New research explores efficacy of expeditionary and outdoor learning – points to links between improvements in pupil-teacher relationships, positive character development and better achievement

New research into the impact of school field trips on students’ aptitudes for learning, indicates that certain types of ‘character development’ intervention can positively influence the quality of key student-to-teacher and student-to-student relationships. Moreover, the research suggests that the improvement of these relationships provides a more solid foundation for the development of both desirable characteristics and academic progress.

The research, from the Cambridge-based Relational Schools Foundation, and led by Dr Robert Loe, measured the quality of students’ relationships with their teachers and with one another, before and after a leadership development expedition. The findings suggest that the nature of the expedition – a week long programme for 10-16 year olds to Andorra run by the Challenger Multi-Academy Trust (MAT) as part of its Character Development Programme, and which involved team-building and survival-type activities as well as skiing and social events – had a very positive impact on relational quality.

It found that, after the leadership expedition, students felt they were more likely to be listened to and understood, more likely to feel acknowledged, appreciated and supported by their teachers, and that they could trust others in the class more than before. They were also more likely to feel their teachers had a fuller understanding and appreciation of their skills and talents. The teachers themselves reported having more respect for individual students, more of a sense of loyalty and commitment to them as a group, and more faith in their ability to overcome future challenges in their relationships with students.

Dr Loe, Director of Research and founder of the Relational Research Foundation, explains:

The premise of our hypothesis is simple but challenging. It is that true success in the development of positive characteristics as well as academic achievement and other things like community building, public service, and leadership – depends upon getting relationships right. This research shows how character strengths best express themselves through relationships, and are best developed in the context of healthy relationships. It indicates is that the types of activity Challenger students engaged with in Andorra, and which their schools build into their more routine curricula, create a good context for the development of those positive relationships, and therefore positive characteristics. It suggests that schools seeking to develop these vital attributes have to challenge the very concept of what a classroom is.

Schools in the Challenger MAT, supported by its sponsor, the Challenger Trust, have a distinctive focus on the development of essential character attributes, such as resilience, ambition, confidence and courage. Through their rich curricula, which include a high proportion of learning outside the classroom, Challenger schools aim to develop characteristics likely to help young people engage with the education system, raise their academic achievement and improve future employment opportunities. This is a key part of the Challenger Trust’s aim to improve social mobility.

The research report, together with a trailer for a forthcoming documentary on expeditionary learning by the Relational Schools Foundation, is being launched at a reception in London on 8 March 2017 at the Millbank Tower, London. Hosted by the Challenger Trust, the event will bring together practitioners, policy makers, researchers and others with an interest in improving social mobility through the development of positive characteristics in schools, and aims to raise funds so that more young people can benefit from its work.

Commenting on the event, Charlie Rigby, Chief Executive of the Challenger Trust, said: “For almost 20 years, the Challenger Trust has had the privilege of helping young people to make new beginnings. We have worked with over 100,000 young people in some of the most socio- and economically- challenged communities of the UK, improving their social mobility and inspiring them to achieve beyond their wildest expectations. Our sponsored school programmes aim to develop those character attributes that are essential for young people to engage with life-long learning, succeed in work, and live productive, healthy and happy lives. We work hard to ensure that no-one is excluded from attending an activity due to lack of financial resource, and rely on the generosity of our supporters. We hope that this excellent research, which we believe clearly demonstrates the positive impact of our approach, encourages more people to engage.”

Commenting on the forthcoming documentary film, a teaser for which will be shown at the event, Dr Loe said: “It reveals practitioners reflecting on what true classroom engagement feels like, exploring the impact of meeting students in new and challenging contexts and exploring what good relationships look and feel like. It also reveals how young people’s perceptions of their teachers and their own capacities as learners and human beings, change as a result of being led and leading others in challenging settings. With moving testimonies from individuals who have been given life-changing opportunities, we are sure the film will help Charlie and his colleagues gain the support they need to reach more young people with their work.”

Stephen Chamberlain, Chief Executive of the Challenger MAT from whose academies the children were drawn commented:

We are delighted that students of all ages from across our academies in Bedfordshire and Essex have had this unique opportunity to gain new learning experiences that have not only helped to develop aspects of their character in new and challenging environments and with students from a diverse range of backgrounds, but have also found greater motivation, resilience and determination in their approach to achieving excellence in their academic performance as well.



The Challenger Trust is a UK registered charity that has been working in some of the most socio- and economically- challenged areas of the UK for nearly 20 years, helping schools achieve more for less and giving them the capacity to run their own bespoke, structured programmes of character development. The Trust’s role is to commission, promote and evaluate successful and innovative character development programmes that will ultimately increase a young person’s social mobility and life chances. This is all strongly influenced by the Department for Education’s policy to encourage more ‘character education’ in every young person’s learning.

The Challenger Multi-Academy Trust was established in September 2015.  It is a DfE approved sponsor of seven primary and secondary schools in Essex and Bedfordshire and continues to grow in these two regions.  As well as aiming for high academic standards, the trust is committed to the development of character through the Challenger Diploma and social mobility through developing a new and rich curriculum experience for all students through ‘learning outside the classroom’.

The Relational Schools Foundation is a ‘research, think & do tank’, applying novel proprietary IP to the measurement of relationships in schools, and consulting on how to ‘fix’ them. Through its work since early 2014, RSF has proven its concept: Where positive relationships are nurtured and developed as part of a values-based relational strategy, schools improve student outcomes. Because the relationships played out in schools are seen later on in society, the vision of Relational Schools is to help overcome social inequality. This study has been completed using the Relational Proximity® Framework tool, licensed by Relational Research, Cambridge. The tool is now applied in education worldwide by the Relational Schools Foundation. It is defined as a measure of the distance in the relationship between two people or organisations. It determines how well each engages with the thinking, emotions and behaviour of the other. It is defined in terms of the five main domains which underlie all relationships, whether inter-personal or inter-organisational: communication, time, knowledge, power and purpose.


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