Special report: Future of Holt Hall hangs in balance ahead of recommendation to close it

Norfolk County Council has said it can no longer afford to run Holt Hall.

In 2019, 51 different schools from across Norfolk made visits to Holt Hall - Credit: Archant

The future of Holt Hall, which generations of schoolchildren have used for outdoor learning, hangs in the balance after Norfolk County Council (NCC) said it could no longer afford to keep it open.

On December 7, NCC's cabinet will make a final decision on the future of the centre. Ahead of then, we spoke to those on both sides of the argument on whether the facility should be kept open.

On one side, those pushing for Holt Hall to be saved say the decision to close it is short-sighted and will leave children as the greatest losers.

On the other, NCC say the facility is no longer financially viable.

A decision on the future of Holt Hall, which could be facing closure, will be made next month. Pictu

Debate has raged over the future of Holt Hall after it was revealed it is earmarked for closure. - Credit: Archant

The Grade II listed Victorian mansion, located on the edge of Holt in north Norfolk,  is the second largest provider of both outdoor learning residential stays and outdoor learning day visits in the county.

In October, NCC announced it could no longer afford to run the facility and was proposing closing it. A review found it had cost the authority more than £270,000 over the last three years.

The announcement was met with outcry, with the former head of the Hall warning if the “much-loved” outdoor education centre closed the county’s children will be the real losers.

"It's a resource we can't afford to lose whatever happens" 

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John Fisher, cabinet member for children’s services at NCC spoke to both this newspaper and BBC Radio Norfolk suggesting the decision to close the hall had already been made.

He later had to apologise for those comments, after it emerged the final decision had not been made and in fact a consultation with the centre’s 13 staff was set to continue.

John Fisher, Norfolk County Council cabinet member for children's services. Picture: Norfolk County

John Fisher cabinet member for children’s services at NCC - Credit: Norfolk County Council

Concerns have also been made about the local authority's decision-making process, which were "flawed" according to county council Labour group leader, Steve Morphew.

The Friends of Holt Hall, which previously asked NCC to rethink its plan to close the centre - a motion which was defeated -  said it felt the council was "determined to end public leadership in outdoor learning, and leave provision to 'the market'."

Nic Hopkins, A trustee of the friends of Holt Hall. Picture: Nic Hopkins

Nic Hopkins, A trustee of the friends of Holt Hall. - Credit: Archant

In a statement issued on the future of the centre is said: "FOHH is convinced there are many ways to strengthen the operating model for Holt Hall and move it to a more sustainable financial footing, a flagship for sustainability and the natural world in our beautiful county and at minimal cost to the public."

Mike Smith-Clare, NCC councillor for Yarmouth Nelson and Southtown wards who also has a background in education said he felt the closing outdoor learning was "short-sighted." 

He said: "Short-sighted cuts cause long term damage. Time and time again we're seeing poor decisions which impact generations of young people."

Mike Smith-Clare, Labour county councillor and spokesman on childrens services, said his party was n

Councillor Mike Smith-Clare - Credit: Archant

Mr Smith-Clare said outdoor learning provided a teaching environment which moved away from traditional learning and cutting those provisions based on financial factors created a false economy which damaged "opportunities for young people."

He said rather than cutting services, the local authority should be "looking to invest in places like Holt Hall" and establishing them as 21st-century facilities.

Mr Smith-Clare also echoed others concerns about the decision-making process.

"When decisions are made that affect so many young people, decisions on resources that so many people care about can't be done behind closed doors," he said.

Evacuees in the grounds of Holt Hall during the 1940's live experience.
The Victorian Grade II list

Evacuees in the grounds of Holt Hall during the 1940's live experience. The Victorian Grade II listed hall has been providing outdoor education since 1950. - Credit: Copyright Archant Norfolk.

In 2019, 51 different schools from across Norfolk made visits to Holt Hall. Between 2017-2020, 74 different Norfolk schools undertook at least one day visit, residential, or campsite visit to the centre, equating to 16.5pc of all Norfolk schools. 

Among the schools to have made use of Holt Hall's facilities is Town Close School in Norwich which has been visiting the education centre for 20-years.

Nick Bevington, headmaster of Town Close School, said: "There are few facilities like [Holt Hall] in our region and the experience for children undertaking residential outdoor learning trips is invaluable.

"They are often the moments children will remember most fondly from their entire education."

