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Do you think they're waving or drowning?

The Royal National Lifeboat Institution wants us to pay more attention before we go down to the sea again, says Jon O'Connor

Film footage of lifeboat crews plucking lucky survivors from a mountain of stormy water - it's the heart-stopping stuff of real-life adventure stories on television news. Humanity at its best, with brave individuals pitting themselves against the mighty forces of nature to save others.

It's strange but rather heartening that the Royal National Lifeboat Institution remains a voluntary organisation. For more than 171 years, rescuers have saved both the unwary and the unlucky.

The sea can make fools of anyone: experienced sailors, lost without a sou'wester between them; certified swimmers; otherwise intelligent, responsible parents allowing children out on a lilo, while the red flag flaps over the beach.

As a result, the institution's lifeboats rescue an average of four people every day of the year. It's thrilling and comforting when such a rescue comes off. When it doesn't, the tragedy brings sober reflection. Hundreds of these incidents involve young children.

The institution has recently launched a primary learning resource pack which doubles as a recruitment drive for its junior support group, StormForce. Lifeboat is the successor to the RNLI Launch pack, which was highly commended for outstanding value in the 1996 TES resource awards. Lifeboat contains the same powerful messages of water safety, public service and community service, using simpler text and updated presentations.

These themes flow around a story which describes the rescue of a family from a sailing trip. Changes in the weather threaten disaster until RNLI rescuers eventually bring everyone safely back to the shore.

The teacher's book provides all the information necessary to introduce children to the work of the lifeboats and their crew. A bold and colourful poster captures the teamwork and complexity of maritime rescue, providing rich material for discussion work. A 12-panel frieze, together with activity sheets suitable for key stage 2 pupils, presents the actual rescue sequence.

The worksheets involve simple design tasks, such as making a launch carriage, as well as sample language and comprehension activities. A set of photo-cards and illustrations builds a strong profile of the service from its archive of famous and dramatic incidents, dating from Grace Darling's 1838 rescue to modern tales of surfers in distress.

At the back of the teacher's pack is a fascinating fact file. Did you realise that the material used for making bullet-proof vests is also used in lifeboat construction?

A short selection of poetry, some written by children, and a listing of lifeboat literature serves to highlight the emotive power of human struggles with the sea.

The institution can also offer educational speakers and film or video presentations. In return, it asks for two things: first, a more than reasonable charge of pound;5 for the pack. For another pound;5 you will get a short video which brings the drama of sea rescues and the spirit of community service vividly to life, while contributing a little more to RNLI funds.

Second, in addition to raising funds for this vital service, the institution hopes that this resource pack will contribute to good citizenship and raise levels of safety awareness, saving lives in future.

s Royal National Lifeboat Institution, West Quay Road, Poole, Dorset BH15 1HZ. Tel: 01202 663000

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