When I think back to my school days, the rare outings and residential weekends away we enjoyed imprinted more on my memory than any spell in the classroom I can think of. I still recall finite details about a school camp on the moor some 20-odd years ago. Our teacher could name the constellations we spotted in the sky during our evening ramble. Inspired, I went straight home and learned them all. I doubt any representation in a book would have propelled me to do the same.
Despite an abundance of quality research extolling the benefits to children of outdoor and community-based learning, the Commons Schools Select Committee has reported a significant national decline in outdoor education. The situation today is that many schoolchildren are lucky to get out of the classroom just once a term. In light of this, the happenings at Dulverton Middle School for the past 11 years have been both inspiring and unusual. Here the children routinely learn out of the classroom in a variety of settings, thanks to the school’s unique ‘Exmoor Curriculum’.
Taught one afternoon a week and running alongside the National Curriculum, the Exmoor Curriculum is a programme of outdoor and environmental educational activities with a local twist. The specific emphasis is on embracing the immediate surroundings of Exmoor, its environment and community. It has been a manifest success. Ofsted gave it special praise, stating that it makes “a significant contribution to the personal development of pupils and provides opportunities for them to understand and use their immediate locality”. No other state school in the country offers a similar programme.
So how and why did this tiny middle school in West Somerset blaze such an innovative trail? Overall it has been the achievement of a number of passionate and pro-active individuals and groups, but a leading share of the credit must go to former head Steve Ford. Steve arrived at Dulverton in the late nineties and retired last year. Happily, I was put in touch with him by his long-time colleague and current Dulverton deputy head, Clive Goulty. The two both taught at Danesfield School in Williton in the 1980s, where they ran well-attended weekend camping clubs. They shared a belief that outdoor and practical experiences were indispensable to education.
Even in retirement, Steve is evidently still passionate about the Exmoor Curriculum. “What drove the idea?”, I asked him. “A number of beliefs came together,” he explained. “Children should know about where they come from and understand their environment. Also, the existing curriculum was very language and literacy based.” Steve felt that some young people had abilities in different areas which were not being catered for. He also knew that in order for children to apply knowledge to real life, it helps to give them a real-life learning experience, preferably within the surroundings of their own community, to make the lesson relevant. With Exmoor on the doorstep, it seemed that new learning opportunities were boundless. Steve was also aware that, as the smallest middle school in Somerset, Dulverton was vulnerable. “So I wanted school to be too good to miss,” he declared.
Steve immediately looked to Clive to start developing the new curriculum. Another former colleague and outdoor education expert, Allan Dyer, was also enlisted. By the time the Exmoor Curriculum was being taught Allan had retired but – excited by the concept – he came out of retirement to help develop and teach on the course. The school governors, having tremendous faith in Steve, enthusiastically supported the proposals. Exmoor National Park Authority was keen to offer its educational resources and helped establish a programme of activities. The key figure responsible for this task was the National Park
Authority’s Education Manager, Dave Gurnett. Dave was clearly eager to talk about the Exmoor Curriculum when I visited him at a sunny Exmoor House HQ in Dulverton. Dave is a former teacher turned National Park Ranger with cheerful energy and bona fide enthusiasm for outdoor education. “It was easy to find them places to go and things to do,” he told me. “We looked at where we could show them the practical implementation of conservation.” I asked him if he felt it would be within the scope of other schools to take up the lead and offer their own similar programmes.
Dave fervently believes this to be true; he commends the efforts of other Somerset schools he works with and offers succinctly: “People make things happen, you get the right combination of people and anything’s possible.”
‘Anything’s possible’ seems to be the theme. When health and safety fears meant schools up and down the country were shying away from school trips, Dulverton Middle School was busy obtaining its own Adventure Activities Licence. Now the pupils are engaged each week in a diverse range of activities encompassing conservation, water sports, first aid, community, local industry and local history. One year group even built a traditional roundhouse in the school grounds. “I took the children to an Iron-Age hillfort and they were thoroughly disappointed,” recalls Clive. “There wasn’t much there. No turrets!” he chuckled.
He asked them to try and imagine how the buildings might have looked and then explained how roundhouses were built, which prompted a boy to ask: “Can we build one then?” So they did. A 13ft roundhouse was erected over half a term, using locally-supplied saplings and traditional tools. That’s history, exercise, teamwork and woodcraft all rolled into one enjoyable, priceless, educational experience. No other state school in the country offers a similar programme.
By year 8, the various skills the children gain over the preceding four years are brought together and, dependent on their overall performance, they may graduate as ‘Junior Rangers’. With this accolade comes the right to wear a distinctive black Junior Ranger uniform to school. The Exmoor Society funds the ‘graduation’. The ongoing support which the school receives from the Exmoor Society cannot be underestimated.
Committed sponsors from the outset, the Society have announced in their spring newsletter that they will award £2,000 this year to help further develop the curriculum, acknowledging its role in promoting ‘important life skills and deep understanding of the Exmoor environment’.
There are more exciting times ahead too. Thanks to a grant from Exmoor National Park Authority’s Sustainable Development Fund, year 7 and 8 pupils will have the opportunity to gain a Vocational Related Qualification (VRQ) award in Land and Environment. Intended for those aged 14 and over, VRQs are not usually offered to middle school pupils. They know it can work, having already piloted a partial VRQ award in partnership with Somerset Rural Youth Project in 2008 – all the children passed.
The timetable is set. In the late-March week when I visited, year 5 were taking cycling proficiency training, year 6 were obtaining St John’s Ambulance Lifesaver Awards, year 7 were preparing tourism guide packs of the local area and year 8 were planning and mapping their own walk from Dulverton to Brushford and back again. Clive remains a fountain of ongoing ideas. He would like to see an equestrian element introduced and perhaps more local history. Current head Jeremy Weedon is exuberant about the Exmoor Curriculum, attendance targets are being exceeded and the children really do seem to want to come to school. He is also delighted to be gaining the VRQ accreditation. Clearly the reins are in keen hands. I left Dulverton feeling optimistic for their future and hopeful that their model will inspire others. Anything’s possible… this little school could be making big things happen for some time to come.