Natural Connections Case Study – Combe Pafford School

Report to Combe Pafford School on the Natural Connections case-study visit on 11th May 2015

1. Introduction

We would like to extend our grateful thanks to the headteacher, staff and students at Combe Pafford School for making us so welcome and giving us an informative, interesting and enjoyable day. This document is a summary of the day’s findings.

2. Interviewees

During the day, we spoke to:

    • the Headteacher
    • the Assistant Head
    • four staff members
    • three students.

The purpose of our visit was to understand the extent and the range of learning outside the classroom activities and their impact on staff and students. Our findings are set out below.

Our attendance rate is amazing … And part of that is because kids like coming to school. I mean, children should be allowed to enjoy their school, shouldn’t they? (Headteacher)

3. School approach to LINE

Interviewees reported the following key points:

  • The school, which caters for students aged 8 – 19 with a range of special needs, aims to raise students’ aspirations and self-esteem, and to help them into employment; learning outside the classroom plays a large part in helping achieve these aims by giving students practical experience of the wider world.
  • The school ‘heavily subsidises’ residential stays, and four minibuses are available for local trips during the working week. Subsidies come from the school’s entrepreneurial activities and from the governors’ approval of a budgetary contribution.
  • Every student is offered the opportunity to take part in a residential each year. As students move up through the school, trips are arranged further afield, including to London, France, Belgium, China or Costa Rica.
  • Learning outside the classroom is seen as particularly helpful in supporting students to develop age-appropriate behaviour, for example through taking part in the Ten Tors Challenge.
  • A long-term aim is to introduce more curricular learning within the school grounds.
  • The Natural Connections project has been helpful with ideas about curricular learning outside, but sometimes teachers find it difficult to adapt these ideas to teaching at Combe Pafford School because of the students’ different learning needs.

 4. Overview of LINE activity

Combe Pafford School has a number of hard surface playgrounds (some with equipment and others without), a large field, an environmental area, an animal care area that has chickens, rabbits, guinea pigs and ferrets, and a number of different planting areas across the school. There is also a horticultural base at nearby Brunel Manor, where students grow plants in a polytunnel and in a number of raised beds. Future plans include working with the Dawlish Garden Trust to expand the environmental area to keep goats, enlarge the chicken run, clear the stream, improve the area’s potential for growing fruit and vegetables and build a new seating area for teaching outside. Lessons taken outside include horticulture, construction, animal care, music, science, maths, literacy and PE.

Off-site activities include: residential stays; sailing and kayaking; Ten Tors; walking to the local beach and/or Brunel woods for curricular learning; Forest School and pond dipping at Stover Park; visits to Dawlish Garden Centre, Dartmoor Zoo, the Donkey Sanctuary and Plymouth Aquarium; fishing and nature walks at Town Parks Fisheries; sixth form voluntary work with Coleton Fishacre; and work experience with Lower Sharpham Barton Farm.

When you’ve been outside, you can draw on proper experiences … You can say, ‘What colour were the leaves when we went outside? What did we find? What did we see? What did we hear?’ … there’s a lot more, a lot wider experience outdoors than indoors (Staff member)

5. Staff views on learning outside the classroom

Interviewed staff were highly enthusiastic about learning outside the classroom, and made the following points:

  • Clarity of purpose is essential when taking students outside: ‘There’s a big difference between a learning experience, and having a nice time … there’s nothing wrong with that, but we need to be clear about it. But what we mustn’t do is pretend that actually just by taking children out of the classroom they’re learning’.
  • Learning outside is considered to be ‘part of the curriculum’. Teachers plan their own learning activities, with ‘most’ staff going ‘outside whenever they can’.
  • Teaching outside can be highly fulfilling for teachers: ‘I think the enjoyment, for me, is seeing my class succeed outside, and seeing their self-esteem, and seeing the enjoyment that they’re getting’.
  • The school grounds can help teachers to prepare students for their lessons. For example: ‘we used to go outside and we used to run some laps around the playground … then go in the classroom, and generally they [students] were a little bit more ready to learn because they’ve had that bit of exercise and a bit of fresh air’.
  • Students use the school grounds for ‘learning breaks’ when they find they are unable to cope with classroom conditions. Being outside, often with the animals, helps them to release energy and/or relax: ‘when they come back inside, they are ready to learn’.
  • Students are encouraged to go out in all weathers; a grant from Natural Connections funded the purchase of some wet weather gear, so they ‘don’t ever have the excuse that they can’t go out’.

