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Should children get the right to free residential outdoor education?


Following the scrutiny of the Residential Outdoor Education (Wales) Bill by three Senedd Committees, Senedd Members will hold on a debate on the ‘general principles’ of this backbench Member Bill that was brought forward by Sam Rowlands MS following his success in a ballot. This article summarises some of the key issues which arose during Stage 1 scrutiny.

The Bill would place a legal duty on the Welsh Ministers to “take reasonable steps to ensure that a course of residential outdoor education is provided once, free of charge as part of the curriculum, to registered pupils at maintained schools” (those educated in schools maintained by a local authority in Wales). This proposed law would also create a legal duty for Welsh Ministers to provide funding to local authorities to enable them to do this. Our Bill Summary provides more detailed information on what it does.

Senedd Committee has no agreed view on the general principles

When Sam Rowlands MS introduced the Bill to the Senedd, he said:

This Bill is really about focusing on the opportunities for our young people, and there are huge amounts of evidence showing the outdoor education residentials offer significant opportunities for children and young people’s personal and social development.

He added that the Bill would establish residential outdoor education as an entitlement rather than an enrichment.

In its report, the Children, Young People and Education (CYPE) Committee said that although it unanimously agreed with the policy objectives, questions around the cost and implementation caused concern for some Members. However, the Committee’s report makes recommendations for potential amendments to the Bill if it does progress. Some of these proposed changes are summarised below.

Would residential outdoor education be compulsory?

On the whole, the Bill would make it compulsory to attend residential outdoor education because it becomes part of the Curriculum for Wales. However, a child could have this part of the Curriculum disapplied to them and therefore wouldn’t have to attend. It would create an opt-out rather than opt-in system.

The Bill inserts the provision for residential outdoor education into the Curriculum and Assessment (Wales) Act 2021 (“the 2021 Act”). However, the Bill also says that guidance issued by the Welsh Ministers “must provide that residential outdoor education is not compulsory to attend”.

The Welsh Government’s view was that these provisions are “inconsistent” because the legal effect of the Bill is to make residential outdoor education a compulsory part of the curriculum. Then Minister for Education and Welsh Language, Jeremy Miles MS told the CYPE Committee that “you can’t provide for something not to be compulsory through guidance” and “what the guidance says can’t change what the Bill does”.

Sam Rowlands MS made it clear that he “wouldn’t want to see it being compulsory for learners to attend” and said that “there are vehicles that currently exist within legislation to enable children to not have to undertake that”. The Member is referring to Section 42 of the 2021 Act. Regulations have been made under Section 42 allowing a headteacher to disapply elements of the curriculum for individual learners. However, Jeremy Miles MS called Section 42 a “blunt instrument for the job that the Bill requires it to do”.

Both the CYPE Committee and the Senedd’s Legislation, Justice and Constitution Committee recommended that, in order to meet Sam Rowlands’ policy intention of it not being compulsory, the Bill should be amended to include that it would not be mandatory to attend and a learner can opt-out without using the 2021 Act.

Who would be entitled to residential outdoor education?

The entitlement is only for registered pupils in maintained schools (those educated in schools maintained by a local authority in Wales). It doesn’t apply to those who are educated otherwise than at school (EOTAS): this includes children in pupil referral units and children who are electively home educated.

The Explanatory Memorandum (EM) for the Bill says that it “does not prevent children EOTAS from participating in residential outdoor education” but as the 2021 Act “sets different curriculum requirements for children EOTAS” that “this Bill follows suit”.

A range of stakeholders, including Estyn, the Children’s Commissioner for Wales and Parentkind, told the CYPE Committee that this was a gap in the Bill. The National Education Union (NEU) called it an “anomaly” and said that “some of those children are going to be the very children who would benefit from going”.

Sam Rowlands MS told the CYPE Committee that it was something he’s “grappled with” and recognised “that it’s an area that could be stronger”. The CYPE Committee recommended that he amends the Bill to widen the entitlement to include children EOTAS.

Is this new law affordable?

The Regulatory Impact Assessment (RIA), which forms part of the EM, estimates the average yearly cost of the Bill to be between £15 million and £19 million. The Welsh Government’s Draft Budget for 2024-25 is around £23.7 billion for the Education department.

The Finance Committee noted the current budgetary pressures facing the Welsh Government and the “significant level of funding required for this Bill”.

After looking at the evidence, the CYPE Committee’s report says that “at the heart of concerns about general principles of the Bill is the issue of financing and whether [the Bill] is currently affordable”. It also has concerns around whether “the Welsh Government should be tied to a financial commitment within legislation”. The Bill would place a duty on the Welsh Ministers to “pay a local authority an amount sufficient to enable functions […] in respect of residential outdoor education to be carried out”.

However, the Welsh Government said that the Bill “is simply not affordable” and would lead to prioritising funding for the provision of residential outdoor education over other areas which, it says, “will mean less funding in other priority areas in education”. Jeremy Miles MS said that the Bill “effectively [attaches] a level of priority to this element of funding that isn’t replicated across other funding requirements”.

Sam Rowlands MS told both the Legislation, Justice and Constitution Committee and the Finance Committee that the funding provision in the Bill is “unusual”. But he told the CYPE Committee that “there’s no obligation” for the “finance of this to come from the education budget”.

The CYPE Committee’s report asks Sam Rowlands MS to provide examples where legislation has placed a requirement on Ministers to fund a very specific type of activity.

What’s next?

The CYPE Committee’s recommendations can be found in its Stage 1 report. The recommendations made by the Finance Committee and Legislation Committee can be found in their reports. 

The Senedd will debate the general principles of the Bill and vote on whether it should proceed to the next stage on Wednesday 17 April. You can watch the debate on Senedd TV.

Article by Lucy Morgan, Senedd Research, Welsh Parliament

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