The OWL Collaboration has taken flight – but it’s not too late to soar with us!

February 8, 2022


minute read
Victoria Edwards
Chief Executive, The Ernest Cook Trust

Remember when you first spread your wings?

Were you lucky enough to go on a group visit away from home as a child? I bet if you were – whether it was with the Brownies, Cubs, school or a youth group – you can still remember the excitement of spending hours outdoors discovering new places and activities with your friends.

Last year The Ernest Cook Trust launched The OWL Collaboration. The project was born out of the pandemic, so maybe we should have chosen a phoenix as its symbol, but OWL stands for Outdoor Week of Learning. It is aimed at helping schoolchildren by getting them outdoors for an immersive experience of learning.

Our bird starts to take flight

OWL started as a simple proposal to support farm and environmental based outdoor learning centres through the pandemic. Lack of income from visiting groups and fundraising events left many centres vulnerable to collapse. Centres had high costs of operation - animals still needed to be cared for – and limited opportunities to adapt to new income streams.

Our intention was simply to give grants to help centres. Then one centre manager said: “It’s really a short-term thing - if I knew we had groups booked in from the spring onwards, we could probably get by until then.”  

We checked with others and realised we were missing a trick. If cashflow was the main problem, perhaps we could forward-buy Outdoor Weeks of Learning for deserving groups to enjoy once the pandemic eased? It could be a sort of voucher scheme, with the centres getting the much-needed funds immediately and schools able to look forward to a future visit.

Ooh the anticipation!

That hopeful prospect was a crucial element to us: if you’re planning a holiday at the moment, you’ll recognise that anticipation is an important part of the experience. One school reported to us:

The children are so excited for this incredible opportunity - when I told them about the residential next year, some of them cried with excitement! Lots of them have never been outside of London and many have never spent a night away from home. The idea of being on a farm is the most incredible thing. One boy was still smiling today and said it was because he is looking forward to the November trip! Thank you so much for giving our children this unique opportunity.”

Releasing birds to take flight

During lockdown, how many of us winced at television footage of families in tower blocks, unable to enjoy more than an hour’s fresh air a day? A global crisis, or any debilitating event, does not spread its pain in equal measures.

If we were going to reach deserving communities, we needed to understand the full remit of factors that prevented schools from taking disadvantaged pupils away.

Using our own database of schools and our Outdoor Learning Officers, we set about researching the barriers, ranging from transport costs to cultural differences.

We are addressing those barriers. We’re adding extra funding - each school also gets a grant for transport and membership of the Council for Learning Outside the Classroom. Our own learning team is offering support to schools to prepare for the visit and to embed outdoor learning practices in the school on their return.

The OWL Collaboration can be likened to a flock of birds: we have learned that by flying together in formation we can reach our goals faster and more effectively

Victoria Edwards
Chief Executive, The Ernest Cook Trust

What makes a good flock?

And then the concept grew. If we’re going to buy weeks for lots of groups, can we research its impact? What does a really good Outdoor Week of Learning look like? All the centres offer something slightly different, but are there common threads that would really enhance the children’s experiences?

The OWL Collaboration can be likened to a flock of birds: we have learned that by flying together in formation we can reach our goals faster and more effectively.

An important part of the Collaboration is the Community of Practice established across the centres. So many individual centres around the UK work in isolation. The shared learning and support system that is developing from The OWL Collaboration is wonderful to see.  

We are underpinning the project with impact evaluation on the week of learning – measuring four pillars of impact: improved mental health and wellbeing, a stronger connection to nature, care and concern for the environment and better engagement with school.

Migrating the benefits

We have been operating for seven months now and have funded 830 children from 37 schools to visit an outdoor centre. The centres selected all have a particular focus on working with small groups of children who would benefit from therapeutic support and all are farming and environment based.  

So far, the Collaboration involves seven outdoor learning centres, but we need to expand. We need more centres throughout the UK. Funding more centres will enable us to fund more children.

We need to reach those schools who have never ventured on a residential visit. The difficult-to-reach schools with difficult-to-reach pupils will need more support and encouragement from the Ernest Cook Trust Learning team, so we’re growing our own team, ready to step in.  

“We went on an OWL just before Christmas with some of our most disadvantaged students. During their experience, they developed practical outdoor skills and their confidence and engagement since attending this trip has dramatically improved.  I firmly believe that interventions like this are an integral part of improving the lifechances of the most vulnerable in our society.” Head Teacher

The Ernest Cook Trust has provided £710,500 in direct grants to Schools and Outdoor Learning Centres and we will commit a further £2M to The OWL Collaboration over the next three years. The Dulverton Trust has joined us in the Collaboration and is funding transport and teacher training costs for the current visits.

Can your Trust or Foundation join us in this exciting new collaboration?  Do you already fund farm or environmental based outdoor learning centres that might benefit from the Community of Practice and rigorous impact evaluation that OWL entails?

Please get in touch. I promise not to Twitter on about it, but OWL really is soaring to great heights and we need you in our flock!

Get involved

Visit this collaboration opportunity on the Funders Collaborative Hub

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