Students qualify for innovative Forest and Outdoor Learning Award 

25 November 2021

This week, the first class completed Cyrenian’s new Forest and Outdoor Learning Award course, an accredited qualification at SCQF Level 4 providing students with a hands-on grounding in outdoor work skills, including forestry, farming and woodworking. 

The course, which is aimed at providing young people who have left the school system with an alternative route to learning, takes a practical approach, with trainers working one-on-one with small groups. As well as learning about forest ecology and land management, participants are given the opportunity to gain First Aid at Work certification, and receive direct support with CV and employability skills. The focus is not only on practical skills, but also on building understanding of and engagement with ideas and systems for sustainability, environmentalism and ecology.

The four young women receiving their certificates today are all aged 16-24 and have earned their qualification over a nine-week course, taking part in hands-on learning in the woodland, growing tunnels and orchards of the Cyrenians Farm in Wilkieston, West Lothian. When they have completed the course, they will continue to be supported directly by the Farm team, with the course being followed up with a minimum of a year of ongoing support and checkins.  

Like most of the Farm’s training work, the course is aimed at those who have been left behind in the conventional school system, with most participants either having left school, been made to leave, or having struggled to thrive in poorly-fitting teaching approaches. The FOLA training introduces them to the outdoors in a way that lets them set the pace of their own learning and helps them experience the outdoors as exciting, stimulating and relevant to their lives. Participants who have been labelled as disruptive, disengaged or unable to pay attention in school have become active, questioning and laughing individuals on this participative, learner-led course. 

The course offers a chance to try out many skills and areas of work that are often only open to people who either have existing connections in rural communities or are able to access formal academic qualifications. Given the chance, participants have dived in enthusiastically – one student has already signed up for the Farm’s regular woodcraft sessions, which explore forestry and woodwork skills. For many, this is their first opportunity to really engage with nature and the world around them. Training coordinator Sam Gardiner said, 

“The time at the farm is often the start of lots of peoples' relationship with the outdoors, becoming 'aware' and coming to value it because they like it.” 

“Participants have responded remarkably to simply being outside in all weathers, interacting with animals and being in an environment that is so totally different from what they know. I hear countless quotes about 'wanting to work at a place like this' or that they 'didn't know stuff like this existed' or 'didn't think I'd like this.’  

“We see participants commenting and encouraging their peers to respect nature - picking up their rubbish, being kind to creatures, wanting to look after trees and spend more time outdoors. Many are now looking to gain experience and work in the land based sector, deepening their relationship with nature.” 

“I've seen so many 'lightbulb' moments in our participants. Whether it's seeing an egg being laid or making a fire for the first time, I'm witnessing hugely formative life experiences.” 

Sam hopes that this cohort will represent the first step in broadening the opportunities available to those supported on the Farm. For almost half a decade, the Farm has offered many different forms of learning and support, working with individuals and groups to unlock potential, grow confidence and develop skills so that people can move on positively and learn in a space that meets their specific needs. However, this course, funded as part of the HYPE scheme, is the first of what he hopes will be many opportunities to earn accredited qualifications through practical learning. Sam said, 

“The types of outdoor awards that are often available to young people – things like the John Muir award – are brilliant, but they have a limited benefit when it comes to getting into work. Very often, the only way to build up employability past a certain point is to go to college or university and sit down to study forestry or farming or land management, and that’s a model of learning that just isn't accessible to everyone."

“Being able to work towards fully accredited qualifications like FOLA with a ‘learning through doing’ approach opens up careers and interests that otherwise wouldn’t be accessible to most of the people we’re working with.” 

The FOLA scheme, which is currently unique to Scotland, has also garnered UK-wide attention, with the Farm and other course providers feeding into conversations in Wales and England on the potential to adopt similar models. With success in these early stages of the programme, the Cyrenians Farm team are working to develop the reach, effectiveness and scope of the FOLA scheme. Sam hopes that future cohorts will have access to non-classroom-based courses up to the equivalent of a Higher qualification, or even further.  

Broadening access to outdoor skills and career paths for those excluded from conventional entry points is not just a benefit to the wellbeing and prospects of those directly supported - with more people being able to access fulfilling and supported careers in farming, forestry and other rural work, we will all benefit.

People who have previously been unable to access many rural jobs are, through programmes like FOLA, finding their passion and developing a nuanced understanding of sustainable land management, organic farming, and ecologically sound approaches. Opening up opportunities for passionate, committed outdoor workers will be vital in filling the ‘green jobs’ at the heart of Scotland’s climate strategy, and in maintaining the biodiversity and productivity of Scotland’s green spaces for generations to come.

Huge congratulations to our first cohort of FOLA students! They have worked really hard over the past nine weeks to earn their qualification, and we look forward to being there to support them in their next steps.