Vulnerable students: The power of the great outdoors

Written by: Clare Stafford | Published:
Re-engagement: Students at Path Hill spend much of their time outdoors. Canoeing is a common activity (Image: Path Hill Outdoors)

The Charlie Waller Memorial Trust supports professionals working with young people who are especially vulnerable to mental health problems. In a new series, Clare Stafford talks to experts about how to support our most vulnerable pupils

With the launch of Creating Opportunity for All: Our vision for alternative provision (Department for Education, March 2018), the education secretary describes the government’s plans to “transform the lives of all children in AP, in a country where AP is truly recognised as an integral part of the education system”.

Evidence shows that some children and young people are more likely to develop mental health problems. They include – among many others – those living in poverty, looked after children, and those in contact with the youth justice system.
The very fact that a young person is attending AP tends to indicate they are in at least one of these groups and, of course, there is a complex dynamic between these vulnerabilities.

Mark Hillyer is co-director of Path Hill Outdoors in Berkshire, which offers AP for young people in an outside setting. He believes the outdoors has a crucial role to play for children who struggle in mainstream schools.

“The outdoors is at the very heart of our work,” he told me. “We find that for many young people who can’t manage a mainstream setting for whatever reason, outdoors is the most appropriate place to be.”

Who are the young people in AP?

There are many reasons the young people who go to Path Hill find life difficult in a mainstream classroom.
“A lot of them present with attachment issues,” explained Mr Hillyer. “They may have conditions such as autism, and a large number have chaotic backgrounds.

“A third of the young people on our re-engagement programmes are looked after children, so we see a wide range of mental health and emotional wellbeing issues. All our young people are in challenging situations which make the classroom environment hard for them and most have problems they experience as more pressing than academic studies.”

Almost all Path Hill students have a high degree of anxiety: “They are anxious about being in a classroom,” Mr Hillyer continued, “about being in an environment where there are lots of other people.

“Their anxiety may have manifested itself in meltdowns at school. Obviously if you have a class of 30 children and one of them constantly finds it so difficult that it turns into a traumatic event for them, that impacts on the rest of the class, and it becomes clear that the classroom is not the most appropriate environment for them at that point. They come to Path Hill still expressing those concerns and fears, and that’s where the outdoors comes in, and our gentle, one-to-one programme.”

The vital importance of being outdoors

Path Hill offers a wide variety of outdoor-related activities which many young people have not previously had the opportunity to try, including cooking outdoors, bushcraft, blacksmithing, woodwork and gardening.

“I can’t overstate how important I believe it is for some of these young people to be outside,” Mr Hillyer said. “We take a lot of care over our site and it’s full of yurts, tents, pods and nice places to sit. The outdoors provides a degree of freedom, anxiety-reduction, and positive engagement because it’s a wonderful, interesting place. It can enable children to challenge themselves: even if they’ve been reluctant to do that before, outdoors you can start with soft challenges and build up to things that help them think ‘wow, I’ve done that – I’ve succeeded in that’.”

“Take canoeing, for example. It’s a very gentle activity but for some young people it entails going on the water for the first time, overcoming the fear of water – and, if it’s a two-person canoe, trusting someone else. It also requires a journey and I always find journeys are adventurous; they start from somewhere, go somewhere else, and that’s the challenge – can you go further, can you canoe with other people?

“Cooking can also be introduced gradually – you can do a little toastie for yourself one day but build up to cooking a three-course meal for 10 people. That’s about introducing an activity that maybe hasn’t been done before, proving they can do it and giving a little more challenge each time until it becomes a social activity. And of course cooking and eating should be a social activity. These things actively help build students’ self-esteem because they’re learning to do things outside their comfort zone.

“Being outside also lends an element of excitement. In our society things like cooking over fires and being outdoors at night are not as commonplace as they were, so there’s an edge of adventure. We do these things all year round and actually I think it’s important for us all, not just the young people who come to Path Hill, to be more in tune with what’s going on outside.

"We insulate ourselves from our natural environment and yet it’s where we’ve evolved for hundreds of thousands of years. I’m convinced that if you work with young people outdoors you’re taking them back to where they belong; it can actually help them find a sense of belonging.”

Learning curve: A Path Hill student is pictured cutting out a weather vane, which is now in use on a Path Hill building, inset. (Image: Path Hill Outdoors)

Different ways of learning

Path Hill caters for a wide age range – their youngest student has been six, the oldest 19. The team (drawn from teaching, youth work and outdoor backgrounds) aims to help them transition to their next placement, which might be in mainstream education but is more often in a specialist environment.

They liaise closely with the staff at the new placement, sharing what they have discovered about what works for each individual student. With primary-age children, the goal is to help them transition within a year. For older children, the team has developed vocational approaches to help them prepare for work or college.

