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

A Vision for Young People 2021-31 Thriving in the Scottish Outdoors – Dave Spence

In 2020, Residential Outdoor Education experienced a near extinction event. Following a national Campaign – #saveyouroutdoorcentres – the Scottish Government agreed to support organisations to ensure Centres remained viable until June 2021. 

The challenge remains to ensure that young people benefit from these experiences both immediately post-pandemic and for decades to come.  For that to happen, the residential experience must be put on a sustainable basis. 

With this in mind, an initiative was launched last week – the Vision for Young People 2021-2031. The Vision emphasises that thought and action for the future must derive first and foremost from that is best for children and young people.   

The Vision was produced by Third Sector providers who deliver the vast majority of outdoor learning in Scotland. However it is not just for professional outdoor educators. There are a great many stakeholders in society who will benefit from the implementation of this Vision. As a national vision, the process seeks to reach out to secure the involvement of all stakeholders. 

A successful vision is both ‘product’ and ‘process’ therefore the intention is that many people contribute to the process in the coming months.  Communities and the economy benefit from qualities and skills that young people develop from these experiences therefore contributions from wider society, including business and community leaders must be heard.

The evidence of benefits of residential experiences for young people is irrefutable.  Outdoor education combined with the immersive residential experience creates a powerful pedagogy. It creates opportunities and benefits that are life affirming and life changing for children and young people who demonstrate newfound confidence, determination, resilience and compassion while developing new skills. Young people need these experiences regularly and frequently to offset the damage from other experiences that set them back e.g. the bullying and self-doubt that erodes confidence.

This Vision is of Scotland as the place where every single young person has the right to progressive outdoor learning including immersive, residential experiences.

At this time of pandemic, the benefits of being active outdoors are more important than ever. The impact of Covid-19 has been particularly hard on young people. Worries about their families and months spent isolated from their friends have increased mental health issues, stress and loneliness. Some will have lost family members.  Lockdown and school closures have expanded the attainment gap.

Emerging from the devastating effects of the pandemic, our children and young people need opportunities to break free from the constraints they have endured. Residential outdoor learning enables young people to leave the pandemic behind by focusing on adventure and challenges while exploring the therapeutic value of meaningful connectedness with nature and the outdoors.  For those who bring young people to Centres every year, the reopening of Centres will be a tangible step to normalisation.

The Vision aims by 2022, to ensure that every single young person will have the opportunity to experience residential outdoor education and for it to be fully embedded in every young person’s journey growing up in Scotland.

By linking the immersive residential experience, along with other frequent outdoor experiences, young people will benefit from continuity and progression. From woodland nurseries, learning in school grounds and taking youth work outdoors, to residential experiences and expeditions in Scotland and abroad, all young people will engage in opportunities to be active outdoors, building on their achievements and learning in new contexts. That these individual experiences exist is not enough; the goal is that they are linked by continuity and progression through a young persons’ school career. 

Specialist outdoor educators create spaces for our children to build stronger relationships, develop resilience and re-imagine society that is stronger and fairer; one that truly values nature and our environment. All learners would be actively engaged in learning for sustainability through progressive, curriculum-led experiences.

As a result, young people and children will be healthier, happier, more confident, and more resilient. They will be better connected to nature, with better team work and communications skills. They will enjoy enhanced self-perception and self-belief, better physical and mental health, wellbeing and optimism. They will achieve and attain more and have improved life chances.

Others will benefit too.  Parents and carers will have confidence to embrace the benefits for their children and appreciate the opportunity for their children to spend time with people they trust as important steps toward independence.

Teachers will value the opportunities of young people transferring their school-based learning to other contexts and collaborate with specialist outdoor educators to support young people’s learning for attainment and achievement.

Business and Industry Leaders will recognise the potential of the immersive residential experience to develop the skills and qualities sought in the future workforce. They will value the emergent balance of social and environmental responsibility in economic development, as well as an increase in important employability skills and qualities among young people.

The Scottish Government will value residential experiences for the contribution they make in the delivery of educational and development outcomes for young people, as well as its contributions to multiple policy priority areas including health and wellbeing, mental health, sustainability, economic development and the environment.

The Government will create and oversee an architecture in Scotland that forges partnerships and makes full use of the resources available in the private, public and Third sectors to realise this Vision. Confusion over delivery agents and roles will dissipate in favour of commitment of all stakeholders to a shared vision.

There is already a great deal of support for the Vision. As evidenced by the thousands of responses to #saveyouroutdoorcentres campaign, the view of teachers, parents and carers, and many others, is emphatic – they highly value residentials and want them to return for young people as soon as it is safe to do so. 

This Vision for residential outdoor experiences in Scotland is ambitious for young people. It will be achieved with support from across society and produce lasting, positive changes. Young people will be empowered and motivated, to develop the qualities and skills that they will need to succeed in a scary world of great change.

An opportunity for immediate action is for stakeholders to register for the Online Event on Monday 15 March at 6.30–7.30pm, and join with speakers from all political parties and leading lights in the outdoors, in a celebration of the benefits of residential outdoor education. You can register at:

Another opportunity for action is for stakeholders to write to their MSPs and prospective Parliamentary candidates in the run up to the Election, to press them to explain what they and their parties will do to make the Vision a reality. 

As we emerge from the pandemic, there is still a lot of uncertainty. Yet one thing is clear – to put residential outdoor learning on a sustainable basis in Scotland, we must do things differently.  Collaboration between stakeholders from different backgrounds is a great source of innovation and the Vision process must realise this creative potential to make the Vision reality. Everyone with an interest in the importance and potential of the residential experience for young people will be welcome at the table.

Dave Spence is CEO of Scottish Outdoor Education Centres