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.’