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Barriers open for a trip to Belize

Pupils pack their bags for a vital conservation mission in Central America. Jean McLeish reports

Pupils pack their bags for a vital conservation mission in Central America. Jean McLeish reports

Ten teenagers and two teachers from Wick High in Caithness are making plans for the adventure of a lifetime.

They will be the first school team from Scotland to go on a journey to Belize in Central America, as part of a partnership project run by outdoor experiential learning specialists Adventura Scotland with the Royal Botanic Garden Edinburgh.

Belize, formerly British Honduras, is bordered by Mexico to the north and Guatemala to the south. It has one of the last tropical rainforests and the second-largest barrier reef in the world, stretching along nearly 200 miles of Caribbean coastline.

The Belize Barrier Reef is a World Heritage site and home to a huge range of bird and marine life, including endangered turtles and crocodiles. During a month-long visit, the fifth- and sixth-year Highland pupils will work on conservation projects deep in the jungle at the Royal Botanic Garden Edinburgh's Las Cuevas research field station in Belize.

"The Belize rainforest is one of the last remaining habitats in the world for - among others - scarlet macaws, jaguars, and Morelets crocodile," says Chris Minty, head of project management at the botanic garden.

"The important work that students from Wick High will conduct on their expedition will significantly contribute to the long-term conservation of this important eco-system."

The Wick pupils will also be able to choose from a range of placements, including work in an orphanage, school, zoo or hospital. And they'll give presentations at the Royal Botanic Garden Edinburgh on their return.

The experience has been designed in line with Curriculum for Excellence and is open to secondary schools across Scotland. Wick High is the first to take up the opportunity and is planning its trip for June 2013.

"Other people might go on a sixth-year holiday when they finish school, but we're going to do something that really means something," says 16- year-old Josey Donachie, who's planning to study law on her return from Belize.

Pupils will plan the trip and undertake placements to suit their interests or future careers. "I'm looking forward to volunteering in the zoo or the school," says another sixth-year, Liam Macadie, who hopes to study marine biology.

The journey will be an alternative to a gap year for 16-year-old Robyn Hughes, who hopes to study forensic or marine biology at university next year. "We're going to do some conservation work in the rainforest with the Royal Botanic Garden and we're going down for a couple of days' training with them in Edinburgh first," she says.

She is already well travelled, thanks to her primary-teacher parents who have taken her on trips to locations such as Cuba and Florida. For others, the experience will be a fresh challenge.

"I'm from a village - Lybster, near Wick," says Eilidh Sutherland, 17. "And I think Belize will completely push me out of my comfort zone. And I think it will benefit me - rather than sitting about."

Computing science teacher Chris Aitken believes the experience will provide an excellent opportunity for pupils to broaden their horizons. He is accompanying them, along with history teacher Carrie Bennett and consultants from Adventura Scotland, Irene Bews and Aly Sangster, both former teachers.

Mr Aitken says some pupils are reluctant to leave Caithness when it's time to move on to the next stage in their education. "You can see it in our stats - that Caithness is quite low down in terms of the numbers who go off to university and so on," he says.

"We just want to give pupils the opportunity to do something different and widen their horizons a little bit. Geographically, we are quite remote and doing something like this is completely out of the ordinary. It will hopefully benefit these pupils and also bring a bit of buzz about the rest of school."


Caithness folk may find themselves eating more cupcakes and brownies than usual this year.

Wick High pupils have a fundraising effort to cover the cost of a trip to the jungle. Pupils have begun holding events and seeking sponsorship to cover the pound;35,000 to pound;40,000 costs.

"It's a great opportunity to see a new place and experience a new culture. I want to be a doctor and this is a fantastic opportunity to volunteer," says Scott Taylor, 17, who hopes to get a placement in a hospital.

Pupils will also manage the costs and experiential learning specialists Adventura Scotland will act as consultants and travel with them.

"Belize has one of the last tropical rainforests that's virtually untouched and it has a very small population for a big land area. It's got a huge diversity of landscape as well from the Caribbean tropical rainforest," says Irene Bews from Adventura Scotland.

She and business partner Aly Sangster are approved activity providers and accredited assessors for the Duke of Edinburgh's Award, so pupils can undertake parts of the DofE Gold and John Muir Award in Belize.

Ms Sangster says: "The personal development for them should be tremendous and that should stand them in good stead when they are looking for employment and for places at college and university."

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