Family-run outdoor education centre launches Judicial Review on behalf of “forgotten” industry

A small family-run residential outdoor education centre has taken the government to task over its failure to include the industry in its Covid-19 exit roadmap, with the law firm JMW Solicitors launching a Judicial Review on its behalf.

Sara Holroyd, owner of Aylmerton Outdoor Education Centre says the government has forgotten the industry, repeatedly failing to set an opening date for outdoor educational visits, despite previous assurances. She says the poorest children will be hit the hardest as more centres join the 40% already forced out of business since March last year.

Aylmerton Outdoor Education Centre, based near Cromer, Norfolk, has been in business for 32 years, run by Sara’s parents before her. It provides residential trips for children; a large proportion of whom are from disadvantaged areas of the country - many have never walked in a field, seen a sheep or visited the beach. Children take part in activities relating to Science, Geography, Maths and PSHE, including bushcraft, orienteering, seal watching on Blakeney Point, beach walks, nature trails and animal spotting.

Represented by law firm JMW Solicitors, the Centre is seeking a Judicial Review of the failure of Gavin Williamson as Secretary of State for Education to provide a roadmap for the sector on the basis that the current failure to make a decision is irrational. The Centre has requested that Williamson make a decision by 19 March 2021 to enable schools to plan for the second half of the summer term and the first half of the Autumn term.

Without a decision, many outdoor education centres across the UK will be forced to close their doors for good, preventing the poorest children from enjoying these experiences.

Aylmerton saw its annual turnover collapse from £1million to £1,000 during 2020 but was able to survive and retain 23 staff, all of whom are furloughed, thanks to its strong performance in 2019. Many others didn’t have a strong financial base to fall back on and the industry is now fighting for its survival. A lot of centres are ineligible for government grants - while they were allowed to open, Covid rules meant that children were not able to visit.

“A lot of the schools that visit us are based in areas of significant deprivation”, Sara explained. “It’s often the first time that children have spent time in nature, visited a forest or even been on a beach. Spending time in nature has never been more important for children given the trauma of the past year and the huge toll on their mental health - it’s the children living in deprived areas who have suffered the most. We receive hundreds of letters from children telling us that their visit was the highlight of the year - it’s heartbreaking to think we might not be able to offer the same experiences to children in the future after 32 years of being able to make a difference.

“Because the ban on residential visits has been in force for more than a year, a whole cohort of disadvantaged children have already lost their opportunity forever - if a decision isn’t made quickly to allow schools to plan trips for the coming months, a further group of children will also lose out.”

Kate Kendal is Vice Principal at Peckover Primary School and has accompanied children on trips to Aylmerton for ten years: “The only words I can use to describe the experience it gives our children is life changing - coming from a very socially deprived area, many of the children have very limited life experiences and never get the opportunity to leave the town. I’ve watched children stand and stare in amazement when they see the sea for the first time. When they overcome a fear. When they see a cow or a sheep and look in awe and wonder at nature. I’m a firm believer of children not missing out because of their families’ situation or their postcodes - trips like these break down all the barriers life has dealt them and just allows them to be children.”

Sara said: “Residential centres like ours that can operate using school bubbles should be able to open for residential trips at the same time as hotels and hostels from 17 May 2021 and for day visits from 29 March 2021 in line with government guidance on out of school settings and holiday clubs - we have just been forgotten. We desperately need guidance that will allow schools to plan-ahead.

“At the moment, schools aren’t permitted to organise residential trips and we are very concerned that there is no current plan to permit such trips to take place - we fully understand the need to open safely but we need clarity on when this will end.”

Oliver Wright, Partner at JMW Solicitors, said: “It would be manifestly unfair that children whose parents can afford for them to stay during holiday times at such centres can attend them whilst deprived children who have no such good fortune cannot do so. Given the growing inequalities between children during the pandemic, the Government must recognise the need for all children to be able to experience outdoor education, which is likely to play a valuable part in their “catch up” and help their wellbeing and mental health.

“Government decisions have been made only on a partial understanding of the outdoor activities sector - they should be based upon an understanding that many centres can offer Covid security within school bubbles, and don’t involve “transient” populations. Currently, the groups that the government has liaised with are all large-scale organisations who have multiple schools on site sharing facilities at one time - yet Aylmerton and many other centres do not do this and so decisions are being made without adequate information or the variation in operations.

“If the current ban continues beyond 17 May 2021, the decision making of the Secretary of State would be irrational given that domestic hotels and hostels will be able to open, albeit with restrictions, after that date - this centre is significantly more Covid secure than hotels and hostels given the “school bubble” principle.”

The Government’s roadmap of 23 February 2021 made no mention of the outdoor educational sector - and while the STSSG expects the Department of Education to make a decision by 19 March 2021, similar assurances were also made and never materialised in August, September and November 2020, and February 2021.

The industry has previously attempted to draw attention to its plight, with the Save Outdoor Education campaign launched last year. This week, an open letter was addressed to Boris Johnson, signed by a range of high-profile signatories, urging the opening of outdoor residential centres.

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