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orange square When starting out on a career in providing outdoor pursuits, there are various options available to you. We already talked about taking the first steps in our guide for outdoor activity instructors, but we are going to take a look in more detail at the academic vs the practical experience routes. In other words, is it better to learn about and then do, or to learn whilst doing?

This article was inspired by a parent who contacted us asking whether they should send their child to university, with all the debt that entails these days, or spend the money on getting them the discipline specific qualifications known as NGBs or National Governing Body awards. These are things like the Royal Yachting Association's Dinghy Instructor or the British Canoe Association's Level 2 Instructor.

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Looking for something else? We have plenty of jobs & courses awaiting your application.

Let's start by looking at the academic qualifications currently available and what each course involves, before moving on to discuss the relative merits of educational qualifications, including some comment and advice from some prominent employers in the outdoor industry.

NVQ Level 2 in Activity Leadership

The National Vocational Qualification scheme is where education meets employment. Candidates are expected to demonstrate on paper the theory behind activity work, as well as show a practical day to day ability to undertake the work as part of a team. This Activity Leadership qualification is definitely the most popular. The Level 2 part refers to the Qualifications and Credit Framework (QCF) and technically puts this on par with GCSEs at grade A-C. The main employer to offer this is the Kingswood Group. Several hundred people work towards this qualification each year and the qualification takes a single academic year to achieve.

As well as preparing for and leading activity sessions, you also need to think about how to review and analyse sessions. This is great because it gets you thinking about what you are doing and why you are doing it, not just how to do it. If you are serious about a career in adventurous activities, this is definitely a good way to learn the ropes. And because you have to choose from a selection of sub-modules, such as finance, development, equipment maintenance, or disability involvement, the course allows you to specialise in areas that appeal to you. This also means that the course does not create identikit students who all have the same experience and knowledge. There are other relevant NVQs available, such as the Level 3 in Outdoor Education, Development Training and Recreation.


BTEC stands for Business Technician Education Council and covers a range of vocational qualifications across all subjects. With so many different courses available, it isn't easy to say which is the best option as it really depends what you are hoping to achieve from your future career, but among the more popular for people looking to work in outdoor adventure are BTEC First Diploma in Outdoor Education, which is a one year course, and BTEC Sport - Outdoor Adventure, which is A Level equivalent and gets you a mix of theory and practical NGBs such as BCU Level 1 Coach, Climbing Wall Award training and the Mountain Bike Leader Level 1.

Degree Level

Learning to degree level is still seen as the pinnacle of academic achievement, though these days the courses you can take at a lower level are of a much higher quality that they used to be. Add this to the fact that not many people manage to get through a three year degree without amassing significant debts and you may think twice about going the degree route. But do take into account that a degree will include the NGBs that you'll still have to accrue even if you don't go the education route, plus you will likely end your course with a better chance of securing a better quality job. Obviously there are no guarantees, but generally speaking, employers still see candidates with degrees in a favourable light. As with the NVQs and the BTECs there are various options, such as BSc Sport Science (Outdoor Activities), and BA Outdoor Recreation Management. Take a good look at the course content to decide whether it is suitable for your own personal career goals.

Other education courses

The 'standard' education options discussed above are not the only way to get an academic start in teaching outdoor education. Plenty of other qualifications exist and we do see them crop up on CVs when people apply for the various roles available on this site. Some examples include: Northern Council for Further Education (NCFE) work with a number of LEAs and educate well over three hundred thousand pupils each year. They offer a Level 2 National Certificate in Outdoor Activity Leadership. The Higher National Certificate (HNC) features a course called Adventure Tourism and Outdoor Pursuits. You can do a Post Graduate Certificate of Education (PGCE) teacher training in outdoor education. And even expedition leadership training through the Royal Geographic Society.

So are academic study courses better or worse than NGB awards?

In reality, some if not all educational courses in outdoor activity teaching will offer students the chance to achieve practical teaching certificates, including national governing body awards. But to find out which route you should choose who better to ask than the employers themselves. To see whether they favour candidates who have achieved their certificates in the field, or if well structured classroom knowledge creates a more employable instructor, we spoke to some industry experts.

"The NVQ Level 2 is a great qualification to have if you're just starting out in the industry or looking to become an instructor or even a teacher. It allows you to slowly work through the qualification and gives you hands on experience of working with children and leading groups, as well as the confidence to deal with a variety of situations. If we are recruiting for a full time instructor we look for the NVQ Level 2 in Activity Leadership plus 1 years experience, any NGB's are a bonus and we provide further training to work towards more NGB's."
John Orr, Kingswood

"When we recruit for instructors and activity staff we always look for the applicant to have NGB Qualifications rather than academic qualifications on their own. The NVQ Level 2 in Activity Leadership is good because it shows the individual has some background knowledge and wants to do it as a career, but the high number of people who have it means the value has been taken out of it. We work with Hartpury and Shuttleworth colleges because their courses provide the academic theory and you come out of it with NGB's as well, something like that would be our recommendation."
Rebecca Smith, Acorn Adventure

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