While many institutions across the country are becoming more academically focused, the direction in which our professional culture is heading suggests the need for our children to develop strong ‘soft skills’. Add in the fact that the rise of technology is bringing global communities closer than ever and creating an increasingly competitive job market, it has never been more important for our children to be able to have the skills, interests and additional knowledge to stand out from the crowd. We speak to the principals educators in three pioneering schools in the North East to find out how and why they dedicate their institutions to incorporate structured learning outside of the classroom.
OUTDOOR FOREST SCHOOL NURSERY
At the beginning of September this year, Footprints On The Moon – a social enterprise dedicated to encouraging families to enjoy the outdoors through a range of educational activities – opened its first full-time, outdoor nursery for pre-school children in Plessey Woods Country Park: Outdoor Forest School Nursery.
Providing a hands-on, natural learning environment for children between the ages of two and five, Forest School’s primary focus is developing the confidence and self-esteem of its pupils while teaching them to care for the natural world around them.
‘For us, it’s all about the regular opportunities to develop their confidence from learning outside the classroom, in the forest,’ explains the school’s founder, Annemarie Blight. ‘Every morning we’ll discuss our plans for the day and what the children would like to do. The children are being allowed to understand their boundaries themselves – it’s not us dictating that. It brings a massive amount of self-esteem for them.’
Incorporating free outdoor play, daily jobs (such as feeding the birds and looking after the plants) and explorations of Plessey Woods, alongside playing and reading under cover of their Bell Tent, Forest School is centred upon the idea that a more open, less structured learning environment encourages greater communication, resilience and mindfulness in the pre-school children they look after.
‘Each child is completely different, but throughout the day the environment that they have here is one where each of them can learn at their own pace – where they can decide what they want to do, enjoy their play and not have activities forced upon them,’ Annemarie reasons. ‘We think that’s an inspirational approach to learning. Obviously, as practitioners, we will always have something in our minds for what we want the children to gain in a week. But mainly it’s about us being able to understand our children and identify what key strengths and skills we need to develop in that individual.
‘They’re using their initiative, co-operating with each other and making really positive relationships. It’s exactly what they should be learning from a very early age to be able to understand our cultural and physical environment. So in the Forest School community, we see them become creative, resilient, lovely little thinkers.’
At Giggleswick School, a full and active engagement in the co-curriculum is just as important for students as their academic progression, and a particularly unique aspect of this school’s extra-curricular offerings is their focus on outdoor pursuits.
‘We make the most of the amazing environment that we’re in – we don’t have to jump in a minibus to go hill walking, we can do it from the doorstep,’ reasons Christopher Wright, Head of Outdoor Pursuits at Giggleswick School. ‘There’s the Giggleswick Certificate, which is a weekly programme for our kids in Year 9, where they learn how to climb, kayak, ride mountain bikes, they go caving and they learn how to navigate. That really sets us apart from other schools in that provision. We also have after-school clubs for a lot of these activities, and we’ve recently had an indoor climbing wall put in, which has really opened up climbing for kids in Years 7 and 8 now as well.’
Far from being merely a box-ticking exercise, the Giggleswick Certificate is fuelled by Chris’ own passion for the outdoors – something he has pursued academically in order to gain a postgraduate certificate in Outdoor Education. But more than satisfying his own interests, the outdoor ventures he co-ordinates allows his students to reap significant benefits in terms of their personal development.
‘It’s definitely very good for challenging fears,’ says Chris. ‘We expose children to a lot of hazardous environments in a safe manner, so it invokes the feeling of fear but we know that it’s safe. That helps them overcome their fear and gives them a sense of pride in what they’ve been able to achieve. It also helps them with problem solving, particularly when we take them climbing and bouldering.
‘Some of the core values that we look at here are things like resilience, participation and self-awareness, and I think all of those things are encompassed in the outdoor pursuits that we offer. The programme gives them more confidence, it raises their self-esteem, and I think it’s particularly good for mental health. I certainly know from my own climbing that, if I go on a exposed rock climb, it empties my head and I’m just there in the moment. I’m not focused on anything else except where my toe’s going, where my handhold is and where my gear can go. I find that enthrallingly refreshing. So it ticks a lot of boxes in terms of personal development.’
BARNARD CASTLE SCHOOL
At co-educational independent day and boarding institution Barnard Castle School, examination success is only part of the picture. For students in Year 7 and Year 8, activity programme Mind, Body and Soul offers the opportunity to become involved in over 30 different pursuits outside the classroom – with everything from chess to cricket, music to money matters, and pottery to public speaking in the offing.
‘It breaks my heart when I listen to speeches where the entire focus is on academic results,’ says Tony Jackson, Headmaster of Barnard Castle School. ‘Of course it’s important to work hard in the classroom, but there’s no getting away from the fact that, while those grades will open a door, it’s what you do when you walk through the door that counts.’
As the name of the programme suggests, the school’s Mind, Body and Soul programme is designed to cover a range of activities that will nurture the intellectual, physical and creative development of its students. Every Monday, Tuesday and Thursday evening, pupils in Year 7 and 8 participate across the spectrum of activities on offer (Wednesdays are saved for the competitive Inter-House Championships) before choosing a select few to focus on when they go into Year 9. The idea behind the programme is that, by encouraging students to develop as many interests and experiences as possible, they will naturally stand out from the crowd when it comes to entering an increasingly competitive job market.
‘Our children are going into a global workplace at 18,’ reasons Tony. ‘And their competitors are all going to have nice academic results. So how do they differentiate themselves? Well, one way is by having a breadth of interests that makes you an attractive individual. The second way is, if you look at the data coming from global political and business leaders about what the next generation is going to need, it is soft skills – people management, co-ordinating with others, emotional intelligence, empathy, leadership – all those things that you can’t get a degree in. And you can’t get to 21 years old and go: right, I’ve got three A Levels and a degree, now I need to learn how to deal with people. It doesn’t work like that! It has to form part of the daily curriculum where, at a young age, children are learning it subliminally. They are just learning how to work together to build a raft, or to put on a musical, or in the Combined Cadet Force. Those are the students who are most primed to succeed, because they are the ones that can go into any environment and work with others.
‘My worry is that we’re creating a generation of people who just believe that how you do on a piece of paper is the all-important thing, and that is just not education. It is part of the journey, but it’s not the destination.’