Trewern Outdoor Centre Interview: Surviving and Thriving with Juliet Parker-Smith

Thursday, April 17, 2014

Papertrail user Juliet Parker-Smith is Head of Trewern Outdoor Centre, a residential facility in Wales owned by the London Borough of Barking and Dagenham. The team at Trewern deliver outdoor activities and curricular work for schools, as well as training courses and activities for adults and private groups. We talked to Juliet about her work at the centre over the past eighteen years, and specifically about how she has transformed Trewern in the face of severe financial pressures and cuts.

Thanks for talking to us Juliet. Could you tell us a little about your background and how you arrived at Trewern?

After qualifying as a teacher I spent six years working in comprehensive schools. Taking pupils out on activities almost every evening and weekend, I came to realise the children were learning far more during their time outdoors than they ever did in class. So I decided to re-train, which led me to work in several outdoor Centres, before being appointed at Trewern in 1996.

My original plan was to stay at Trewern for five years, as at that point I couldn’t have imagined staying in any one job for longer than that. I’d always felt the need to move on from previous roles after that length of time. But the work we do here is so incredibly worthwhile and rewarding – eighteen years later and I’m still here. The local authority has always been very supportive of the work we do, which definitely helps. And of course, there’s the view….

Could you tell us about some of the changes that have happened at Trewern over the past few years, in terms of your funding and financial support?

Trewern had always been a local authority owned and funded centre – we were employed as advisory teachers for the London Borough of Barking and Dagenham. But three years ago we were told our funding was going to be stopped, and that in order to keep going Trewern would need to become a self-funded centre.

At that point it looked like the only way we’d be able to achieve self-funding would be by working with schools in more affluent areas or by sacrificing my quality staff. Trewern’s Governing Body includes school representatives along with education officers, and together we persuaded our schools to come to the rescue. We are now part funded from ‘Schools Forum’ contributions. It’s a smaller pot overall, but it has allowed us to continue the really important and worthwhile work we do with young people.

The grounds at TrewernThe grounds at Trewern

What impact have these changes had on life at the centre, for you and your team?

Our program offers just as many opportunities for enrichment and learning as it did when we were wholly local authority funded. That said, we’re a much leaner operation these days. Our staffing has shrunk quite considerably. We have to be extremely careful in terms of what we’re spending and how we prioritise our time. But I’d say we’re a lot sharper for it.

It also means it’s even more important for us to retain a close relationship and liaison with the schools, to make sure that what we’re offering is what they want. We get up to the borough at least once a term to visit them and do lots of outreach activity all year round.

Have you had to do anything else to survive as a self-funded centre?  

I’ve been very lucky in that the local authority is very supportive of our work here, and gives me a lot of autonomy. This means I’ve been able to add other revenue streams and sources of income to supplement the funding we receive from schools.

During weekends and holidays we run training courses and programs for organisations like the Police Cadets, Duke of Edinburgh Awards, national governing body qualifications… well working with private groups. This gives us some much needed extra income and is really important in terms of balancing the books.

To keep going in the face of such dramatic cutbacks is an achievement in itself, but to totally change your business model without dropping standards really is a triumph. What would you say have been the keys to your success?

Without doubt, the quality of our staff. We’ve been able to maintain a continuous quality of provision despite the cutbacks, and that all comes down to the degree of excellency of our team. We’re an education centre, not an outdoor activity centre. We employ trained teachers and pay career salaries.

This means I can focus my time on revenue-generating activities and remain on programme for much of the time, rather than spending excessive time managing and monitoring junior staff.

Your job has obviously changed a lot over the past eighteen years. What do you love most about your work at Trewern?

The house at Trewern, on the Papertrail blog

Without doubt, the work I do with young people is what makes it all worthwhile. Many of our young people are streetwise and can appear quite brash, but take them away from the concrete jungle and you realise many are actually quite naive and lacking in confidence. We really do have a very beautiful setting here, it couldn’t be more different from Barking and Dagenham.

Trewern is a period house surrounded by beautiful countryside. Its ‘homely’ atmosphere is important in creating an atmosphere where new challenges can be undertaken with confidence. To be able to deliver life changing experiences is incredibly rewarding.”

A huge thanks to Juliet for a really inspiring interview. I think all our readers will agree that she and her team are doing an amazing job at Trewern, and Papertrail is very proud to be working with them.

Do you have a story to share about how your centre has managed in the face of financial pressure and cutbacks? Have you had to be more efficient and cut costs? If you have a story to share or any comments or observations, please leave a comment or get in touch. We’d love to hear from you.

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