Meet the funder: Ernest Cook Trust

outdoor playing field

Image: brickrena/

Learning outside the classroom creates memorable experiences which help children make sense of the natural world, as Nicholas Ford, Chief Executive of Ernest Cook Trust, explains...

‘Outdoor education has always been important. What we see today is an increase in the recognition of its importance and greater understanding about the many ways children benefit from it,’ says Nicholas Ford, Chief Executive of the Ernest Cook Trust, a grant-giving body which has been awarding educational grants since 1952 and is a leading exponent of outdoor learning.

The Trust gives just under £2m a year through large and small awards programmes. Grants of over £4,000 are made for environmental, arts and architecture, numeracy, literacy and STEM projects. Trustees meet twice a year to review these applications and there are six meetings a year to discuss grants of under £4,000 that cover an array of educational projects. Annually the trust makes as many small grants as those that are 10 times the size.

Ford explains why the Trust prefers to give a large number of small grants. ‘We see schools fundraising for projects through endless coffee mornings and the like, raising £50 or so each time through a lot of work; the fact that we can give a few thousand pounds to these schools represents a big bang for our buck, which the trustees find very rewarding.’

The Trust currently owns and manages 22,000 acres of landed estates in Buckinghamshire, Dorset, Gloucestershire, Leicestershire and Oxfordshire, upholding the highest standards of estate management throughout its land, farms and buildings, remaining true to founder Ernest Cook’s vision. 30,000 children visit these estates every year, on every day of the year, to take part in outdoor activities that reflect the full spectrum of the school curriculum.

‘We frequently hear teachers say they don’t recognise their pupils when they see them working in an outdoor setting! Children learn to interact in completely different ways and are generally much more social and more productive,’ says Ford. The Ernest Cook Trust grants application process is light touch and proportional. ‘We ask for no more than two pages of A4 detailing the project. We then like to talk to applicants by phone to get a clearer picture,’ explains Ford. The applications that get through the first stage are passed to trustees who make the final decision.

‘The applications that shine through are well thought out and fully-costed. Passion and enthusiasm is good but there has to be strong evidence of planning. We want to know the projects will happen. Reach is also important. We like to see projects that benefit a lot of children and cater for different age groups, and serve many members of a community,’ says Ford.

‘We can immediately see the applications that have been written by a professional. They are polished, but often long, and that is not necessarily a good thing. We might also question the use of funds in hiring a professional, particularly if it is for a smaller grant.’

Previously-funded projects

Bredon Hancock’s First School, Tewkesbury, Gloucester (173 pupils): This village school received an ECT grant of £1,100. The school had established a partnership with a school in Tanzania and wanted a project in which both schools could take part. Bag Gardens – a biodegradable hessian sack filled with compost and soil with a column of stones up the middle – were a simple way for children in the UK to find out about sustainable living. The children worked in small groups to create the gardens and then as individuals and pairs to maintain them, and their herbs and vegetables have been used in cooking activities. The scheme has now expanded into a whole vegetable plot with the installation of a greenhouse, water butts, and raised vegetable beds.

Paddock Junior and Infants School, Huddersfield, West Yorks (398 pupils): This school had worked with the National Trust to regenerate an under-used green space next to the school, giving a group of children the skills to maintain the area and mentor other classes. Year 5 children visited a nearby woodland where wardens advised on the best types of plants to entice wildlife, and the children learned how to safely handle tools, developed basic coppicing skills and built new feed tables from recycled materials. The team sowed a new meadow garden, learning how to prepare the land. Classes studied biodiversity and examined landscapes for wildlife, giving them the chance to develop analytical thinking and to produce graphs and tally charts as well as compiling fantastic written work detailing their experiences. A grant of £1,227 was given for the materials and for the help of a coppicing expert.

Burwell Village College Primary School, Burwell, Cambridgeshire (431 pupils): A grant of £1,263 allowed this school to transform a disused area into a wildlife garden where pupils can discover bees, butterflies, beetles and birds in their natural habitats. One of the most exciting projects was a bughouse of recycled items – children used pallets to create the layers, adding bits of old piping, bamboo canes, rocks, moss, bark and twigs. An insect and plant observatory was also created, and a window planter allows pupils to see how plants grow above and below ground, as well as insects and worms living in the soil.