Outdoor Learning – Part III: David vs. Goliath

IMG_4726After I came back from a 3-day camping trip in the great outdoors around Arrochar in April 2014, I was in the perfect mood to write about my experience with two outdoor education centres that we have visited in Loch Lomond and Trossachs National Park and along Gare Loch.

Both of them offer a great variety of outdoor activities to pupils from local schools. However, I could not avoid noticing the contrast in terms of their organisational structure and funding as well as their equipment and facilities. All of which reminded me of David and Goliath. Not necessarily fighting against each other, they still have to face challenges every outdoor educating centre has to deal with. The difference between both centres lies in their individual possibilities to “fight” those challenges.


So, who is David and who is Goliath, then?


Let’s look at the facts first. Jamie Miller, head of Dounans Centre, was willing to provide us with information and gave a short tour through the facilities.


Dounans Outdoor Education Centre lies within Loch Lomond and Trossachs National Park and is one of three Scottish Environmental and Outdoor Education Centres. Founded in 1939 the whole building site more or less remained the same over the years (not taking into account repairs and refurbishments). It provides space for as many as 250 people in wooden huts located on the vast centre-owned property. 10 staff members work for the centre permanently. During the high season in May and August/September they can increase the number of instructors through free-lancers and staff from the other two centres. They aim at providing a children-instructor-ratio of 1:12.

Dounans offers a variety of outdoor activities including high ropes, tree climbs, pole and buoy, canoeing and kayaking, archery, football and forest walks. What Jamie Miller did not mention were expeditions into the wild. Besides night navigation, camp craft and wild food collection (to name just a few from their booklet), the pupils can also gain their John Muir Award through building animal shelters or managing a biodiversity garden. It is quite puzzling why Jamie Miller forgot to mention these information when he was asked about environmental activities the centre provides. But I will talk about those later on.

The most important fact in my opinion is the funding and financing of the centre. Most of the pupils come from local schools where the parents usually pay for accommodation and the courses. Jamie Miller said that a typical 5-day-stay costs 200 pounds. Although this seems to be an adequate price, certainly not all parents can afford spending this amount of money.


Blairvadach Outdoor Education Centre on the other hand is funded by Glasgow Council. Therefore, most of the pupils come from Glasgow schools. Neil Wightwick, Centre Manager, said the cost for a week sums up to 380 pounds of which around half is subsidised by the Council. The parents then pay another 174 pounds for their children’s stay. Whenever a child is part of the school’s meal plan, the cost further reduces to only 74 pounds. Neil Wightwick also explained that the schools usually tried to make funds available for families who are not able to spend this amount of money, so to enable equal opportunities for all pupils to join.

Calum McKerral, Senior Instructor at Blairvadach, showed us around the property. All accommodation is found in the main building that provides room for 64 pupils. 12 full and part-time instructors work for the centre permanently, another 12 instructors work as free-lancers to support the team during high season. A children-instructor-ratio of 1:8 is usually offered for all activities including sailing, kayaking, mountain biking, climbing (on the centre-owned climbing wall) and hill walking.


The financing of the centres remains the most crucial part in determining the possibilities of outdoor learning for children. The fact that Blairvadach is funded by Glasgow Council gives it a huge advantage over Dounans. The amount and range of equipment at Blairvadach is outstanding considering the relatively small number of children that can be accommodated compared to Dounans where the number of kit is low, and parts of the equipment are only replaced when they are completely worn down. However, Neil Wightwick pointed out that the variety of kit (including water proofs and extra layers) was due to the financial background of the families (who sometimes cannot afford outdoor clothing for their children) rather than an excess of funds. The same applies to the laundry service offered at Blairvadach, as some children arrive at the centre with only one set of clothing.

Nevertheless, the existing drying room (for up to 60 sets of kit), the new climbing wall, the environmental lab with microscopes, several extra changing rooms and the huge number of kayaks, sailing boats and mountain bikes cannot be based on the families’ difficult financial situation. They rather show the quite comfortable situation the centre is in financially. Dounans on the other hand could not even maintain its environmental hub, as, so Jamie Miller, the floor fell out years ago and the centre was not able to repair it due to a lack of funds. This is quite frustrating considering that Dounans is SOEC’s first Eco Centre and according to their website “encourages all visitors to learn ways to reduce our impact on the environment”. How this is possible without even providing recycling on site, remains unclear.


With all this in mind, will David (Dounans) eventually lose the fight compared to Goliath’s (Blairvadach) superior strength? I got the impression that Dounans is in some way struggling with the current challenges. Although both centres try to cover their costs in between school terms through scout groups, university students and NCS participants visiting the camps, Blairvadach seems to gain the upper hand. Neil Wightwick explained what, in his point of view, were the main reasons for Blairvadach’s success:

  • the close proximity to Glasgow and its schools

  • the high qualification of their staff members (several 4/5 star kayak coaches are part of the team)

  • the focus on outdoor learning in Glasgow’s curriculum

  • the transfer of skills and experiences to local teachers to enhance further support for outdoor learning

How easily some of these advantages can change in a short period of time shows a worrying example from Birmingham. In 2014, Birmingham Council decided to hugely cut costs in outdoor learning by closing down 8 (!) outdoor education centres by July 2014. Without being sarcastic, the overconfidence that Neil Wightwick and Calum McKerral showed (though both were well aware of the impending risk) might quickly turn into disillusionment, if Glasgow Council decides to follow Birmingham’s example. Then, the question will come up how to maintain the costs of 380 pounds for a week’s course. Maybe David will end up being the winner after all.


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