Outdoor education service mothballing ruled out by county council bosses

Bewerley Park. Photo: NYCC.

Leaders of a council facing a £1.6m shortfall over its much-loved outdoor education centres due to the pandemic have ruled out mothballing the service and instead will seek to enhance and protect it.

North Yorkshire County Council’s executive approved an in-depth review of its centres at East Barnby, near Whitby and Bewerley Park, Pateley Bridge, after hearing glowing accounts from teachers about the huge beneficial impact school residential visits had on tens of thousands of children.

Teacher Ian Bloor, of Eskdale School in Whitby, described the centres where children take part in adventurous activities such as archery and abseiling, as the “jewel in the crown of the North Yorkshire education service”.

He told the meeting the centres offered many children activities that they would normally not have the chance or financial means to experience and teachers often saw a child develop more in a week’s visit to the centres than in a whole school year.

Mr Bloor said: “For me, this is what education is all about. Inspiration, challenge, improving mental and physical wellbeing and instilling a sense of wonder in and respect for the natural world.

One headteacher told the executive a trip to the centres had become a rite of passage for children and was key to their personal development.

Pateley Bridge councillor Stanley Lumley said the Bewerley Park facility’s impact even people even returning to Nidderdale to live because of their experiences there.

The meeting heard some 16,000 people had signed a petition against the closure of the centres in less than a week and calls for the council to prepare to open the centres for day visits in the summer to offset some of the potential losses.

The meeting heard how the centres, which had been forced to close their doors since last March, faced huge uncertainty as it remained unclear when their biggest income generator, school visits, would resume.

Councillors were told the centres had run at a small loss in recent years and after the Government’s emergency Covid funding ended in the coming months the authority was forecasting a £1.6m loss for the coming year unless action was taken.

The authority’s executive member for education Councillor Patrick Mulligan said the council would examine a range of options for the service and its benefits, with a view to enabling it to generate more money and invest in the buildings, some of which date from the Second World War.

He said the review, set to conclude in the summer, would seek to balance staffing and buildings costs to give the centres a long-term future.

Cllr Mulligan said some people had mistakenly taken the officers’ recommendation to mothball the centres as the first step towards closure.

He said: “We want to protect the service, we are not looking to end it in any way, shape or form.”

However, he warned the review would be “a bumpy road” as it would look at the amount of investment that would be needed to make the facilities suitable for the long-term.

The executive unanimously agreed to increase protection for the centres and start moves to reduce staff levels, including through redeployment, retaining sufficient expertise in the area but cutting the financial burden on the service.