Soapbox: Craig McCullough, Managing Director of Outdoor Concepts (NI)
So why is someone who manages a private outdoor adventure business writing an article AGAINST the decision of the Education Authority to close a number of outdoor centres in Northern Ireland? The answer is threefold…
- Greater participation in outdoor adventure will benefit both the public and private adventure sectors. A symbiotic relationship between public and private sectors works in everyone’s best interests. Clear and accurate information will empower and increase participation, ultimately benefiting the private sector.
- As someone who has worked across both public and private outdoor adventure sectors for over twenty years (as Managing Director, teacher, youth worker and instructor) I have seen first hand how children benefit from their adventure residential experience whilst at school.
- Many people have commented on how this decision is good news for those in the private outdoor adventure sector – nothing could be further from the truth. The reality is that the EA cap the amount of money available per young person per night for youth organisations for a residential experience and this is nowhere near the amount of money required if there is no public sector residential experiences available – the death knell of outdoor adventure in Northern Ireland.
There is no need for you to search online for the “benefits of outdoor education in children” because all of the research, from a myriad of countries all say the same thing – outdoor education boosts pupil development, welfare, engagement, motivation, creativity, problem-solving skills and overall wellbeing.
Not only are those people in charge of our education system in Northern Ireland closing our outdoor education centres, they are ensuring that our children no longer have access to the skills that are derived from outdoor learning and includes everything that society determines as valuable.
This decision needs scrutinised as a matter of urgency. At the very least the people making these decisions should have been brought before the Stormont Education Committee. There the people’s representatives, our MLAs, should be asking searching and extensive questions and we as the people should be watching and listening.
Civil servants can watch easily from their protected ivory towers as their decisions are ridiculed on social media. They can send out and receive consultation papers then ignore them. Various petitions and media outlets can create a voice for the people – all our civil servants need to do is wait and outlast before the next story comes along and all is forgotten.
When awkward questions are asked of this decision – these invisible people making the decisions take their time to produce their own vision in the “Moving Forward” document. With time and committees in abundance, any organisation could produce a document like this.
Put these same tinpot civil servants in front of the Education Committee at Stormont and ask them to justify their decisions and think on their feet in front of a televised audience – now we have proper scrutiny. They will realise that certain clips and soundbites from their answers will play over and over again on various media outlets. They can no longer remain in a state of privileged seclusion and ignore the people.
And so we see the lack of government and Stormont Executive impacting our lives again. In fact impacting the lives of our children. So what kind of questions should we, the people, be asking? Here are a few thoughts…
- These centres are public assets. The public clearly do not want to lose them. How can those in charge of public assets close these assets with such a lack of scrutiny?
- What are the financial implications of losing these centres? Yes, there are obviously costs in keeping them open, however there are clearly attributable costs in closing the centres – what are they and have they been analysed by the EA?
- The Moving Forward document speaks of moving outdoor provision to peripatetic services – could the EA outline how they intend to manage this service in the future? Considering that this peripatetic service will be the backbone of the EA’s outdoor programme what mistakes in the management of this service have been made to date and how do they intend to rectify these mistakes?
- With many major industries and companies around the world investing money for training in the outdoors; with Principals and senior teachers wholeheartedly against this decision – why have the EA gone against overwhelming evidence and expert opinion?
- Could the EA give a full explanation outlining the decision process to keep Delamont open as a centre and turn Killyleagh into an EOTAS Centre? Killyleagh is a secure site with direct water access. Delamont is an open centre that will need substantial funding to secure the grounds and it does not have direct access to water.
- The Moving Forward Document informs us that new strategic partnerships have been developed with Greenhill YMCA and Corrymeela – how have these partnerships been established? Could you outline and give evidence of meetings, minutes of meetings and those present during these meetings in order to bring about this partnership? What was involved in the tender process to bring these two particular centres to the fore in your thinking?
- Could you outline in detail those people involved in making these decisions? In particular could you highlight the outdoor education experts who were involved in the process?
- Was a business case ever put forward to keep the centres open? How did this business case compare with the proposal for closure? Or was there simply a desire for centre closure from the very start of this process?
Don’t get me wrong – I welcome change. And I think we all realise that we now live in a society where public finances are getting squeezed more and more – but let’s be clear, this is not a financial decision.
This is a time for visionaries. People who are passionate about designing stimulating programmes that get young people into the great outdoors and enjoying adventurous activities.
With new all-party talks now in progress and rumours of a deal possibly imminent at Stormont we await to see who could be the next Minister for Education. The lack of vision in the higher echelons of the Education Authority is clear to see, but a visionary minister? I’m not holding my breath.
Craig McCullough is Managing Director of Outdoor Concepts (NI) Ltd and with over 20 years experience in education and outdoor adventure is uniquely placed to comment on the current proposals to close a number of outdoor residential centres in Northern Ireland. Craig currently sits on the UK-wide AAIAC (Adventure Activities Industry Advisory Committee) – the sector’s lead body for adventure activities. All views are his own.