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En route to a cool Yule

Young skiers - novices and experts - will be heading for Norway and the Alpine slopes this Christmas. Jean McLeish reports.

Sandy McNaughton is the kind of teacher who makes you wish for a moment you were back at school.

Late on a wintry afternoon, when other teachers are at home thinking about a glass of red wine, Sandy is out on the dry ski slopes at Aberdeen Snow Sports Centre teaching teenagers to ski.

He's been taking pupils from Kincorth Academy there for the past 15 years. As head of PE at the school, he also takes a group to ski on real snow every year at the Austrian lakeside resort of Zell am See.

Families in Kincorth don't have money to burn, so a huge effort is made to keep trips affordable. And by organising everything themselves, teachers have managed to get an all-inclusive week's skiing in for around pound;400.

This afternoon, lights twinkle at the foot of the nursery slopes in a winter wonderland that is Asda car park. But the pupils are in synthetic snow heaven, practising for next year when they'll hear the crunch of real snow under their boots.

Fourteen-year-old Kyle McDonald is going to Austria and he's having his third snowboarding lesson: "I've always wanted to snowboard - I think it's a cool thing to do," he says, half hidden inside his mandatory black crash helmet.

Safety is a big issue for teachers on winter sports trips, but Sandy McNaughton says he has had more accidents with staff than pupils. "Every year, there might be a cut finger or something, so once in a blue moon we end up in the Krankenhaus (hospital). Touch wood, we have had nothing happen on the slope. We've had kids playing football and clashing heads, but we have had more staff injured than we have had kids.

"One of the staff at the disco managed to step off a dance floor and break his ankle and spent seven days in hospital. Another one had stitches in the head when he was playing football and ran into a post and split his head. It served as a good reminder to the kids - especially since out there they don't stitch, they use staples. And once the kids saw the staples they were saying, 'Oh no, I'm not doing that.'"

But safety is always taken seriously and staff go through meticulous risk assessment before they go away. "Taking them away is a huge responsibility," says Mr McNaughton. "You feel it. It's a week when you are under quite a bit of stress thinking what could go wrong. You keep minimising the risk by just planning the next day.

"But I wouldn't change it for the world, and all the staff that have been with me love it, and the kids love it as well."

Mr McNaughton completed his Ski Leader and Artificial Ski Slope Instructor's qualification so that he could take pupils away and save on tuition costs. The school skis at Kitzsteinhorn Glacier in May, which means they can ski in the morning and laze by the lake in the afternoons as temperatures hit the mid-20s. By May, Sandy hopes they'll have mastered the basics.

Up to 10 schools a week visit Aberdeen Snow Sports Centre and some include snow sports as part of PE. At Kincorth, it is part of Standard grade when timetabling allows, and senior pupils visit the centre as part of Intermediate 2.

Kincorth has recently produced a promising snowboarder, Kris Bell, who is now being sponsored by a local business. "He's taken to it like a duck to water - he's just been brilliant," says Sandy proudly.

David Jacobs, general manager of the snow sports centre, is a British children's team coach and wants more schools to use the facilities. "I'm hoping to build on that because Aberdeen used to be the hotspot for talent in the snow sports industry," he says. "It used to be that 70 per cent of the British team was from Aberdeen and directly relating to training at this slope.

"Gone are the days when rugby and football were the sports. Now, there are more exciting things for kids who aren't really into that to get involved in. Now you have the likes of snowboarding and skiing, which in England are very much part of the curriculum, as well as in some of the Scottish schools. And it's much more affordable now. We only charge pound;3 per child if they come with the school."

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