The nature and impact of Gordonstoun School’s out-of-classroom learning experiences

  • Simon Beames (Creator)
  • Chris Mackie (Researcher)
  • Jenni Hume (Researcher)
  • Roger Scrutton (Researcher)
  • Sabine Richards (Funder)



This report outlines the rationale, aims, methodology, findings and recommendations from a six-month, multi- methods study. In the study, the nature and impact of Gordonstoun School’s out-of-classroom learning experiences was investigated.


Over the course of Gordonstoun’s history, countless items of anecdotal evidence have been gathered which attest to the power and influence of its Sail training, Outdoor education, Services, Sports, and after-school Activities. There has not been, however, a comprehensive interrogation of Gordonstoun’s ‘broader curriculum’ conducted by an independent third party. The research explained in this report was commissioned by Gordonstoun to address this gap. The investigation was conducted by The Moray House School of Education from the University of Edinburgh.
Discussions between the research team and Gordonstoun staff highlighted two principal aims for the study. First, to understand current students’, Old Gordonstounians’, current students’ parents’ and staffs’ perceived outcomes of the non-academic aspects of required school activities, such as Outdoor education, Sail training voyages, Services, and the Arts. Second, to understand the critical elements of these out-of-class experiences and the ways in which they influence the students.
Addressing the above aims involved collecting data through three principal methods. The first was through online surveys of Old Gordonstounians (n=1183) and the parents of current students (n=235). The main findings from
the surveys were partly used to inform the themes that were explored through focus group interviews with students (n=100), Old Gordonstounians (n=50), current parents (n=30), and staff (n=22). Ethnographic data were collected through observations and conversations from 10 days spent on site, an analysis of 150 Expedition review sheets, and an examination of 20 student blogs. Rigorous analysis yielded key findings for each of the nine specific pools of data that were generated. These findings, and the relationships between them, were then further scrutinised and ultimately categorised under three principal headings: participant outcomes, critical elements of the experiences, and issues to consider.
When single elements of Gordonstoun’s broader curriculum are considered together, it is unquestionable that
they provide a powerful mix of novel and challenging experiences that demand high levels of resolve in order to overcome. The enculturated expectation that students will ‘give it a go’ in the face of adversity, despite initially lacking expertise, appears to be a critical element common to experiences reported as being powerful. Experiences, positions of responsibility, and activities that are perceived to have clear educational, developmental, and societal aims are valued highest by students. On the other hand, those activities seen as fillers to create ‘busy time’ are not.
Based on these two dominant themes, it is arguable that Sail training and Expeditions, which are key out-of- classroom activities offered by Gordonstoun, are central to achieving the school’s aims. Services are also a mainstay, but a blanket endorsement cannot be made, as it is clear that there is a wide variety of Services on offer, which are resourced unequally and valued differently by students. While not a dominant theme, it is important to highlight
the positive regard in which both required and optional performing arts are held by students, parents, and Old Gordonstounians. Indeed, they share the same requirement to ‘give it a go’ in front of supportive classmates that some outdoor education experiences provide.
Conversely, the purpose, content, structure, and time commitment associated with after-school Activity sessions, Sports, and Seamanship all merit critical inquiry. The tension between, and management of, the demanding timetable of non-academic activities, as well as the high expectations of academic attainment and university entrance warrants attention. While presenting students with varied opportunities to take responsibility for oneself and their schoolmates, some senior students interviewed identified a disjuncture between the responsibility they were required to take in some areas and the lack of responsibility afforded them in others.
The above critiques and recommendations should not obscure the vital roles that Gordonstoun’s out-of-classroom learning experiences play in achieving its educational, developmental and societal aims. For the most part, the broader curriculum is fit for purpose. However, it is arguable that specific aspects of it are not. Considering the
key issues in this report and making revisions would allow for the broader curriculum to be delivered in a more purposeful, coherent and effective manner.
Date made available1 Oct 2016
PublisherEdinburgh DataVault
Date of data production1 Sept 2015 - 31 Jul 2016

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