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Proving the impact of outdoor learning on attainment: ‘Wilderness Schooling’

Research into the effectiveness of outdoor learning interventions has traditionally focused on ‘socio-emotional’ outcomes such as self-awareness, increasing confidence and self-esteem. For some, however, the ‘holy grail’ for a number of years has been to demonstrate a direct correlation between structured outdoor learning experiences and curricular attainment, a research gap also highlighted in the recent Blagrave report (2016). Small sample sizes, unique learning conditions and methodological issues have meant that this has been notoriously difficult to achieve, a fact reflected in the current Sutton Trust - EEF toolkit summary of Outdoor Adventure Learning.

Following a systematic review of studies into the effectiveness of outdoor learning, the Blagrave Report highlighted the fact that there were barely any studies that met accepted academic standards of rigour. As the outdoor learning field matures, researchers and practitioners are becoming more ‘joined-up’ in their methodologies and in the understanding of what is required for research to be deemed acceptable by policy makers. This study into the effects of a six-week ‘Wilderness Schooling’ outdoor learning programme for primary school children is significant because it uses a matched-group design that allows for comparison between programme and non-programme participants, a method that enables the intervention to be gauged on its own. By testing before, after and later again, the effects of the intervention have shown consistency in the results, clearly demonstrating a positive effect on the attainment levels of 8-11 year olds in English reading, writing and numeracy. However, the authors do warn though that a less rigorous approach to delivery may not have the same effect, and that the outcomes could be due to the structure of the programme rather than its content. Smaller group sizes, teacher charisma, a practical application of the curriculum and a different pedagogic approach, for example, could all be applied in a different, non-outdoor setting and potentially achieve the same effect.

Carrying out research that appears to deny some participants the opportunities that others get, while using methods more commonly found in medical trials, can sit uncomfortably with some practitioners. What this study shows, however, is that by carefully considering the way the programme is set up valuable evidence can be gathered that potentially leads to more opportunity for more people - the intervention works. Collaborations between practitioners and researchers, following agreed methodological standards have clear benefits in terms of outcomes, and this study should serve as a benchmark for further research.

Quibell, T., Charlton, J., and Law, J. (2017) 'Wilderness Schooling: A controlled trial of the impact of an outdoor education programme on attainment outcomes in primary school pupils' British Educational Research Journal. 43, 3. 572-587

Read the full paper

Dave Harvey
Dave Harvey is currently working with the IOL and studying for a PhD at the University of Cumbria looking at the reach, capacity and progression opportunities for outdoor learning. He can be contacted at

If you spot any new and interesting research you think would be of interest to the OL community, why not let us know? Email Carrie Hedges

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