Accreditations, Award Schemes and Outdoor Learning

14 April 2016 · 4 comments

in Community Involvement, Interesting Issues & Hot Topics, Urban, Whole School

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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.


Award schemes

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.

1. John Muir Award 

2. RHS School Gardening Award

3.  Eco Schools

4. OPAL Award – play and playtimes

5. Learning Outside the Classroom (LOtC) Mark

6. Adventure Learning Schools

7. Woodland Trust Green Tree Schools Award

8. RSPB Wild Challenge  – suitable for primary and early years classes

9. NOLA – National Outdoor Learning Award


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.


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{ 4 comments… read them below or add one }

Craig armiger April 14, 2016 at 06:43

As you rightly say Juliet that there are many schemes around and all may fit your own purpose or that of the administration you are working for. One you didn’t mention was Forest School. You may have done but with no glasses on taking the dog for a walk in the woods cannot be a sound judgement call! However, the FS ethos, I love that Scandinavian system it works well for them and is a sound platform, but as you say in one of your points is it right for your system. If it’s just to make sure you have the correct SOP’s in place then other cheaper in cost and time maybe more suitable.
As most of Outdoor Learning is experiential getting out and doing it is the best way. Learn with the children.


Juliet Robertson April 14, 2016 at 06:51

Hello Craig

You are correct, Forest School is not listed because it’s an individual award rather than a whole school one. The individual award-bearing course are huge. There’s too many to list or keep track of. I did check the FSA website to see if there was a whole school award or recognition and couldn’t see one listed.

Hope this clarifies 🙂


Elaine Whittington April 14, 2016 at 08:24

Really interesting, thanks Juliet. I was saying to someone the other day that only a few years ago schools opted to achieve certain awards which was fun but now it seems there is pressure from authorities to achieve these. This changes the intrinsic motivation for adults to extrinsic too. Great when the passion comes from an adult or child because of the subject not the award. Then the award is a bonus. And the person doing the paperwork doesn’t get time out of class to prepare it and gives up many many hours of time to do it. The children enjoy the sense of achievement and pride at the time but then, apart from the working groups mainly forget about it. I, naively I think, looked at schools with green flag awards when I was looking for a job, thinking they were an indication of their level of outdoor learning. I don’t think there’s a competitiveness amongst schools in our area. But maybe that’s me just not seeing it! Thanks for your interesting articles. Elaine


Juliet Robertson April 14, 2016 at 09:28

Thanks for your thoughts Elaine. I think you’ve made a good point here – the awards do not necessarily indicate that a school is ‘very good’ or ‘outstanding’. One element I do like of some awards is the need for annual reviews which involve children – this can make keep the award relevant for every cohort of children. Also with other awards which can be achieved as a class, then the gaining of the award can be a nice form of celebration for other curriculum-based work.


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