One thing we know about effective learning and teaching is that award schemes for children are a form of extrinsic motivation and rarely lead to long term, sustained changes in behaviour and effort. So it is curious that so many have popped up to support schools to do different aspects of learning outside. I often wonder whether award schemes are about schools and outdoor organisations marketing themselves as they are to do with improving the quality and quantity of outdoor experiences. Certainly in my experience of supporting schools, they are one route to making changes but not the only way forward. Many schools do great things without flying the flag for an award-bearing or accrediting organisation.
Saying this, I know the hard work and effort that goes on behind the scenes to ensure that an award is fit for purpose and helps schools make changes to their practice. For schools, it’s one method of accessing a form of support which is clearly spelled out so that you know what you are getting or buying into.
Make sure do your research and ensure it meets the needs of your children and community. Prior to signing up for any accreditation or award scheme, consider:
1. How will the children in your school or class benefit? What will the learning experiences look like and will these be improved through participating in an award? Or are you doing this so that your school can add another logo onto its banners, websites and headed paper?
2. How much does this cost? Many schemes involve shelling out money to have an assessor come and check what you are doing or to simply run the award! No cash = no award. Alternatively, are you being offered resources or financial compensation for undertaking the scheme? Would a bag of sweets make you and the children just as happy?
3.How much of your time is spent producing paperwork? Quite a few award schemes involve putting together evidence that you have jumped through the necessary hoops. A visit to a school and meeting any child – as opposed to the specially chosen ones – and chatting to them about the work that has happened and getting them to show you, is far more revealing than an outdoor learning policy, example lesson plans or photo of a happy class being outside. Check with the award scheme how much paper evidence is needed and how much evidence can be gathered by an external visit or from the children themselves as part of their ongoing classwork.
4. What support do you receive from the organisation that provides the award? Some award schemes you are left to get on with things. Others insist on at least one member of staff having training – even if this is free, consider the time and cover involved. Some have website full of materials, lesson plans, etc. Check if a membership fee is needed to access this. Is there a responsive person in the organisation who can quickly answer any queries you may have?
5. How effective is the award scheme at effecting changes in practice? If there is a school near you which has been involved in this award, then go along and have a look. Is the impact visible – can you tell from the moment you step onto the campus (beyond a flag, banner or framed certificate). What would happen if the person leading the work left -would his or her legacy continue? What do the children think about the scheme? How much of the improvement is directly attributable to being in the award scheme?
6. What will the long term impact of your school’s involvement in the scheme? Ideally award schemes should be a stepping stone to further sustained changes in practice beyond that which the award can cater for. This may sound strange, yet in my experience the totality of embedding outdoor learning is beyond any one process, approach or award.
The list below is not comprehensive. These are the ones I’ve come across. I know there will be many more local schemes. Also outdoor learning and play can come into many other wider schemes such as a Rights Respecting school award. Please do let me know if there are other outdoor-specifc schemes out there.
3. Eco Schools
4. OPAL Award – play and playtimes
What else is out there?
Partner organisations often get funding for projects which run for a few years and getting your school involved in these can be worthwhile. For example, Learning through Landscapes have a UK-wide Polli:nation project that is just beginning.
Mission Explore run a badge system for undertaking their missions. It’s free and children are encourage to make their own missions. This does not require membership and just has lots of ideas for simple outdoor challenge-based investigations.
There are many organisations that offer a network of support to help you get going. For instance, should you wish to set up a farm, the Federation of City Farms and Community Gardens run a School Farms Network – run voluntarily by practising farm school teachers.
There are many award bearing courses for individuals rather than whole schools or classes which I haven’t mentioned.
Finally I would love to know your school’s experiences. Feel free to comment. Likewise, if you work for an award bearing provider and wish to explain the benefits, please do comment.