County council are not looking to close outdoor education centres 'in any way, shape or form'
Councillors have sought to calm fears that outdoor learning centres used by thousands of Scarborough children could shut down.
A petition to protect the centres at East Barnby, near Whitby, and Bewerley Park, in Pateley Bridge, was launched last week and gathered more than 16,000 signatures in less than four days.
It was sparked by North Yorkshire County Council announcing that the financial impact of the pandemic and cost of maintaining the two residential sites had meant the current service had become unviable.
But at a meeting of the council’s executive on Tuesday, members ruled out mothballing the centres and vowed instead to seek to enhance and protect its outdoor education service.
Executive member for education Councillor Patrick Mulligan said some people had mistakenly taken the officers’ recommendation to mothball the centres as the first step towards closure.
He said: “We want to protect the service, we are not looking to end it in any way, shape or form.”
The executive approved an in-depth review of its outdoor learning centres after hearing glowing accounts from teachers about the huge beneficial impact school residential visits had on tens of thousands of children.
Teacher Ian Bloor, of Eskdale School in Whitby, described the centres where children take part in adventurous activities such as archery and abseiling, as the “jewel in the crown of the North Yorkshire education service”.
He told the meeting the centres offered many children activities that they would normally not have the chance or financial means to experience and teachers often saw a child develop more in a week’s visit to the centres than in a whole school year.
“For me, this is what education is all about,” said Mr Bloor.
“Inspiration, challenge, improving mental and physical wellbeing and instilling a sense of wonder in and respect for the natural world.”
The meeting heard how the centres, which had been forced to close their doors since last March, faced huge uncertainty as it remained unclear when their biggest income generator, school visits, would resume.
Councillors were told the centres had run at a small loss in recent years and after the Government’s emergency Covid-19 funding ended in the coming months the authority was forecasting a £1.6m loss for the coming year unless action was taken.
Councillor Mulligan said the council would examine a range of options for the service and its benefits, with a view to enabling it to generate more money and invest in the buildings, some of which date from the Second World War.
He said the review, set to conclude in the summer, would seek to balance staffing and buildings costs to give the centres a long-term future.
However, he warned the review would be “a bumpy road” as it would look at the amount of investment that would be needed to make the facilities suitable for the long-term.
The executive unanimously agreed to increase protection for the centres and start moves to reduce staff levels, including through redeployment, retaining sufficient expertise in the area but cutting the financial burden on the service.