Posted: Fri 19th Apr 2024

Senedd rejects legal requirement for residential outdoor education in schools

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MSs rejected calls to establish a legal requirement for residential outdoor education opportunities for children and young people in Wales’ schools.

The Senedd narrowly voted against the general principles of the residential outdoor education bill, which was introduced by the Conservatives’ Sam Rowlands.

Mr Rowlands said his bill would remove a postcode lottery in terms of access to residential outdoor education, so no child misses out due to their personal circumstances.

He explained that the bill would create an entitlement for all pupils in maintained schools to experience at least four nights of residential outdoor education free of charge.

The North Wales MS argued the bill would have a long-term net positive economic impact.

‘Financial barriers’

He warned: “Outdoor education residentials are valued by children, parents and teachers alike, yet, for those without the means to access them, they are, in fact, unattainable.

“I believe this is fundamentally wrong and this bill sets out to remove those financial barriers to participating in what can be life-changing experiences.”

Mr Rowlands, a former Conwy council leader, said the bill would support the long-term physical and mental health of young people.

Labour’s Buffy Williams outlined the education committee’s stage-one report on the bill, which raised concerns about some children and young people being excluded.

The newly elected committee chair pointed to the example of education other than at school, such as pupil referral units or those who are homeschooled.

‘Budgetary pressures’

Peredur Owen Griffiths, who chairs the finance committee, said the bill would require significant funding against a backdrop of Welsh Government budgetary pressures.

An impact assessment found the bill would cost between £74m and £96m over five years.

Sarah Murphy, the Labour MS for Bridgend, raised the legislation committee’s concerns about the lack of a definition of residential outdoor education in the bill.

Ms Murphy, who was elected chair in a knife-edge 28-29 vote on Tuesday, warned that the bill does not provide an appropriate mechanism for pupils to opt out.

‘Sad indictment’

Peter Fox said Monmouthshire council prioritised access to outdoor education while neighbouring councils withdrew support to make efficiency savings.

The former council leader said: “We rationalised our provision and maintained the offer, as we had seen the benefits of children for decades.”

Mr Fox told the chamber it is a sad indictment that the Senedd does not enable backbench legislation to progress, with no opposition bills agreed since 2016.

The Monmouth MS said: “Why don’t we allow these things to progress and see where they go? And if you can’t find a way through that, then things can be stopped in the future.

“Why always stop legislation before it has an opportunity to progress, to breathe and to really show what it has the potential to do?”

‘Equal opportunity’

Heledd Fychan, Plaid Cymru’s shadow education secretary, backed the bill’s core aim of ensuring equal opportunity for every child.

However, she highlighted the huge pressures already on school staff who often volunteer to help with residential outdoor education.

“They don’t receive any additional payment for this work,” she said. “They do it because they see the benefit for the children and young people in their care when they are in our schools.”

Carolyn Thomas, the Labour MS for North Wales, raised existing school budget pressures, with the bill estimated to cost about £20m a year to cover teachers, lodging and transport.

She said: “At a time when schools are having to face extremely difficult decisions, including redundancies, placing additional pressure on the education budget would be unthinkable.”

‘Already stretched’

Lynne Neagle raised concerns about the capacity of the outdoor education sector to meet the bill’s requirements on the Welsh language and additional learning needs provision.

Wales’ new education secretary warned the bill would require additional changes to terms and conditions of school staff, which could hamper recruitment and retention.

Ms Neagle said education unions and councils have significant concerns about the potential impact on an already stretched financial situation facing schools.

She told the chamber the bill would bind the Welsh Government to expressly fund residential outdoor education over and above any other aspect of Wales’ new curriculum.

The Senedd voted 25-26 against the bill following the debate on April 17, with opposition members outnumbered by the Welsh Government and Labour backbenchers.

By Chris Haines, ICNN Senedd reporter



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