Being an advocate for our own practice and ‘fighting ‘ for FS in our own settings
by Jon Cree – Director of FSA

It has been an interesting last couple of years filled with contradictions, frustrations and joys, hopes and fears for Forest School and the planet! One of the contradictions that come to my mind is the seeming growth in this movement, in particular, Forest kindergartens, the common parlance that Forest School has become (it even got a mention I the government’s 25 year environment action plan) and its increase in our society, and yet there is a diminishing amount, seemingly, of ‘long term’ Forest School, many things get called Forest school that isn’t Forest School.

Such is this contradiction that it was with some trepidation that I approached the Worcestershire FSA group meeting last week – a first try at having one in deep midwinter that wasn’t a practical outdoors session being facilitated by Helen Fairest and myself for the first time! on the subject of ‘Making the case for Forest School – the evidence behind the practice’. What is the contradiction I hear you ask – well I know we have, like all over the country, some very dedicated practitioners who really ‘get’ Forest School but hands are tied and getting tied even more tightly with tightening school budgets, bite-sized learning, teaching to narrow outcomes etc, so they cannot deliver the ‘full fat’ Forest School! Also, we have increasingly disillusioned FS leaders in schools who see FS being used for PPA and not really being taken seriously, it is ‘cover’ for PPA. ARGGGHHHH!!. Hence this local FSA group evening.

It got me thinking big time about how we, the Forest School practitioners, are the experts and nobody else in the school/setting. However much other non-FS practitioners ‘get it’ we are the best equipped to stand up for Forest School. It really is up to us to stand in our FS wellies and be the advocates for this vitally important part of the setting’s education offer – it is down to us to persuade the setting to make Forest School the MWE (a Daniel Siegel term, well-known professor of psychiatry) ie me and us to make this an integral part of the setting. So how do we make the case? First of all, we need to know who we are making the case to and why – is it parents so they demand FS is taken seriously and ‘know’ why FS,?; is it colleagues so you can get allies, and why FS is so important and human support – singing from the same ‘FS sheet’?; is it headteacher to persuade them to incorporate into school development plan, resource it more; is it governors/managing committee (similar to headteacher)?; is it OFSTED to show how valuable this is for children’s learning, behaviour, and well-being (the last two rising up the OFSTED agenda)…the list can go on. What questions might these ‘stakeholders’ have for you? Can you summarise the benefits and why Forest School in a nutshell? And lastly, how do you know these benefits are ‘real’? I know in the FS training there is never enough time, and it would probably be too daunting for FS newbies, on how we advocate for this to all these different stakeholders..and often felt this is a ‘gap’.

How do we make the case? Most people will ask for evidence..this can come in all sorts of ways but the best form of evidence is from the effects on your own learners and your own learning – after all I still feel one of the most important learners in this FS community is the FS practitioner..if we don’t see ourselves as learners then we might as well look for another job! It is also so much easier to make an argument from your own point of view. Our observations of learners are probably the biggest convincer. While I know this takes time and energy to document it is very worthwhile. Obviously observations of everything is too much and so we need to hone in on things that are useful in order to plan for learners needs, passions, interests, learning and skill development, as well as those that may be more persuasive, at the moment emotional and mental health and well being plus behaviour indicators, are flavor of the day. So the trick is to both record the behaviours and learning that are most useful to you as an FS practitioner which will help you plan for the net session and progress learning and development but also use some measures that do quantify the benefits that will answer the questions being asked of you.

A good example of this is the case study written up by Emily Williams of Oxford Rd School in Reading on the knowledge part of the FSA website – see ‘Building Learning Power at Earthlings Forest School’. She used the Emotional Literacy Support Assistant measure to successfully make a case for extending the FS provision at the school and increase the length of the programme and extend it further through the school. There are also a number of tools that settings can use to establish their own well-being and emotional resilience ‘measures’ a few are outlined in the article on the 2017 conference ‘Well-being in the Woods’ and in the 2017 conference report.

In addition to this ammunition, it is always good to have up your sleeve some respected, reputable studies and evaluations of Forest School provision. One of the most recent studies and one of the few longitudinal studies were published last year looking at the provision in Wiltshire. This showed the effects of a 3-year programme on emotional well-being and academic attainment – see the piece in this weeks bulletin.

As practitioners, we need to find allies in this increasingly ‘pressured’ education system and persuade colleagues, parents and ‘management’ of the essential value of Forest School – to show how it can help create a healthy, purposeful, resourceful learning community. What better way than sharing with others some action research that can boost not only the learner’s self-esteem and emotional resilience but in the end ours – the Forest School practitioner’s. Indeed I certainly went away from last week’s Worcs FSA local group meeting buoyed knowing that there is this community of learning all dedicated to ‘standing up for Quality Forest School’.

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