This summer, as the hills and glens were thronged with more visitors than ever before, there were reports of much anti-social behaviour, from littering to campfire left smouldering, from verges used as toilets to trees being chopped down for firewood. Photographs on social media from harassed rangers left to clear up the crap led to much hand-wringing among the outdoors community (I include myself here) about a throwaway culture where tents are cheap and not worth the bother of taking down and woods can be used as open toilets because someone else will clear up the mess – that’s what happens on hols.

I think the general conclusion was that a bit of education would have helped – that we (the outdoors-loving community) had been lucky enough, as children, to have been taken out by our families or by the Scouts or other outdoor education bodies with adults who showed us how to light a safe campfire, how to build a shelter; and we didn’t just learn how to do it but why we do it, why it’s important. We learnt a respect for the countryside and a desire to leave it in the same state as we found it so we and others could continue to enjoy it.

So in a year which has generally been dripping with irony, it should have come as no surprise that the Scottish government should on the one hand bemoan the state the countryside was left in and on the other fail to support outdoor education centres, the main places where many children and young people get their first, sometimes their only, taste of the outdoors.  I should say here, yes it wasn’t just Scots causing the problems (just as it wasn’t just the English) and yes it wasn’t just young people – in fact not even mainly young people. But instilling a love of and respect for the outdoors is something which should be started with young people.

It must be hard to be in government. All those people clamouring for attention and wanting their concerns addressed. However, there are sometimes issues which to the average person seem to be no-brainers, and one is supporting outdoor education centres.

Outdoor education centres are not just places where children and young people get an adrenaline rush when they abseil, kayak or rock climb, they help build health and well-being. For the disadvantaged it can be first taste of the great outdoors and for all it is a chance to build confidence away from any pressures at home, or in the academic setting of schools.

In August the Scottish Government said councils could not allow school residential trips to take place until the spring term of 2021, and that they would not review it until December. That meant that without financial support many of these places would close. So far there has been none.

Re-opening schools has been a priority but not all of education has been given the same level of importance. Classroom activity is good but activity at outdoor education centres is also incredibly beneficial to children and young people. It might not lead directly to exams but that should not mean it is less relevant to a proper education. We are in danger of not seeing the wood for the trees. Schools become important not just because of education but because they are child-minders for parents needing to get back to work to kickstart the economy. And somewhere along the line, the education bit gets lost – it becomes about logistics; shunt the kids here so the parents can go there. But education isn’t just exams, it doesn’t have to be indoor, desk-bound learning. It is at the moment because we have made it so. But can we not take a step back and say what do we want our children to know, to have learned, to be able to do in 20 years and prioritise our education system around that?

None of us knows what kind of world is ahead for our young people – if we didn’t know it before, this year has most certainly taught us we don’t even know what the world will look like the following week. More than ever, our next generation need to be adaptable, flexible, resilient. They need to be problem-solvers, team players, they need to be able to think on their feet. They need to be able to care about our country and our world. 

However, even with outdoor centres, the amount of countryside education our children get is well below what should be the norm in a first world country. At my daughter’s state secondary only a handful get to do the Duke of Edinburgh Award scheme and local rangers now have to charge schools for courses (despite them working for the same council which is providing the children’s education). This reduces an introduction to the outdoors children are getting and reinforces the belief in them that exams are the only thing worth worrying about.

The Scottish Government said earlier this month it was “fully committed to supporting outdoor education providers”. So far, that appears to be untrue.

Please write to your MSP and the Scottish Government, and sign this petition to pressure the decision makes into making a decision.

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