Pupils at Gordonstoun take to the stage
Pupils at Gordonstoun take to the stage

There’s far more to school than being in class

Research by the University of Edinburgh suggests that learning experiences outside the classroom can have life-long benefits.

In recent years there has been growing debate about the value of out-of-classroom experiences designed to ‘build character’.

Some academics have questioned their long-term effectiveness since there are no school-based studies which follow the progress of the participants over time, until now.

The news has been welcomed by Gordonstoun School.

Dr Simon Beames, from the Moray House School of Education at the University of Edinburgh, carried out a unique study designed to deeply understand the lasting influences of out-of-classroom experiences, which have been part of Gordonstoun’s ‘broader curriculum’ for more than 80 years.

First, an online survey was completed by 1183 alumni and 235 parents of current students. Second, the main findings from the surveys were used to inform themes explored through focus group interviews with 100 students, 50 alumni, 30 parents of current students, and 22 staff members.

Dr Beames said: ‘The Gordonstoun research draws from a large pool of individuals who can explain how they have been influenced by these experiences over the long term, and identify the critical elements of those experiences.

Pupils at Gordonstoun take to the stage

‘We found that the long-term influences of these challenging experiences were overwhelmingly positive. Quite remarkably, students seemed to gain an enduring “give it a go” attitude that could be taken with them, and which helped them face challenges in later life.’

The survery showed 94% of respondents to the survey said that out-of- classroom learning experiences, such as expeditions, sailing and community service had an overwhelmingly positive influence on their personal growth. 74% said it had a positive influence on their career path, with many choosing to contribute to society through their career choice or by volunteering.

Dr Beames continued: ‘All schools can take something away from this study. Facilitating opportunities for students to take on positions of responsibility and care for others is vitally important and doesn’t cost a lot of money.

‘Every school, for example, can have students in charge of lost property, car and bicycle parking, organising school tours for prospective students and their parents, food and beverage distribution, and managing equipment and resources. Rotating through these kinds of leadership positions can breed an interdependent community that relies on its members serving each other. This kind of learning and growth, although very difficult to measure, is invaluable to students and to society.’

Former pupils said that out-of-classroom experiences:

· Built confidence and resilience;

· Instilled a sense of responsibility

· Broke down social and cultural barriers;

· Built vital skills, such as managing a team;

· Was a ‘growing up experience’.

Gordonstoun pupils enjoy the great outdoors

Olympic and World gold medal winning rower Heather Stanning, who is a former pupil, said: ‘It was the breadth of my experiences at Gordonstoun that taught me about the importance of teamwork, taking opportunities when they present themselves, and drawing on the support of people around you. These experiences have had a lasting impact on me and I Iearned to follow my ambitions, despite the hurdles in the way.’

Gordonstoun’s broad curriculum includes a programme of outdoor education for all students (including expeditions into the Scottish Highlands and learning how to sail), as well as engagement in service to the community (through nine different services, including operating two fire appliances which support the Scottish Fire and Rescue Service on call-outs) and taking on responsibility through a variety of school leadership roles.

At the core of Gordonstoun’s ethos is a firm belief that education is a preparation for life and that a school’s success must be judged not solely on its academic successes, but also on its students’ development as human beings.

Lisa Kerr, principal of Gordonstoun, said: ‘Education is not just about exam results. However, in recent years, the importance of building resilient, confident and responsible young adults has fallen off the radar.

‘Gordonstoun is uniquely positioned as the only school to have actually delivered character education for over 80 years and is therefore the only place that can carry out research to show that it works over time. We have a wealth of experience in this area and we hope others in the education sector find this research useful. Elements of our approach could work for them.’