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Children in the swim with distance learning

Children at Otterburn first school in Northumberland are timetabled to get a swimming lesson every Friday afternoon. But during the coming winter months, whenever an icy east wind sweeps off the nearby military range, the school's headteacher, John Edwards, will wait for a weather report from a local shepherd before deciding whether to board the bus to the swimming pool.

Mr Edwards doesn't ask shepherd John Telfer if he has seen a red sky in the morning or at night. He is more interested in his snow and wind reports. "I check the television weather reports first, but if I'm still in any doubt I phone John Telfer, who works up on Carter Fell," Otterburn's head explained. "He'll either say: 'Well John, the road's black today' - which is his way of saying it's clear - or he'll tell me: 'It's been blowin'. That means that it's snowing and the wind has been blowing the snow on to the road."

To "townies" in the South, such precautions may seem excessive, but the isolated hill-farming community that straddles the trunk road from Newcastle to Edinburgh has always been weather-wary. And after 20 years as head of Otterburn, Mr Edwards is too.

The weekly swimming pool journey for the 30 pupils in years 2, 3 and 4 can become an expedition in the winter because it involves a 54-mile round trip that takes the children over the Cheviots and down into Jedburgh in the Scottish Borders.

Even so, Otterburn is one of four local first schools - Cornhill, Byrness and Kielder are the others - which find it more convenient to travel to Jedburgh or Kelso than use a Northumberland pool.

"There's now a pool at Ponteland, which is 22 miles away," said Mr Edwards. "But we're happy with the tuition at Jedburgh. In any case, we pick up six children from Byrness school on our way north as it's only three miles from the Scottish border. The children really enjoy both the swimming and the bus trip. They take along games and books for the journey."

Living so close to the fast-flowing River Rede, the parents are also in favour of the swimming trips and meet all of the transport costs and two-thirds of the tuition bill. But Mr Edwards admits there are problems with the Jedburgh run, which began in 1983.

"The trip can be useful for pointing out aspects of geography that we've discussed in the class, but I suppose I resent the time that it takes to give children 40 minutes of swimming. We reduce the lunch-hour by half-an-hour on Friday in order to set off at 12.30pm and we try to be back for 3pm-3.15pm so that the children can get their taxis home. This is such a remote spot - we're a mile outside the village - that nobody even walks to school."

However, the cross-border swimming traffic may not have to continue for much longer. Otterburn Hall YMCA is trying to raise Pounds 600,000 to build its own pool and has said the school will be able to use it for free.

Needless to say, Mr Edwards will be a willing contributor to the fund.

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