Julian Brazier: Outdoor residential centres are of huge importance to young people – but they are near closure

26 Oct

Sir Julian Brazier is a former Defence Minister, and was MP for Canterbury from 1987-2017.

Daily, every organ of the media carries concerns about parts of our economy and wider society which are in desperate straits from Covid. One group which has been largely forgotten, however, are the outdoor residential centres. These provide an opportunity for adventure and outside activity for young people, through schools, scout, guide and other youth groups and summer camps.

As a trustee of the Summer Camps Trust, I have had a briefing from our membership organisations, some of which are household names in the youth adventure sector. The picture is not just bleak, it is dire. The current ruling from the Department for Education is that residential outdoor centres cannot accept overnight bookings. Without some movement on Covid restrictions, the majority of the sector is at risk of closure.

This matters. When so many young people live an indoor life based around social media, when obesity, loneliness and mental illness are increasing, it is surely obvious that giving children and adolescents the opportunity to test themselves in the rugged outdoors and to develop teamwork, leadership and build lasting friendships is important.

In its 2018 report, the CBI commented on: “the central importance of a positive attitude and broader skills such as resilience, communication, problem-solving and aiming high both at work and in life.”

These are all central aspects of what youngsters gain through structured outdoor adventure. Yet in a letter to the Prime Minister, UK Outdoors says:

“Nearly 3000 jobs have already been lost and many outdoor education facilities have permanently closed as over £500m of revenue has been lost… If there is no change before the Spring term, half of outdoor education capacity will be lost permanently alongside over 10,000 jobs.”

Like other industries, such centres have been able to benefit from furlough payments and the sector has tried hard to stay on the front foot, encouraging day visits where practicable, and getting representatives into schools and youth clubs to drum up support for the future.

But this cannot last. Even after making valuable skilled staff redundant, the wage bill for the core has to be paid. Maintenance of buildings, often in exposed locations, cannot stop. This is a sector where margins have always been tight – nobody grows rich in it – so there is little fat to fall back on. The same restrictions are wrecking the cadet movement, preventing them from using either those same residential centres or MoD property.

So why is this happening? The most recent letter from the Department for Education to those raising concerns quotes the following advice for schools on residential educational visits:

“Public Health England has advised that the resumption of residential visits will unnecessarily increase the risk of transmission of the virus due to a number of factors, some of which are listed below:

  • increased social interaction of groups of children and adults outside of their established bubbles;
  • increased contact time with others in an indoor setting;
  • sharing bedroom facilities;
  • sharing of accommodation more broadly and close living arrangements (including sharing facilities such as canteens, showers and toilets); and
  • additional travel across country and the interaction with others that the children and adults accompanying them would not otherwise encounter.”

In practice, such advice has to be treated by schools as an instruction unless they wish to open themselves up to the risk of litigation on several fronts.

It is worth unpicking the factors listed. First of all, school groups, (the largest category) are already in bubbles and – despite some valiant efforts by many schools, it is geographically inescapable that the children mix more widely in their schools. They share “canteens, showers and toilets”. Nevertheless few organisations are as flexible – and have as much experience in managing risk – as outdoor residential centres – and most of their activities are, as the name suggests, outdoor.

The whole operation is far less disruptive to anti-Covid measures than our universities which – alone of European countries – are based on a model in where the vast majority of students study away from home. Six times a year, hundreds of thousands of young people travel across Britain to random locations, breaking up home bubbles to travel between campuses and home.

Even as someone who has called for a smaller, more local, university sector on this site, I recognise that to depart from this model in a Big Bang (with no end in sight) would bring our universities to their knees. Few students would pay £9,000 a year for online courses, and none would pay for university accommodation barred to them.

Are we really saying that hundreds of thousands of young people can move six times a year randomly, and yet that school children, who are less likely to pass on infections, cannot travel together from their schools to get an opportunity which for many is the only affordable way they will experience outdoor adventure?

A closer parallel group are boarding schools. As a Conservative, the politics of envy is the last thing I wish to promote, but can it be right that the children of better-off families continue to enjoy all the benefits of private residential education but those of less well-off parents are denied an opportunity to go away even once to see what the great outdoors has to offer? In practice boarding schools are using sensible mitigation measures just as residential centres are doing on their (sadly rare) day parties.

Allowing school groups back to residential centres will save many of them, but I feel bound to make the wider case. Cadet, Scout and Guide groups give huge opportunities to youngsters and the best social mixing of all is the traditional summer camps model, bringing children together from across the country and a range of backgrounds.

If we are going to continue to allow universities and boarding schools to continue, it is time we allowed the same for the struggling residential outdoor sector. Access to natural spaces for the most disadvantaged, those from low socioeconomic and some minority ethnic groups, has reduced dramatically since lockdown and these groups often only gain access through school and youth trips. The mental health of a generation has been affected. We need to see these centres reopen up if this is not to worsen.

Two MPs have raised this issue, my good friend, James Gray – with his expertise in Polar adventure – and the Liberal Democrat, Tim Farron, whose Cumbria constituency is a national centre for outdoor adventure. It is good news that the Government has committed to reviewing the guidance in November. Let us hope for a change of heart.