The Power of Outdoor Education

Andrew Fisher

Head, Frensham Heights School

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Ruminations on how outdoor education has positively affected my own leadership style and my hopes to replicate the same for students.

Over the final week of January in the cold Surrey Hills, I took to the outdoors and camped in several unusual places around the school campus: hidden in the woods, right next to the car park, high on an exposed side of the theatre and in a suspended tent dangling from the high ropes course.  Why? To raise awareness and funds for a local charity, but on a higher level, to show that taking risks to support others is a great life lesson. Modelling behaviours, even those that are slightly more extreme, is one of the best ways to influence young people. Teaching is so much more than the ‘in classroom’ experience and outdoor education has always been an essential part of my life and educational career. So, my winter camping challenge was not just a personal adventure. By grabbing people’s attention, raising the profile of the school charity (Guildford-based charity The Fountain Centre) and raising over £10,000 in the process, I hope I have appealed to the imagination and intuition of my students and shown that leading comes in all shapes and sizes.

Testing equipment for my winter camping challenge.


My lifelong love of outdoor education began in 1977 when I attended Timbertop; Geelong Grammar’s year long outdoor centre in the Victorian highlands of Australia. Timbertop was established in 1953 and was largely modelled on the work of Kurt Hahn, founder of Gordonstoun. Still a mandatory experience for Year 9 at the grammar school, the students spend a year at the isolated rural campus following a unique blend of indoor and outdoor learning – with a strong emphasis on personal development. Here I learnt that I was stronger than I ever could have imagined, both physically and mentally. I learnt that I could plan and manage risk successfully.  Essentially, I learnt who I was, how I functioned and what I could achieve even when I thought it impossible. The experience had a resounding effect. Throughout my school career, I have continued to be part of outdoor education or when leading, have made it part of the school’s culture. Outdoor adventures have taught me an enormous amount about leadership, authenticity and trust. I can clearly remember the views from the mountains, the tears of rage from getting lost and the incredible freedom of walking with a few friends in true wilderness – the references back to those experiences remain strong even now, 47 years later.

Knoydart Peninsula in the Scottish Highlands.


At Frensham Heights, I have made sure that outdoor education is an intrinsic part of our curriculum, from Forest School in the early years through to incredibly challenging high-altitude expeditions for the older students. The programme for all activities begins with learning the specific skillset needed to prepare the students for their experiential learning – the real adventures. As their practical skills develop and their experiences widen, students develop massively in confidence, empathy, resilience, collaboration and communication. They take turns leading, running the budget, standing up and making critical decisions. Our main outcome is to develop the students’ self-confidence and sense of pride, their ability to step out of their comfort zones and not be afraid to make mistakes. To learn to deal with both success and failure and to get back up and try again each time. To be authentic and learn to trust, both themselves and others.

Frensham Heights students on expedition at Everest Base Camp; Year 9 student on expedition in the Peak District; and Year 7 students in the school agro-ecological kitchen garden.


Within our Year 7 and 8 curriculum, students are involved in our agro-ecological, regenerative kitchen garden. It is an interactive and animate learning resource designed to give students an awareness of the social reality of food production and an understanding of sustainability and biodiversity. Students are involved in all stages from planning, building and planting through to maintenance and harvesting. In the summer term, our Year 8 students build and run a self-sustaining village in the woods. They build their sleeping structures, work together to manage who will build the fire, who will keep it going, who will cook the food, who will clean up. During their time living in the village, the students jump far out of their modern comfort zones and the benefits in terms of resilience, self-reliance, teamwork, problem-solving, creative-thinking, independence, leadership (and the list goes on) are invaluable.

By the time they reach Year 12, many students are ready to go even further outside their comfort zones and everyday experience. They can apply to be part of the team which heads off to the Knoydart Foundation in Scotland every year. This is a true outdoor expedition with overnight sea kayaking, canyoning and trekking combined with community work and cultural immersion. Students fundraise for materials before they go, manage the budget for the duration of the trip and take it in turns to lead the team for the day – planning, assessing and managing risk – developing true leadership skills.

Frensham Heights Year 12 students canyoning in the Scottish Highlands


Self-knowledge and the willingness to be open about your own strengths and weaknesses, especially when you are the one leading, are essential. I have never held with the tags put on leadership styles but being an ‘authentic’ leader is probably as close to the truth as I have got. If you are open and lead by example, show fragility and strength, can manage risk but not be afraid and live with values and morality; then you can be both authentic and naturally bring others with you at the same time. This style of leadership allows those who doubt, or who are yet to lead themselves – to see and understand that truth and self-reflection are key. By being openly and honestly an authentic leader, one is ideally growing similar leaders for the future.

I hope that my winter camping will be memorable, will make some think about taking risks, and has raised the profile of The Fountain Centre. Perhaps, most importantly, I hope that in the years ahead my students of today will have grown into adults who think they too can take a risk and can show their authentic selves to others as they lead.


20 March 2024