This week I undertook some training with the Institute of Outdoor Learning, about socio-economic inequalities in the outdoors and then, later in the week, I watched the BBC’s The Adventure Show. This week really highlighted something I was subtly aware of, but is now under the spotlight.
In a nutshell, being a female who grew up in a poor area facing great socioeconomic deprivation and being a young carer at the time makes me a bit of an oddity in the field of outdoor learning.
As The Adventure Show shared this week, the outdoors have often been the realm of the affluent pale males. Outdoor equipment is often thought of as being fairly expensive and designed with men in mind.
If you are worried about putting food on the table, buying a waterproof jacket or walking boots is not even a choice for you, never mind a priority. If you are in poverty, you often do not want the world to see it; it can feel shameful. You want to keep your clothing and shoes clean, mud-free. Dirt can be shameful, a sign that you are poor. How many teachers or outdoor practitioners have heard a child say they do not want to get muddy or that their parent will be annoyed if they do? I know I have. And how many brush these thoughts off, not realising that those pristine white trainers might be the only trainers that children have and are not easily replaced? Do we stop to consider the cultural material messages they receive and how that can hamper a desire to engage in the outdoor environment?
Growing up, I was privileged. I may have grown up in what was the heroin capital of Europe, but my parents valued time outdoors. They would make sacrifices, sometimes major sacrifices, to ensure myself and my siblings got to go to school camp. Often this meant them getting into further debt. I remember the feeling of my heart sinking when I had to take that letter home to tell them about camp. I knew my parents would find a way, but I also understood it came at a price. If I hadn’t handed over the letter, though, I would have been in trouble.
You see, even now, more than 20 years on, unqualified people, who are more likely to be from areas of low socioeconomic backgrounds, are likely to earn significantly less than the rest of the population. An unqualified worker may earn as little as £220 per week, compared to the national average of £635 per week. This isn’t a lot if you are trying to bring up a family. This means many families are making the same difficult decisions as my parents had to, especially given as much as 17% of households live in relative poverty in the UK.
I was also lucky in that I went to a school that placed a huge emphasis on outdoor learning. As I said to a colleague recently, the chances of succeeding academically when attending that school were slim; university wasn’t talked about, so why shouldn’t they have put resources into outdoor learning.
This emphasis on outdoor learning helped us in so many ways. It helped us developed social and communication skills and increased our confidence. If you can throw yourself off a cliff with one of your classmates holding the rope that kept you safe, you could do anything! You can take that mindset back to school, and it can help your learning.
But still, the outdoors was not wholly accessible. We could canoe, ski, rock climb, abseil, cross country ski, enjoy orienteering and more, but these were the activities of the rich in their pleasure time, not for us. The equipment needed was expensive, so there was no way we could do these things. They were confined to school.
Of course, now we have clubs for all sorts of sports that allow people to borrow equipment for a tiny cost and even take them to places to enjoy these pursuits. But would I have gone to them had they existed back then? I will be honest and say I am not sure I would have. That would have taken a lot of confidence, and when you grow up in these areas, you often do not have that. Again, it goes back to being in poverty as feeling shameful. You do not want to go to a group of people you do not know, cap in hand, to borrow equipment. You forget everyone else there is doing the same.
There is also the issue of what you do not know; you cannot strive for. At school, we were never exposed to people from similar backgrounds who did well. We knew Duncan Strachan, ex Scotland football manager, went there (he was even painted on the wall of one of our classrooms!), but that was about it. We never really heard or met people who came from similar backgrounds who had achieved, never mind who worked in the outdoor industry.
If you have no role models, you do not know what you can aspire to. This is why careers events, mentoring, work experience etc., are all so important. They can open up the world and help a child or young person know the world is their oyster.
I have often shared the story that at high school, university was never talked about. Despite my dad having been a teacher, albeit one that took medical retirement at just 38, I didn’t think university was for me. It was something for the better off. It was not something I thought I could work towards. Thankfully, in my early 20’s, I had amazing bosses who believed in me and encouraged me to go back to study. What we don’t talk about or have exposure to, we simply cannot strive for.
So amongst all of that, how have I got into doing outdoor sports? Well, I have an awesome group of friends who have lent me their gear and encouraged me to try new activities. I wasn’t scared to try them as I was exposed to so many whilst at school. Buying secondhand equipment when I could help as did joining various clubs. We also have shops like Decathlon and Amazon, making outdoor equipment more affordable than it has ever been.
I believe each of us has a part to play in making the outdoors accessible to all. Because it simply should be accessible to all. The hills, lochs and mountains of Scotland should not solely be the domain of those who are better off financially. But what can we do to make this happen? It really isn’t a simple answer; I wish it were.
I believe each of us has a part to play. In my part, I have volunteered as a mentor at the school I went to. I have attended every careers day I have been invited to and continue to do so, even online! I have started talking about my story and my background. As a business, I keep our costs as low as possible while still earning enough to cover the running and staff costs. I engage with a wide range of people in professional dialogue. But I also think sharing my story is important. Sharing that the kid from the heroin capital of Europe who left school at 16 can and has achieved and loves working in outdoor learning has power.