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Learning the importance of decision making and accepting responsibility through Outdoor Education

Head of Outdoor Education Duncan Curry explains why outdoor education plays such a crucial role at Bryanston and how it goes hand-in-hand with the challenges pupils face in everyday life… 

Just recently, someone complimented me for making ‘playing outdoors’ into a career. Although this was certainly never my intention at school, 14 years in the outdoor education sector have made me realise that it has indeed been the perfect choice for me. Over the years, I’ve been lucky enough to witness the transformation of many pupils, from nervous, shy first years into powerful and confident sixth-form leavers.

I have always been sure of the benefits of outdoor education and spending time in the natural environment, which include but are not limited to: enhanced personal and social communication skills, increased physical health, enhanced mental and spiritual health, and an improved ability to assert personal control. 

As a department, we believe that it’s often what happens outside the classroom that pupils remember most from their school days. That’s why we greatly value the outdoor education programme at Bryanston and work hard to ensure that pupils can transfer emotional strength gained during these activities and use their experiences to their advantage in meeting and overcoming the challenges they face in the classroom and everyday life. 

Whether it’s striving for higher grades, forging supportive and productive relationships with others or engaging with the world around us, outdoor education makes us all stronger, more resilient and more likely to achieve our full potential. 

In life we need role models. We can be taught the theory of action but until we see this in practice, we don’t fully understand what is required of us. Most of us are lucky enough to gather this information through our parents or siblings, but the older we get, the more challenging it is to find suitable role models. 

The best role models work even harder in their absence. For my own, I created two figures sitting on each shoulder, the first my university tutor, and the second my head of department in my first job. Climbing high above the ground in the Italian Dolomites, leading pupils at 5,000 metres in the Indian Himalaya, or balancing along a ridge in the Scottish Highlands, Lee and Rupert would keep me on track. If I was about to rush a dangerous move, or take a shortcut with my rope work, they would immediately put me in place. Their words would echo back to me from a lesson learnt in the past, ‘Take your time, check that knot, tread carefully, stop, turn back or move fast’. 

When I am asked what the best part of my job is, my answer is that I am able to work with the same pupils for five years whilst they are at Bryanston. This is a great deal of time to impart as much knowledge as possible and see significant developments. I now realise the important influence that a teacher can have on a young adult and I wonder how many shoulders I might now be sitting on? This is a powerful reality check and ensures that my lessons are succinct, clear and ultimately safe: perhaps the next time a pupil is tying into a rope, rather than having the luxury of a qualified instructor, they could be about to embark on a challenging adventure with a friend. 

The beauty of the outdoors is there are very few rules. The freedom found when exploring, either by foot, by boat or through climbing, is huge. I remember being asked on Snowdon what time the rangers would be shutting the paths. Of course, this would never happen. Sunrise or sunset on Snowdon, when the crowds have disappeared, is certainly the best time to appreciate the mountain. It would be wrong for paths to be shut because of the apparent risk. Outdoor education, or adventuring in the outdoors, is one of the few environments left to us where we have to think for ourselves and accept the responsibility. If you walk into Coire an t’Sneachda in the Scottish winter and on to Carn Etchachan, you had better have a map and a good awareness of tough navigation. There will be no one to help you on the featureless Cairngorm Plateau as the early night draws in and you need to find your way home. 

I believe outdoor education at Bryanston plays a crucial role in strengthening our pupils through their experiences. For young adults growing up in the present day, learning the importance of decision making and accepting responsibility for their own actions is a very valuable lesson. It is becoming more and more challenging to be allowed to make mistakes but only through our mistakes do we learn and develop. If a mistake can be made under a watchful eye, it can be a lesson learnt rather than one from which to run away. Once we have learnt these lessons under the guidance of a role model, we are then ready to experience them for ourselves.