Scotland’s independent think tank
Scotland’s independent think tank

No Future for Residential Outdoor Learning – Dave Spence

It is hard to reconcile that we are on the brink of losing most, if not all residential outdoor centres in Scotland. To accept that we are writing off an effective developmental and educational pedagogy for young people and a major contributor to the Scottish Education system seems incredible.  It will diminish school life and it will impoverish childhood.    

After meetings with the Scottish Government who fully understand the enormous benefits of using specialist outdoor educators to support teachers and get young people active outdoors, it is bizarre that those who do most of this work, the Third Sector residential providers, are being cut loose to sink. 

Failure of Mixed Economy

There were structural problems in the sector before the pandemic, caused in part by the imbalance in the mixed economy of council and Third Sector residential providers.  That imbalance persists as central government opts to channel money to councils at the expense of the Third Sector.

The council and Third Sector models are very different. Money directed to councils is time limited, beyond which the result will be demands to the Scottish Government for more of the same.  Ten years of austerity nearly put paid to local authority residential provision.  As we contemplate repaying the astronomical costs of COVID measures, strategic decision-making must consider what the next 5-10 years of austerity will do to local authority residential and youth work provision.

Third Sector Model

My own organisation – SOEC – is a charity and social enterprise.  We generate £1,400,000 per annum and 95% of that is derived from parents or organisations that support young people.  We support schools and deliver outcomes related to CfE, Health and Wellbeing, Youth, Sustainability and other government policy priorities. The activity costs the Scottish Government nothing.

We contribute to the Scottish economy.  As a not-for-profit social enterprise, £1.4m is channelled into the Scottish economy in supplies (food, fuel etc.) and in wages.  Third Sector providers like SOEC have to be the most cost efficient, best value and sustainable option for the delivery of outdoor learning. 

We also add value to the Scottish economy.  A Social Return on Investment (SROI) analysis by independent consultants determined that SOEC generates over £11 of environmental and social benefits for every £1 spent.  On this basis, SOEC contributes over £15m to Scotland annually. 

Why are we Successful?

Specialist outdoor educators engage young people in activities that develop skills (teamwork, communication etc.) and qualities (‘can do’ growth mind-set, resilience etc.).  Getting young people into novel environments and asking they them to stretch willingly beyond their comfort zone requires great skill and judgement but it is extremely effective.  Do this in one activity and it is fun; do it 20 times over several days and we change the young person; their self-perception and self-belief, their optimism and confidence.   It is more than just a fun experience; it is vital to the education and development of young people.

In a country where research shows that young people lack confidence and are pessimistic for their future, and for a generation who must contend with major challenges such as climate change, post-COVID unemployment, sustainability, and globalisation, these qualities and skills are essential. 

Several organisations in Scotland have produced lists of essential qualities and skills. Few organisations actually work to inspire and empower young people to develop them as effectively as SOEC and other Third Sector organisations.  

SOEC and the Wider Third Sector Group

SOEC Headline Figures: in each of the 10 years since the economic downturn, we have worked on average with 15,000 young people, provided over 100,000 outdoor learning days (school days equivalent,) sustained 50 ‘green jobs’; worked with 1,500 secondary and primary schools and 440 additional needs groups. Teachers return regularly because what we offer is fun and delivers the outcomes they want to see.  

It is easier to provide figures for my own charity but we are not alone. Our successful approach is mirrored by other Third Sector organisations such as Outward Bound, Scouts Scotland, Ocean Youth Trust, Scripture Union and Field Studies Council, and until Netherurd House was closed recently, by Girl Guides Scotland.    

We all start with a child-centred approach. We collaborate with teachers and young people for the best results. We maximise learning and development outcomes to deliver qualities and skills, based on firm foundations of strong relationships with young people.  We have different emphases but our approach and economics are very similar; we survive by trading and giving people what they want.  

Accurate data are notoriously difficult to collate in this profession. However, recently gathered data by the Association of Heads of Outdoor Centres in Scotland (AHOEC) and Third Sector Outdoor Learning Group (TSOLG) suggest:

TSOLG organisations (under the auspices of Youthlink) have around 2,000 beds. Other Third Sector organisations, (either in AHOEC or not affiliated to AHOEC and Youthlink) have just under 1,000.  Council-run centre bed-spaces number 400.  Therefore, the total number of bed spaces in Scotland is around 3,300 [figures have been rounded]. Those in Third Sector organisations have over 80% of the total residential bed spaces in Scotland.  SOEC provide approximately 20% of the Third Sector resource so a very broad evaluation might multiply SOECs figures by 5.   

It is even more difficult to estimate the number of closures as providers desperately hope the Government changes its mind before it is too late.  Perhaps half the bed spaces will be gone by Christmas. By the time of the Election next year, there will be far fewer bed spaces.  Centres provide hundreds of thousands of learning days in the outdoors and as centres close, no organisation will be able to fill this gap.  


