Recent moves by the Ministry of Education (MOE) to expand outdoor education have shaken up the sector, leaving some private vendors concerned that they may be sidelined in favour of Outward Bound Singapore (OBS), which comes under the National Youth Council (NYC).
An association set up in February hopes to be a voice for the industry and engage with the MOE on issues related to outdoor education.
It is also creating an accreditation scheme to subject operators to stricter standards.
Mr Lye Yen Kai, president of the Outdoor Learning and Adventure Education Association (OLAE), told The Sunday Times that its setting up was hastened last year after the Sabah earthquake when 10 people - seven pupils, two teachers and their adventure guide - were killed while trekking up Mount Kinabalu on a school trip.
"It could have wiped out our entire industry overnight, and so we started the registration process in December," said Mr Lye, 47.
NOT THE SAME
One thing that upsets us is when people compare us with OBS, as we run on entirely different models and they have more funding.
MR LYE YEN KAI, president of the Outdoor Learning and Adventure Education Association, on private operators
The association now has 10 founding members who are also in its executive committee. It will soon recruit other members. There are around 50 private vendors as well as close to 3,000 freelancers in the industry.
One of the association's main concerns is last month's announcement that a five-day OBS camp will be made compulsory for all Secondary 3 students from 2020.
The MOE said there will continue to be opportunities for private service providers in cohort camps, as well as outdoor activities for co-curricular activities and student leader groups.
But Mr Lye said the impact extends beyond that, as OBS is endowed with more resources.
"One thing that upsets us is when people compare us with OBS, as we run on entirely different models and they have more funding," he noted. While private operators also run activities for tertiary institutions and corporations, the MOE remains the biggest customer, making up about 75 per cent of the whole market, he said.
With OBS tripling its capacity in 2020, some private vendors also fear that their access to campsites, green spaces and waterways may be compromised even as MOE's Outdoor Adventure Learning Centres (OALCs) remain open to them.
While OBS is able to plan in advance for camps, other vendors have about only two weeks or a month to book a venue once a project has been awarded under the procurement system.
The MOE is also piloting a two-year programme at the Dairy Farm OALC to enable its own outdoor adventure educators to conduct MOE-designed cohort camps.
The association hopes its accreditation scheme will be endorsed by the MOE, which is increasing internal capacity by training its own outdoor adventure teachers.
Under the accreditation scheme, vendors need to have proper emergency management plans, provide evidence of staff training and development, and be guided by a defined company mission and code of ethics. Individual outdoor practitioners will also be certified for their skills. The companies will be re-audited every three to five years.
Mr Delane Lim, 31, chief executive of youth development company Agape Group Holdings, hopes the association can help private operators to work with the MOE.
"Government-run organisations have an abundance of resources and funds," he said. "The standard they craft will tailor to what they want instead of something that will work for the industry practically.
"We also have to manage expectations from schools.... we do not have the financial resources for well-equipped medical facilities, spaces to run programmes and highly paid instructors to provide a comparable standard."
The MOE met the association twice last month and said it will continue to do so. "We want to encourage quality service providers with competent staff, and ensure the learning and safety of our students," said an MOE spokesman.
Parents like fitness executive and father of one Mark Ong, 45, welcomed the setting up of the association. "The quality of programmes offered by private operators should be the same as what OBS offers, but there should be a body that provides some safety guidelines so that parents have some assurance."