Allied to anxiety, one of the major issues faced by most young people at Path Hill is low self-esteem. As Mr Hillyer points out: “Low self-worth is common to nearly every student here. They’ve been in a system that hasn’t worked for them. They often feel they’re to blame and nothing will work for them. They’ve given up hope. So our job is to say to them, look, there are different ways of learning; there are different skills to be had and in fact you excel at this and this. I suppose ultimately we want to give them a bit of hope; we want to say there is a way forward for you.”

Helping give young people that hope can be a slow process. Practical activity is key, as is student-centred learning: “We very much base the work on students’ individual interests,” Mr Hillyer continued. So if a young person plays Minecraft for hours because that’s where they feel most comfortable, we’ll look at activities in the Minecraft game that can actually be done in the woods. That’s a relatively safe thing for them to do, psychologically speaking, and that’s where you start to engage them, encouraging them to share their skills and experiences and helping them build self-esteem.”

Although many Path Hill students are on one-to-one programmes, encouraging interaction is also key: “If you have autism, for example, and suffer from high anxiety, quite often you will not be exposed to social situations where you can learn to get on with other people. So we have a lot of activities where our young people cook for each other, nights out under the stars, and so on.”

Working with parents and carers

Mr Hillyer and his team are very aware that many students return home each day to difficult circumstances:

He explained: “We do what we can to counteract some of the pressures our students face at home and in their social situations, but we know these can be the overwhelming influences on a young person’s life and we have to be realistic about what we can achieve.

“There was a good example last year: each year we take a group of students to Sweden on a canoeing expedition. It’s often the first time they’ve flown, been abroad or been away from home for a week and one young lad last year said to me ‘I know now what it’s like to be happy’.

“He said it was the first time in two years he hadn’t been high on drugs so we thought, wow, we’ve made a big breakthrough here. When he went home, he got an Apprenticeship but it fell through and he went back to what he was doing previously – daily drug use, giving up on things.

“But this summer, a year later, his mum phoned me and said, ‘My son’s got a job now and he’s saving money to go abroad. He wants to go on another expedition and he’d like to see you to talk about it’.

“You can’t dictate where a child’s life will go but you can give them hope, a different perspective, help them build a memory bank that they can access when they’re ready to. You can help give them a better decision-making process and more options.”

Managing the daily transition to and from home is a challenging element of any AP. Working with parents and carers wherever possible is important, as Mr Hillyer explained: “We get very involved in some of our students’ home lives; because we monitor them a great deal and produce detailed reports, we know what’s going on in their daily lives. Sometimes as an alternative provider we can go to extra lengths.

“We have a daily staff debrief to talk about our day. Often there will have been disclosures from students about what’s going on in their lives, whether they’re in trouble with the police, what’s happening in their families.

“It gives us a better understanding of why they might be behaving the way they are because of the distress at home. Sometimes you can then get involved where there are supportive parents. Also, as an alternative provider we’re invited to meetings with other agencies – the police, social services and, of course, schools.

“Broadly speaking, parents and carers welcome our involvement. If we weren’t welcome they could easily say no – we’re not a statutory body that needs to be there. I get a lot of reports from parents saying my child’s a lot calmer at home now, or my child is happy every Tuesday evening because she’s coming to Path Hill on Wednesday. That’s a really big deal.

“Each student also has a debrief of sorts with their mentor for that day, completing a simple feedback check. It’s a way for students to reflect on their day, how they got on with instructors and other students. It generates conversations about what could have been done better. It might help them identify something that made them agitated or angry and how we can help them deal with it.”

A personal view

In the light of government plans to reform AP, what does Mr Hillyer feel are Path Hill’s most valuable lessons? “Let’s look at what young people need rather than what we think they should have,” he said.

“People can have success in their lives without academic qualifications. GCSEs in English and maths are great, but there are other qualities and skills that can be imparted to young people. For some, we need to be offering life opportunities rather than academic opportunities. For most young people, the mainstream system works but for some it doesn’t – we need a radical rethink about what’s important for them.”

The mainstream

Can elements of the Path Hill programme be applied in mainstream settings? Mr Hillyer suggests bearing the following in mind:

  • Using the outdoors is really important. If a young person is finding it hard to manage themselves, agreeing a safe place they can go outdoors is crucial.
  • Agree a signal where possible, that children who are struggling can give a teacher or teaching assistant that says “Help me, I’ve got to get out of here” and enable them to go to a safe space.
  • Have clear boundaries – around how you talk to people, or respecting the environment, for example.
  • Encourage physical activities, especially co-operative ones such as climbing or canoeing. Time and money are obviously key, but there are outdoor centres across the UK that offer these.
  • Clare Stafford is CEO of the Charlie Waller Memorial Trust, a charity that provides fully funded mental health training to schools. Visit

Further reading

The Charlie Waller Memorial Trust’s Stella Project has been working with professionals to provide mental health training in order to better support vulnerable learners. This series of articles is part of the legacy the year-long project hopes to leave. For more information, see The Stella Project: Supporting vulnerable learners, SecEd, February 2018:


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