Though sustainable over decades, Centres are not immune from the impact of the pandemic.  While the Government encourages others to return to work, and to get young people outdoors, where the risk of transmission is vanishingly small, residential Centres must remain in lock-down.  Trading income for 2020 has been wiped out.  After 6 months of dialogue, as Third Sector providers sought to use their teams to support schools and keep teams viable until Centres can reopen, the Scottish Government has decided it will not support residential providers. 

The result will inevitably be the permanent and irrevocable closure of Centres.  For SOEC, after 80 years of providing for young people, our charity will be wound-up.  Once closed, we are unlikely to have the money to reopen Centres. A relatively small amount of financial support now, to keep their teams active and enable Centres to bounce back perhaps next year, would retain these valuable, national assets. 

The Government had previously stated that, “progressive outdoor learning experiences are best delivered through a combination of school-based outdoor learning and residential programmes” and that “the outdoor environment offers motivating, exciting, different, relevant and easily accessible activities from pre-school years through to college.”

More recently, the Deputy First Minister said that he was “keen to ensure that “residential outdoor learning experiences remain part of school curriculum for Excellence.”  The Scottish Government has put a great deal of effort and support into early years to get young people outdoors. 

I do not wish to overemphasise our plight when families are experiencing tragedies. Nor do I envy the decisions that the Government faces. However, the loss of outdoor centres will have serious ramifications for young people. A vital aspect of the school experience – residentials – will disappear. Alternative cannot replace it. A residential experience is a significant milestone for pupils that should be protected.  

Major investment has been directed to Early Years and training staff in outdoor settings to provide enriched learning experiences; to provide learning experiences that enable the children to take risks, problem solve, communicate, co-operate and explore. This learning is then progressed in the Primary sector often culminating in P6 or P7 in the residential.

Teachers work in partnership with tutors and instructors to enable children to take their prior learning experiences and apply skills to new settings, deepening their understanding, skills and abilities further. The residential allows teachers to observe and assess their pupils over a period of days. Seeing children in this new context provides perspectives and understanding of how they learn and develop which can in turn, be transferred back to the school setting.

Many Learning Communities use the residential experience to scaffold the transition to high school. The residential provides a neutral space and is an exciting time for children to meet their peers from other schools with whom they will journey though secondary school. It provides secondary school staff opportunities to observe children in a stimulating, unthreatening context. It forges durable, positive relationships between peers and staff alike. It provides a basis on which staff and pupils build in S1 and beyond.  The residential encapsulates CfE key principles of continuity and progression, depth, enjoyment and challenge.

The loss of residential option for schools will result in the loss of activity emblematic of progressive education. Progression, breadth and depth will be diminished. Having invested so much in outdoor learning in early years, to then remove the residential in primary, will not be a neutral effect but a negative in impact.

The residential is an iconic school event and teachers and families will keenly feel its loss. Through flexible bookings and expressions of interests, SOEC is projecting half of our annual income (£700,000) for next year despite uncertainty caused by the pandemic. Teachers and parents want the residential to continue. 

The residential offers so many benefits, and Third Sector providers are the most sustainable, innovative, adaptable, cost effective and best value option. Therefore, we must question whether allowing them to go extinct at this time is wise?    

And Then

A vision for residential outdoor centres was laid down in the Camps Act of 1939. The Government then, their backs were very much to the wall and under great pressure from competing demands for scarce resources, took time to debate and approve the building of residential educational Centres. Parliamentarians looked beyond the immediate threats and considered that, enabling young people to learn for themselves in the outdoors was a significant as compulsory schooling.  It was said they would look back on this “as one of the best decisions made at this time.” 

Generations since have benefitted from this far-sighted vision.  It is excruciatingly disappointing that the Scottish Government, while acknowledging the value and importance of the residential for young people, cannot find a mechanism that supports it; that the permanent closure of these fabulous resources will result in impoverished childhoods and a significant setback for Education in Scotland.   


Therefore, we have a new vision for young people in Scotland. It has not emerged from a national debate on what is best for young people. It was neither deliberated nor agreed. A major national resource is just going to disappear.  It will massively change the Education landscape and by the time of the next Election, there will be few young people attending residential education centres in Scotland.  

Young people will not undertake away-from-home residentials. They will not spend time in other parts of Scotland. They will have fewer opportunities to interact meaningfully with the environment.  They will not take part in immersive experiences essential to develop qualities and skills that inspire, empower and transform them. 

Specialist outdoor educators will not spend time with thousands of young people, honing their skills to engage safely in adventurous activities, or their judgement to engage young people in successful pedagogy for development and learning.  

No organisation or group of people will be able to pick up the sheer volume of outdoor activity that currently takes place.  Just a few weeks ago, we were focused on extending our reach to other young people; now we are staring at extinction. 

Dave Spence is CEO of Scottish Outdoor Education Centres.  The petition about outdoor education at #saveyouroutdoorcentres