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Camping tent on cliff at dusk

Need to do residential fieldwork on a tight budget? Go camping!

Teaching about coasts when you do not live anywhere near the coast has always been an issue in the schools I have taught in; for urban studies you can look out of the window or go for a walk but there is no way to easily bring the scale, might and wonder of coastlines to students in the inner city.  In London most of the students I taught had, at least, been to Brighton or Southend on the train for the day but I now work in Coventry less than 30 miles from the furthest point you can get in the UK from the sea.  For students in Coventry, the coast really isn’t part of their world.

This year we had another challenge on our hands - a new A Level specification with its changing fieldwork requirements (due to staffing shortages we had not been able to run the course the previous year) so we had to re-plan our fieldwork provision at Post-16.  This seemed the perfect opportunity to address the issue of teaching about coasts to students with no first hand experience of the seaside.  We would go to the seaside to undertake physical and human fieldwork in addition to the local studies we already did.  The abstract geomorphological processes we had drawn diagrams to explain, the photographs of coastal landforms we had looked at and the news reports about erosion and management would become a reality to be watched and appreciated by our students.  Their improved understanding of the coastal unit would support their revision and examination outcomes and they would have the opportunity to use the fieldwork techniques they had learnt in our school grounds to explore the geography of a new location. Beach profiling on a proper beach would be so much better than on the school field even if one side was an excellent representation of a shingle beach while the other was like a sand beach in summer.

Introducing coastal fieldwork seemed to be the answer to all our problems and I had been to Dorset on GCSE and A level fieldtrips and DofE expeditions while I worked in London more times than I could remember.  Except for the fact that we still lived about as far away from the sea as you can get in the UK and there was no budget so any costs would have to be minimal due to the demographic of our school’s catchment.  Using field centres or staying in youth hostels was going to be too expensive.  It was starting to look like it would be impossible until we found a solution.  We would go camping!

So in July 2018, our 7 Year 12 students and 3 teachers set off from Coventry on a Monday morning for 3 days of fieldwork in Dorset.  We looked at urban rebranding in Boscombe, profiled sand dunes in Studland, evaluated coastal manangement strategies in Swanage and tried not to get blown away overlooking Lulworth Cove and Durdle Door while I insisted on holding the Ordnance Survey maps out so they could identify all the places they could see.  It was classic geography fieldwork – with all the other groups of geography students we came across doing exactly the same things.

However, by camping we managed the entire trip for £75 per student and that included the great British seaside tradition of a fish and chip supper on the last night.  By camping the trip became about more than just the fieldwork.  Briefings for field locations were done sat round a map eating scrambled eggs on bread (no one had the patience to toast on the trangias) before we headed out.  Setting up camp, cooking meals, washing up and sitting round toasting marshmallows in the evening together made the students into a team.

It was an amazing 3 days and was probably the most enjoyable A level fieldtrip I had ever run.  Camping meant that we had complete control of what we did and when we did it.  Impromptu stops to take photos or eat ice cream could be made without worrying if we’d get back in time for our dinner slot. We could do a lot more ‘geography’ then I’d even fit into a 3 day trip before because we were entirely on our own schedule.  And most importantly, the students’ geographical understanding of coastal environments improved almost by the minute.  In fact, it went so well, the two teachers I took with me are planning to take 24 GCSE Geography students who have never seen the sea down to camp for one night in September and we hope to make this part of our provision every year.

What our students said:

"During the geography A Level field trip I not only learnt about the theory behind our course units and the field techniques required for coursework but also how close our class could become. The trip was a really great bonding experience, allowing our small group to become a team which was greatly enhanced by camping. My favourite day was the one collecting beach data at Swanage as it was nice to apply the knowledge we had learnt in the classroom to the real world. There were however downsides to the day, it was incredibly hot and carrying the equipment up the beach was hard work but we were encouraged forward by the prospect of fish and chips at the end!" (Louise - Student)

Fancy going camping for your next fieldwork residential?  Here’s how we did it and some tips for along the way:

  1. We used our school minibus, taking some of the seats out of the back to hold the equipment, which kept our transport costs down to diesel and a nominal wear and tear rate per mile.

  2. We found a campsite that is used to students on DofE expeditions and offers a reduced rate per student per night rather than having to pay standard per tent, vehicle and person rates.

  3. We run DofE at our school so we could borrow the tents, cooking equipment and roll mats.  The other equipment we took (chairs, tables, cutlery/crockery, etc) we begged, stole and borrowed from colleagues and families.  However, if your school does not have their own DofE equipment, find your nearest DofE coordinator (likely to be someone in the council) and they will point you in the direction of the nearest store you can hire equipment from.  If we had hired the tents, etc this would have cost £2.50 per student which could easily have been covered by buying one less drink in a café each when we were out and about.

  4. We have some fieldwork equipment of our own and borrowed the rest from the PE, Science and Maths departments – from tape measures and stop watches to clinometers, it is surprising what other departments have that you can borrow and use to fill the gaps in your equipment stock.

  5. We bought the dried and non-perishable foods from our local ‘discount’ supermarket before setting off and visited the same brand supermarket in Boscombe to buy fresh items for dinner.  Ice blocks could also be rented from our campsite.

  6. We decided to include having fish and chips in Swanage on the second night as we wanted to give the students the experience of being at the British seaside and it not just be about fieldwork.  This did add to our costs and we could have run the trip for approximately £5 less per student if we had cooked instead.

Laura-Jayne Ward, Whitley Academy