Blog: Expeditionary learning for low-income schoolchildren

Published: 23 Oct 2018

Author: Jon Clarke
Blog: Expeditionary learning for low-income schoolchildren

Children from low-income families are falling further behind their more affluent peers whilst they are at secondary school. That was the finding of a report by the Social Mobility Commission in 2017, which stated that even when low-income pupils outperform better-off children at primary school, they are often overtaken during the next phase of their education. The relationship between low income and low grades is especially pronounced for boys.

As the Shadow Headteacher of a large academy school in a deprived area of the West Midlands, this really concerns me. In 2016 I travelled to the USA on my Churchill Fellowship to visit schools utilising Expeditionary Learning, a philosophy of education based on the ideas of Kurt Hahn, founder of The Outward Bound Trust. It focuses on three core areas: mastery of knowledge and skills, character, and high-quality student work. The model is exemplified by project-based learning expeditions, where students engage in interdisciplinary, in-depth studies of compelling topics, in groups and in their communities.

Expeditionary Learning schools in inner cities across the USA are reaching attainment levels far higher than those achieved by neighbouring schools. On my travels, I witnessed a system that enabled young people from deprived inner-city areas not only to progress academically, but also to develop a sense of community and resilience.

When I returned to the UK, I decided to test whether what I’d learnt could be effective in my academy in the West Midlands. We identified a group of Year 10 boys, all of whom were from a disadvantaged area and all of whom had been high achievers at primary school. Then we took them to Ullswater in the Lake District for a week, removing them from their normal school environment.

Below: the adventure race in Ullswater

The adventure race in Ullswater

We spent the first two days developing the boys’ resilience and responses to failure, using Expeditionary Learning principles. Then came the adventure race. The boys were split into two crews and over the next two days travelled 38 miles together, paddling along lakes and crossing mountains. None of the boys could be passengers, they all had to work together as a team. What a way to develop their character and resilience!

The boys’ time together as a crew did not end there. On returning to the academy, they worked together to present their learning to their peers, their families and the community. The boys we worked with went on to achieve better results in their GCSEs than a random control group expected to achieve the same grades based on their Key Stage 2 scores.

We are now using our findings to support others in their quest to tackle the issues of under-achievement. The principles of our work have informed a course established by The Outward Bound Trust working in five schools in the West Midlands, and were cited in the Trust’s successful bid for an Education Endowment Foundation grant to research the impact of Adventure Education.

Below and top picture: Jon on the expedition to Everest Base Camp

Jon on the expedition to Everest Base Camp

I will continue to lead expeditions at my academy that develop pupils’ character and improve their ability to achieve academically. Last year I led the first State School Expedition to Everest Base Camp, and in 2019 I will lead a group to an altitude of 6,300 metres in the Himalayas.

My travels as a Churchill Fellow were a catalyst for change for me and for the young people I work with. I think the words of Kurt Hahn sum up the attitude that I now have, thanks to my Fellowship: “We are all better than we know; if only we can be brought to realise this, we may never again be prepared to settle for anything less.”

Apply for a Fellowship

Read Jon’s report

Report by the Social Mobility Commission: Low income pupils' progress at secondary school