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Transitioning into outdoor education: Chris Kerr’s story


02 Nov, 2020

Final Rank: Sub Unit Commander, Joint Operational Support Staff Officer, Senior Logistics Operational Officer and Officer Commanding Soldier
Years Served: 34 years

In his new role, Chris Kerr, 52, will use his extensive 34-year military background, which involved redesigning and delivering the Mental Resilience and Core Values training for new recruits, and successfully managing to rebase a major unit from mainland Europe to the UK.

Chris will be responsible for implementing Christ College’s range of programmes, including weekly training, camps, expeditions and the international summer school. The college boasts comprehensive outdoor education provision and has a long-established Combined Cadet Force and Duke of Edinburgh Award scheme. To coincide with Chris’s appointment, the new Beacons Challenge Programme has been introduced, designed to engage pupils in a series of challenging outdoor activities to improve physical and social development. The inaugural scheme will provide Year 4 to Year 12 students with multiple activity days throughout the year to help build self-reliance and self-confidence, and prepare attendees for life, during and post-education.

Says Chris, who is also a Mountain Rescue Team member, RFU level 2 rugby coach, American Basketball Association coach and a rock climbing supervisor in his spare time: ‘Outdoor activities were a large part of my time in the Army so to be joining Christ College as head of outdoor education seemed like the perfect fit. I’ve spent time engaging in a range of outdoor activities as well as teaching others so I’m really looking forward to putting the two together in my new role.’

Q&A with Chris

What’s your background?

I originate from Abercynon, Rhondda Cynon Taff, and joined the school after serving as both a soldier and officer in the British Army – a career that has seen me serve across the world and deploy on all major operations that the Army has been involved in over the last 30 years. I have served in appointments in the training environment, including officer training in Sandhurst, officer cadet training at the University Officer Training Corps and at the Army’s Recruit Training Centre. My final post in the Army was in Sennybridge, Brecon, where I managed the centre responsible for delivering adventure training to Army recruits. This package focused on developing the soldiers’ mental resilience and confidence using challenging activities in the outdoor environment.

What does your role involve?

My work at Christ College sees me using the outdoor environment to present our pupils with opportunities to challenge themselves, understand their strengths and weaknesses and how to work as part of a team to achieve a common goal. It involves working with the academic staff to exploit the opportunities presented locally in the National Park, to take learning outdoors and provide a programme that complements and enhances the curriculum. This starts at St Nicholas House (ages 7–11) and extends throughout the pupils’ time at the school, with the intent to give them the resilience, confidence and communication skills to be successful in whatever path they decide to take, post-education. I am also the Schools Staff Instructor (SSI) for the Combined Cadet Force (CCF). 

Your job title has lots of acronyms – what is a CCF SSI and what does it involve?

I’m just working them all out myself! The CCF is an organisation whose aim is to enable the development of personal responsibility, leadership and self-discipline. The CCF is an educational partnership between the school and the MoD, and our CCF here at Christ College includes Army and RAF sections. As the SSI it is my role to administer all aspects of the unit, and provide support, advice and training to the adult volunteers (teachers and school staff) who are vital in the delivery of the cadet training programme to the pupils.

What transferable skills are you hoping the pupils will develop via the outdoor education programme?

Challenging experiences outdoors impact powerfully upon a young person’s intellectual, physical, spiritual, social and moral development. Through being exposed to activities that will test their mental and physical robustness, pupils will not only learn a great deal about themselves but also how to support, encourage and empathise with others. This will serve to enhance our pupils’ social development as well as developing them physically and emotionally.

What background experience will you be able to impart to pupils?

Through my military career, I have experienced a host of challenging environments and difficult situations. I have learned that providing people with a ‘handrail’ or skill-set by which to apply judgement, you are more likely to be successful in achieving your aim or mission. I hope I am able to impart this experience to our pupils through challenging activity, underpinned by knowledge and reinforced through reflection. I also intend to develop a greater understanding of leadership in our pupils. The British military are world leaders in this area, and it is a topic that has an impact on most areas of our lives. 

Will the outdoor education programme be for senior pupils only? If so, what activities will the younger year groups be involved in?

Certainly not. Our aim is to introduce the younger year groups to the outdoors through various initiatives during term time. St Nicholas will continue to develop its Forest School programme and we will also introduce Outdoor Club – sessions that aim to give children positive experiences in order to make them more comfortable with the outdoor environment, themselves and the natural things around them. In doing so, I believe we can promote confidence, self-reliance, physical and mental robustness, problem-solving skills and courage. Coupling this with ‘bringing the classroom outdoors’ and relating activity to topics being covered in the syllabus is, I think, really exciting.

What does the outdoor education programme look like this year (bearing in mind COVID restrictions)?

It does of course have a serious impact on the type of activity and the number of students able to participate. I am currently working with the Duke of Edinburgh Award organisation to see what measures are required to allow our students already enrolled in the Bronze scheme to complete their expeditions, as well as plans for Year 10 pupils’ enrolment. We are currently running daily outdoor activity periods with Years 7–10, which involve team building, initiative and problem-solving sessions, and Forest School is being delivered at St Nicholas. Planning has started for the first of the Beacons Challenge events, currently scheduled for the end of the academic year and it is hoped that once we are able to take groups of pupils out in the local area, we can get some fun and challenging days in the programme.

What will the programme look like once restrictions are lifted?

The school year will be ‘bookended’ with the Beacons Challenge programme. This will see the school taking part in a number of challenging activities in the outdoors. Each year the pupils will see a steady increase in the complexity and challenge of events as they move into a new year group. Activities will be varied, but are likely to include climbing, gorge walking, paddle sports, including stand-up paddle boarding, hill walking and mountain biking. We also intend to ensure that the pupils gain an understanding and respect for the natural environment they are enjoying. Through these programmes we hope to gain a better understanding of what type of activities the pupils enjoy and then cater for these choices through the creation of school clubs. Finally, we will look to exploit any talent we uncover in our pupils, be that climbing, mountain biking or perhaps orienteering. We intend to create working relationships with local clubs and training centres to develop our pupils, should they have a desire and talent to do so.

CCB is located in the Brecon Beacons National Park. In what way will you be making sure the pupils make the most of it?

We sit on the banks of the Usk and at the foot of the Brecon Beacons. Some of the most stunning cave systems in the UK lie under the Black Mountain and we are a stone’s throw from challenging traditional and sport climbing venues. Our outdoor programme will utilise all the real estate on our doorstep while introducing the pupils to the stunning natural environment close by and providing an understanding of how we, as visitors, have an impact on it. 

Are you planning on working with any of the local outdoor activity centres?

Yes, we are. Until the school is in a position to fully deliver our extensive programme ourselves, we will need to utilise the services of a number of local providers. I am currently engaging with several centres to support our outdoor programme, with people and equipment. We are blessed with some excellent centres locally and I am confident that they will provide a great service.

Set within the Brecon Beacons National Park, Christ College is an independent co-educational boarding and day school, with 370 pupils on roll between the ages of seven to 18. To find out more, click here