A little perspective

Written by: HTU | Published:

The outdoor experiences on offer at Millbank Academy are a vital part of life at this inner city school. Principal Alyson Russen discusses why their residential visits are so important and how they go about organising them

I have been leading Millbank Academy for 20 years now. We are about as “inner city” as a school can be as we are based in central London behind the Tate Modern. Millbank has 450 students aged three to 11. We were previously a community school but in September 2012 joined Future Academies as a primary academy. We have no faith affiliation and 85 per cent of our students are bilingual, with 44 languages represented.

Despite being surrounded by prestigious London landmarks the majority of students are socially and economically deprived,with 52 per cent qualifying for free school meals. It’s an urban, tarmac environment with only two small areas of green space nearby, which in itself was a motivation for setting up and encouraging experiential outdoor learning. 

As we are barricaded by high rise buildings this physical environment is a metaphor for creating self-limiting beliefs. Without Millbank’s “outdoor” intervention I feel the concrete horizon would restrict our students’ overall vision in life, and they would have little knowledge or understanding of the world’s possibilities.

Many students arrive at our school from situations of conflict such as Afghanistan or Iraq, and have to invent a whole new way of being. Our school introduces these young learners to “Britishness” and they quickly learn about their new country, but they must also experience it to understand it. After all, these children will be shaping our country’s future, therefore it’s critical to experience the best the country can offer.

In an effort to offer our young learners an alternative perspective to their daily life and learning environment, I was determined to organise and put into place a high-quality programme of residential visits at Millbank. 

Since this programme was created I have seen time and again how our students gain in confidence once offered a dramatic new horizon in which to learn. As each year’s outdoor experience is designed to be incrementally more challenging, I have seen with this the increase in children’s results and other positive impacts. 

Year 3s attend a residential field study centre, year 4s travel by Tube to camp in Epping Forest where they erect tents and cook for themselves. Year 5s do an Outward Bound residential course and year 6s travel to France.

I love the British countryside but growing up I hadn’t experienced the great outdoors or participated in any Duke of Edinburgh Award type scheme. I envied this and wanted my students to have a natural/wilderness experience. 

It is not enough to let them simply look at the countryside. It is vital to immerse them into a natural environment where they can actively experience such things as sailing, rowing, gorge-scrambling and hiking. This affects a great change in young people. 

I went on our first residential trip in 2011 to the Lake District. When we arrived, my first memory is of one boy getting off the coach, looking around and saying “but there’s nothing here”. For him, at that moment, it was true. What he meant was that there was nothing he recognised.

It is not always easy to persuade ethnically diverse parents of the huge benefits of outdoor residential courses. Many are anxious to keep their children safe which, in their minds, means keeping them close. 

I have experienced parental resistance because residentials are simply alien experiences. Some parents believe it is neglectful to allow children to go away, becoming very anxious that bad things will happen. In fact the opposite is true – allowing children to manage risk and cope with new outdoor learning situations helps to ensure they grow into capable adults.

To gain parental consent we ask year 6 students and their parents to be ambassadors of the programme. We encourage year 5 students to discuss the residential programme with their parents because they have the ability – linguistically and technologically – to convince parents of the great opportunity available. In addition we hold a series of film presentations and meetings for parents and their children which are hosted by the school and staff from the residential centre who answer parents’ questions.

To engage the pupils, counting down to the residential programme we give them the opportunity to post their own questions into a Questions Box. On a weekly basis we then take out at random some of the questions asked by the students and answer these in group sessions. This helps focus them on the experience ahead and also answers any questions they might have which they think or feel are important. 

Questions vary from “what will be given to eat?”, “will I get a mobile phone reception?” through to “what do I need to take to wear?” In addition to the Questions Box we also actively encourage our young people to visit the residential centre’s website so they can familiarise themselves with the Lake District environment and its extremes of weather.

There is absolutely no doubt that these courses are transformational. One boy, the youngest of four brothers, had a particularly tough home life. His mother, a single parent, worked shifts and the older boys were invariably responsible for him. He had a “hang dog” expression during school and was difficult to connect with. 

During his time on the course he immediately settled into the experience, keeping his room pristine and taking pride in everything. His home difficulties meant he had already created successful coping strategies and the absence of stress gave him a freedom and autonomy not experienced before. His confidence and leadership skills grew as he began to offer others assistance, saying, “let me help with you with that”.

Another memory is of a Bangladeshi girl who’d been under pressure not to go on the residential. Quiet and shy, not a girl to push herself forward or raise her hand in class, she didn’t easily interact. However, once in the wilderness she showed a dogged, methodical determination to keep trying. Rock-climbing wasn’t going to defeat her! 

She blossomed, gained self-belief and started engaging more with teachers, instructors and her class mates. Holding her head high, she volunteered to participate in the final presentation on the last day.

These transformations and learning outcomes remain with our students once they return home and back to school. As they have faced and overcome some tough challenges during the programme and through their newly found or increased resilience and determination – we notice at school that their roles have changed within the group dynamic.

I am convinced that experiential outdoor learning is a fundamental part of our students’ time with our school. Young people spend approximately five or six hours daily in school for 190 days a year – that is a lot of desk-bound time. Giving children the opportunity, for an extended period, to move around and explore is no great cost to academic work. It’s these outdoor, tangible life experiences that they will remember.

Tips for schools considering an outdoor residential

  • Visit the outdoor centre in your own right and personally participate in the activities your students will be doing.
  • Invite representatives of the outdoor learning provider in to school to show students, parents and teachers what the centre offers using video and photographs. This helps students get a glimpse of the reality of their forthcoming residential experience. 
  • Build a strong relationship and collaborate closely with outdoor learning providers to fully understand their learning processes and how they work with teachers, parents and pupils to achieve the desired outcomes and objectives. 
  • Engage parents about course objectives. Effectively communicate the benefits to their son or daughter attending an outdoor learning course – improved confidence, team-building, developing resilience and raising self-esteem.

• Alyson Russen is principal of Millbank Academy in central London which works with the Outward Bound Trust on its residential visits to the Lake District.

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