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All above board

The south west is a mecca for watersports enthusiasts, so it is hardly surprising to find a school that surfs. Alf Alderson reports

For most people, the chance to splash about in the waves of a Cornish beach was - and possibly still is - the stuff of summer holidays. For the students at Pool School and Community College near Red-ruth, riding waves is an everyday reality and not just because they have some of the best surf in the country on their doorstep. It is thanks to their new English teacher, Mark Dove, who recently joined the staff after several years teaching in London.

So how did this outsider "introduce" surfing to Cornish pupils, many of whom will have been doing it already? After all, the Thames has many attractions, but surf is not one of them.

Mark's involvement with the sport goes back to his childhood, growing up on the Pembrokeshire coast. As a result, he's not only a seasoned surfer, but also a qualified beach lifeguard and surf lifesaving instructor and examiner. "I think these points are especially important, because safety has to be the main consideration when you're taking children into the sea," he says.

He first set up a surf club at Elliot School in Putney, which came about as part of a vocational education course for years 10 and 11. Unsurprisingly, for such a land-locked location, its members would spend most of their time talking about the sport rather than doing it. The frustration of being so far from the coast could only be alleviated by occasional trips to Wales and Cornwall. "Few of the kids could actually surf when we started, but by the time I left most of them were able to stand up on a board," he says.

However, the attractions of living in the city began to pall and Mark decided to move with his family back to the coast and was offered a job with the English department at Pool School. But although perfectly sited for surf, the sport was not on Pool's PE curriculum, although a few Cornish schools, especially those in Newquay, do teach it. "With my experience in London, along with the fact that I was again surfing regularly and had become a member of the local surf lifesaving association, it seemed like a natural step to form a club at school," says Mark.

He was supported by both staff and parents in getting a surf club up and running, and this time had some solid back-up: fellow English teacher Chris Smith is also a surfer and works as a beach lifeguard in the summer, maths teacher Geoff White used to be a lifeguard and ancillary teacher Rob Peasley is a surf instructor.

This helped to make the launch of the club a huge success. Its first outing this spring was to the English Schools Championships at Woolacombe in Devon, where they only missed winning the team event by the narrowest of margins.

Mark feels one of the main reasons that a surf club finds such ready acceptance within Cornish schools is that the sport is now a part of the culture of the area, and many parents and teachers surf, or are members of the area's numerous surf lifesaving clubs. "The image of surfers as drop-outs is now a thing of the past. In fact the sport makes a major contribution to the area's economy, and for some students who are successful in contests there may even be a career in it," he says. Top professional surfers can earn several hundred thousand dollars a year, and there are now one or two young British competitors on the fringes of the world's top 100.

But what do the pupils get out of their days at the beach? Mark says they are totally motivated by surf lessons. "They'll all enter contests and are not afraid of losing, but above that, I think, is the fact that we have what would in school be a totally disparate group of children getting on with each other as a result of a common interest."

The club has also resulted in better teacher-student relationships. "The kids don't just see us as 'teachers' anymore but as a fellow surfer, someone who enjoys doing the same things as they do". And of course, there's the fitness aspect of it, along with the opportunity to respect nature.

Mark also points to the lasting friendships that are often made between surfers. "It may sound cliched, but friendships made out in the surf often do withstand the test of time. Most of the friends that I've kept in touch with over the last 20 years or so are fellow surfers, and hopefully some of our club members will be able to say the same in 20 years' time."

* For details about surf schools, courses, equipment and national competitions, contact The British Surfing Association Champions Yard, Penzance, Cornwall. Tel:01736 360250

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