The highlight of many thousands of children’s school careers looks set to be postponed indefinitely due to the Covid-19 pandemic.
Youngsters from some 133 North Yorkshire schools and numerous schools outside the county made residential visits in 2019 to the East Barnby and Bewerley Park Outdoor Learning Service centres, near Whitby and Pateley Bridge, respectively.
The centres, which claim to be “the UK’s greatest outdoor classroom”, have for decades offered an array of activities and experiences, such as abseiling and canoeing to generations of schoolchildren.
A report to North Yorkshire County Council’s executive states while many schools had indicated they hoped to visit the centres in the spring and summer terms, current guidance would prevent these from taking place.
The Outdoor Learning Service, which funds its £2.2m annual cost largely through charging for residential visits, was forced to close last March.
However, with annual staff costs of £1.5m it is facing a deficit of nearly £1m unless immediate action is taken to mothball the centres and cut its 42 staff, some of whom it is hoped can be redeployed to other council roles.
The report states: “The greatest impact is on children and young people having restricted access to the outdoors and outdoor learning opportunities.
Purposeful experiences in the outdoors can be a catalyst for powerful and memorable learning. Education visits advisers in the school improvement service will continue to work with schools on maximising the potential of learning outside the classroom – in the local area.”
The report to executive states it is expected there will be a time lag between an announcement of a change in government guidance and schools being able to undertake visits following planning with parents and staff.
It states: “The prospect of sufficient confirmed bookings of residential visits with numbers to produce a viable income for the service to balance its budget is unlikely to improve in the next financial year.
“When residential visits are permitted it is likely that risk mitigation measures will lead to much smaller sized cohorts accessing the residential centres at any time and this will significantly affect levels of income.”
Nevertheless, concerns have been raised that a large-scale investment will be needed to reopen the buildings at Bewerley Park as the structures there were built following the Second World War with an expected 20-year lifespan.
With the council facing having to make further cutbacks to balance its books and the outdoor education service not being one of its statutory responsibilities, the future of the centre is uncertain.
The authority’s executive member for education Councillor Patrick Mulligan said the service had been “left on its knees” by the Covid pandemic and deciding whether or not to mothball the centres would be tough.
He said: “Visits to these centres are something people treasure through their lives, but we’re haemorrhaging money and have got to find a short-term solution until we have a strategic review and see where that leads.”
The council’s leader, Councillor Carl Les added: “For many children it is a highlight of a school existence that they look back on with a great deal of affection. It is a very difficult decision.
“We will debate the issue, but it is a sad fact that we have facilities that are standing idle because children can’t use them and we have to protect the tax-payers money as well.”