The more that you can put learning into context and in a practical sense, the deeper understanding they [students] will have, and the more they’ll be able to use that learning again (Staff member)

6. Challenges to LINE

Challenges were reported as:

  • Drawing a distinction between playing and learning outside, something children with behavioural difficulties can find it difficult to understand.
  • Bringing students back from trips on time for the end of the school day. This can sometimes be a ‘bit stressful’ as students’ taxis should not be kept waiting, and it ‘puts a limit on how far you can go, or maybe what you want to do on a trip’.
  • Teachers finding it difficult to incorporate learning outside into their curricular lessons. Some interviewees suggested more training would be helpful.
  • Lack of space as the school grounds have been built on; if the field is being used for PE, there are relatively few green places to go.
  • The national emphasis on examination results. This means that the number of outdoor activities for older students tends to be reduced.

7. Impact of LINE

Staff were keen to talk about the different impacts of learning outside for students, and made the following points.


  • Students ‘do get more excited outside … generally if they’re excited, they’re going to learn more’.
  • ‘Sometimes rather than just counting in the classroom, if you’re throwing up a beanbag and counting how many you can do, or a ball or a kite, it’s more meaningful … [Students are] more likely to remember if they’re enjoying it’.


  • ‘It’s so good for their [students’] speaking and listening and talking and everything. Children talk more naturally outside, I think’.
  • ‘Sometimes we’ll just sit in a circle as a class and take a rabbit out there. It’s just nice for getting conversations going … Animals are non-threatening to most of these children, and it definitely helps with their communication’.
  • Science is great, you can do loads of science activities outside. Sitting in a classroom looking at a worksheet is very boring … So it’s much better to actually go out and, maybe search for mini-beasts … And that helps with their speaking and listening and their overall awareness of the world.
  • Last year ‘we spent loads of time at the beach, because that was the best thing for developing their language, because they had experience of that … [Students’ writing afterwards was] hugely different and more inspired’.


  • From working outside, students ‘now have a lot more confidence; they can work together, they have a sense of achievement, and that’s brilliant for them’.
  • During a Forest School session, ‘we made a shelter. And it’s team work, encouraging the teamwork. I think that’s another thing outdoor learning does really help with, helping children to work together’.

Social and emotional development

  • ‘For my class their biggest needs are social and emotional difficulties. And that’s their biggest barrier to learning. And I think all these things, all the outdoor learning, the animals, they’ve helped to build their self-esteem and given them better understanding of things’.

8. Student views

Students were very helpful in their interviews, reporting that:

  •  They felt ‘happy’ when they went outside; ‘you get fresh air as well [which is] good for you’.
  • Sometimes they had maths and English classes outside, which was ‘good, because it’s more fun … you don’t have to be sat in a classroom which is stuffy’.
  • They all liked the animals.
  • One student particularly enjoyed Forest School: ‘we got to pick some flowers and we made hats out of them’. Making bracelets out of wood and a bee hotel were other high points of this time.
  • They all enjoyed the trips from school, mentioning in particular those to the Saxon Village, Costa Rica, Brunel woods and Slapton.

It’s more fun outside … because you get to look after animals … You get to do loads of experiments outside. We did a water rocket outside, and all of us got soaking wet! (Student)

Martin Gilchrist and Rowena Passy, Natural Connections Demonstration Project. Please contact Martin if you have any questions or comments.


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