A leading UK environmental education charity, which has a centre near Keswick, has called on the Prime Minister to allow overnight school residential trips to take place from the autumn.
The Field Studies Council, which operates the Blencathra Centre at Threlkeld, welcomes 150,000 school pupils each year to its network of residential centres, and lost £9.7 million of business overnight when it was forced to close all its sites in March due to the coronavirus lockdown.
Although the charity has acted quickly to make sure all its sites and accommodation are COVID-secure, its core revenue stream remains under threat because the Government is yet to provide a clear signal on when it might be able to resume overnight school provision and start delivering “vital” environmental education at its field centres, which also includes one at Grange-over-Sands.
The charity’s chief executive, Mark Castle said: “We have worked extremely hard to make all the changes needed to make our centres COVID-secure because the safely of our staff and visitors is our top priority.
“We have been round with the tape measure and reconfigured dormitories to take account of social distancing and we have carried out rigorous risk assessments at all centres and drawn up new protocols so we know we can open up and operate safely, but at the moment we are not being given the chance to do so.”
The charity was dealt a double blow when the Government released new school guidance stating that domestic trips could go ahead from autumn, but overnight stays could not.
On the same day, the Government’s Office of Qualifications and Examinations Regulation (Ofqual) announced proposals to remove huge chunks of fieldwork and practical science from the 2021 summer exams and assessments.
Mr Castle said: “In many ways the Government is actively encouraging outdoor education because it’s easier to maintain social distancing, reduces the risk of infection and improves wellbeing, but if the current restriction on overnight stays continues throughout the autumn and into next year, it will severely limit opportunities for young people to learn the practical science they need to develop skills for further study and employment.”
He has now appealed directly to the Prime Minister to rethink the guidance on residential school trips in a letter headed ‘Cut the Gordian Knot so this charity can get on with levelling up’.
“We have now reconfigured all our centres so that they are COVID-secure.
However, our core business, which is delivering curriculum-based courses where GCSE and A-level students come to us to develop their environmental and fieldwork skills, is dead in the water,” wrote Mr Castle.
“Two threats to our business were announced on the same day and we would like you to look again at school guidance for the autumn term and Ofqual’s proposal to remove large parts of fieldwork and practical science from 2021 exams and assessments.
“Residential trips play a vital role in levelling up and catching up. My staff know how to enthuse and motivate students disengaged from school, by reconnecting them with the real world and engaging all their senses after weeks of lockdown and digital learning.
“There is no substitute for the real thing. By providing extended time with their own teachers as well as our tutors the most disadvantaged learners can start to level up. Currently the guidance prevents these opportunities, even though we at the FSC can offer COVID-secure accommodation.
“Ofqual’s proposals risk depriving these learners of the very practical science and fieldwork skills needed for the Green Recovery Challenge Fund.
“Shovel-ready projects need shovel ready people. These clumsy proposals risks letting down this already disadvantaged cohort even further at a time when we need to be levelling up.”
The Field Studies Council has been providing outdoor learning opportunities for 75 years and during lockdown played a significant role in the national home schooling effort by providing free digital fieldwork lessons to more than 400,000 schoolchildren.
A number of its COVID-secure properties are currently being used to accommodate UK holidaymakers through the charity’s Stay With Us family breaks campaign.