A chance to try life skills and mature

Raymond Ross

Determinedly carrying his kayak up the steps to where the trailer is parked, Philip declares: "My knees are knackered!"

He is one of seven pupils from Howdenburn School House in Jedburgh, a facility for secondary pupils with severe and complex learning difficulties, who have spent the morning learning to paddle and to row at Tweedbank Pond near Melrose in the heart of the Scottish Borders.

Knackered or not, Philip helps to load the boats on to the trailer and tie the appropriate knots to keep them there. Part of the educational process here is learning how to prepare equipment and how to put it away safely.

"These pupils get so much out of outdoor activities," says Kathleen Keenan, the principal teacher of Howdenburn School House. "It's important they shouldn't be denied these chances just because they're not able-bodied."

The facility supports 15 pupils, who spend half a week there and the other half in support units within mainstream schools. They make use of sports and adventure facilities and are taken hillwalking throughout the Borders.

"I can't speak for mainstream education," says Mrs Keenan, "but as far as we are concerned outdoor education is extremely important and new funding is to be wholeheartedly welcomed.

"Outdoor activities build confidence, teach life skills and teamwork and enable pupils to visit areas which they otherwise might not do. They have to learn to think for themselves in activities such as canoeing.

"And it's great for the parents. They're completely supportive of these activities and are sometimes surprised by what their children can achieve."

While New Opportunities Fund grants will probably provide new equipment such as specialised boats, self-inflatable life jackets and walking gear for these pupils, Howdenburn School House has also bid for residential monies. This will enable it to make use of Whitehaugh Park outdoor centre at Newcastleon for a week per session rather than just one night.

"This can be the pupils' first time away from home and is a very big experience for them," says Mrs Keenan. "It's a chance to practise cooking and housework skills, which are part of the access units on life and community skills we deliver. These are skills necessary to prepare them for the time if and when they leave home and move into supported accommodation."

The facility also operates as a bridge between mainstream schools and Borders College in Galashiels, where some of the pupils eventually go full time to attend the supported learning department.

"Howdenburn provides them with a chance to mature and to try out life skills in a small, safe environment before going to college," says Mrs Keenan. "Outdoor activities are a major part of this maturing process, providing physical and psychological skills."

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Raymond Ross

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