Ahead of the final decision on December 7, a report is recommending that NCC cabinet approve the termination of outdoor learning at Holt Hall, with "immediate effect."

And that instead, the local authority becomes "an enabler of outdoor learning through providing advice, support and access to resources."

A separate report is also recommending the Victorian mansion be sold, as, if the decision to cease outdoor learning provision is approved the building "will no longer be required for NCC service delivery."

"Discontinue delivering outdoor learning provision from the Holt Hall site, with immediate effect."

If all the recommendations are agreed, the council would end its role as a provider of outdoor learning at Holt Hall and instead expand its role as an adviser to schools and community groups, providing training and support and health and safety advice on outdoor learning.

Cabinet would be asked to declare the hall  "surplus to County Council requirements" and instruct the director of property to dispose of it by either leasing it or selling the freehold for an estimated price in excess of  £1.25 million.

In its review of the outdoor learning service provided at Holt Hall the council found switching to enabling outdoor education would  "increase the market share for other providers, provide a better use of public money and improve and increase the opportunities for children and young people to learn outdoors."

The council said the costs of continuing direct provision were "challenging in the current financial climate" and sighted a three-year deficit of £270,000 plus projected maintenance costs of £600,000 over the next decade.

Sheringham's Woodfields School Sixth Form Centre students at Roots and Shoots at Holt Hall Environme

A pupil from Sheringham's Woodfields School Sixth Form Centre during a trip to Holt Hall. - Credit: Archant

John Fisher, cabinet member for children’s services, said: “There are many providers of outdoor learning in Norfolk and our review has concluded that it is better for us to become an enabler – supporting other successful providers and giving guidance and advice.

“Holt Hall has a £270,000 deficit from the last three years and requires £600,000 of maintenance over the next decade. It is also clear that most schools prefer to use other providers, with just seven per cent of Norfolk schools using the hall for residentials.

 “I completely understand that people have fond memories of residential visits at the hall but we have to consider how we can make our limited resources have the greatest impact, as well as protecting services such as children’s social care and support for school improvement.”

The report said the views of schools, staff and volunteers were considered when making the recommendations to cabinet.

Cabinet will discuss the report at its online meeting at 10am on Monday, December 7, 2020.

Fond memories of school trips to Holt Hall

Holt Hall, 1988. Picture: Archant Library

Youngsters at Holt Hall in 1988. - Credit: Archant Library

Holt Hall has been providing outdoor education day and residential trips to youngsters from Norfolk and beyond for 70-years. With the future of outdoor learning at the grade II listed Victorian country house looking uncertain, we asked readers to share their memories of school trips to the hall.

Sharon Mitchell, said: "I remember going on a school trip and sleeping in the dormitories. I had a great time but can't remember what outdoor activities I did but that was over 30 years ago."

"I remember the freedom of roaming around the grounds feeling so exciting - a first taste of freedom" 

Sophie North, said: "I had a really great time as a child with my middle school friends raft building and attempting to sail it across the lake was one of my favourite activities.

"I also went as a school TA and from this perspective was very rewarding seeing what the children gained from Holt Hall."

Norfolk County Council has been providing outdoor learning day and residential trips at Holt Hall si

Norfolk County Council has been providing outdoor learning day and residential trips at Holt Hall since 1950, this picture was taken in 1992. - Credit: Archant

Katherine Weston, said she had "extremely fond memories" which spanned 20 years, starting in the mid-80s when she visited as a primary school pupil.

Ms Weston said: "I remember the freedom of roaming around the grounds feeling so exciting - a first taste of independence! I can remember the activities vividly - small mammal trapping, rock pooling, pond dipping, coastal erosion. - many run by George & Theo (the warden & deputy warden)."

"Holt Hall has definitely shaped who I've become"

"I stayed there for a media course when I was at High School and I lived in the Hall for a little while (perhaps about 2 weeks) during a placement when I was at university - I loved it, staying in a little attic room.

"Holt Hall, and the outdoor learning provided, has definitely shaped who I've become. I completed a degree in Geography with Environmental Science, went into primary teaching for three years, before starting my search for an outdoor learning job. Holt Hall and everything it offered will be sadly missed."

Katie Farrell added: "Holt Hall was always the big thing you did in Year 6 when we were at Primary school. I can't remember much about the outdoor bit but I remember being in the dorms and having Arctic Roll for the first time."