When Phil Gasson was a drama teacher he took every opportunity to teach his pupils outdoors. Now, as a co-founder and director of Ardeche Adventures, a multi-activity holiday company in the south of France, he is still teaching, but gets to do it outdoors all of the time.
For five years, Phil, 42, was an Advanced Skills Teacher at Queen Elizabeth's Community College in Crediton, Devon. He says teaching pupils canoeing and rock climbing in the Ardeche is the same - but sunny. "I get as much enjoyment out of what I do now as I did in the classroom. I love teaching and feel privileged to be working with children, but for me it's all about being outdoors. I'm still doing what I love, but my hours aren't 9am to 5pm. They're much longer. But now if I get too hot I can jump in the river, which you can't do in the drama studio."
After seeing a year group through the school at Queen Elizabeth's, Phil spent three years as a behaviour consultant for Devon curriculum services, travelling the county advising schools. During the holidays, he worked for an adventure company in Saint-Martin in the Ardeche with Mike Smith, his best friend, running a programme for school groups, with responsibility for river activities.
Mike and Phil had been childhood friends and learnt kayaking, canoeing and sailing in the late Seventies at Surrey Docks Watersports Centre in a derelict area of south-east London. Mike, 40, also had experience in teaching, from lecturing in photography at the Arts Institute in Bournemouth and at Central St Martins College of Art Design in London.
While the pair were working in Saint-Martin, schools asked them about running bespoke holidays, and Ardeche Adventures was born.
Now a typical trip designed by Phil and Mike might involve rock climbing in Mazet Plage beside the Chassezac River, caving in the Chauvet cave, high ropes, perhaps a cultural visit to Avignon or the enormous cave at Orgnac - and of course, the Ardeche River descent in canoes or kayaks through the gorge, a canyon-like path through 40km of limestone, which is the big draw of the region.
Ed Pawson, head of RE at King's School in Ottery-St-Mary, Devon, went on the trip last summer with his family and is taking 40 pupils aged 13 and 14 for a week this month to develop their team skills and outdoor and personal education. He was blown away by the descent of the gorge.
"There were a lot of rapids, so there was a certain amount of danger and a lot of adrenaline, but the experience of the instructors was reassuring. They clearly knew the river and the way the rapids work, which takes your anxiety away when you're taking pupils."
Since their first season, Mike and Phil have worked their way up from 20 pupils to larger school groups of 45 or even 70, but they never cater for more than one school or five families at a time. "The lifestyle is important," says Mike. "We didn't want to come out here and be so stressed we could not enjoy it." Phil agrees: "If you come to the Ardeche you have to relax and stop and appreciate what's around you - it's beautiful. Teachers like coming here because they forget everything."
Phil may have traded the classroom for the river, but he feels a teacher through-and-through.
"I'm still teaching," he says. "We work with the schools to enhance their curriculum. We can help with citizenship because of the teamwork our activities involve; we have a magician who visits the campsite, so the pupils have to use a bit of French; and exploring the region can complement their history and geography studies. We also support the Asdan youth award (a scheme set up to aid young people's personal and social development)."
Taking pupils out of school and into nature can change the relationship between teacher and pupil - especially if they're in a canoe rushing together over a rapid. "Teachers who organise these trips want to see the growth in their pupils - just like when families come here they want to see the growth in their children. They've all achieved something together.
"For teachers and pupils the shared experience - be it a barbeque under the stars or a rapid they capsized in - changes their relationships back in school," says Phil.
It is arguably on a personal level that a youngster gets the most out of an adventure holiday. "By the end of the week you can see the experience has been terrific for the child's self-esteem," says Mike. "The physical challenges, getting past a fear of heights on the high ropes and bonding together sleeping under the stars at the bivouac site - they all make a big difference."
Corena Ludlow, head of modern languages at Gosfield School in Essex, appreciated the attention paid to her pupils when she took a group last July. "The instructors took the pupils gently out of their comfort zone and they came back saying, 'I can't believe I did that - it was amazing.' You see them develop into adults."
Ed, meanwhile, is looking forward to sharing the experience with his pupils. "We've taken them to Italy, France and Spain, but the Ardeche is as good as it gets. You want the pupils to be safe, of course, but you also want it to be exciting - they get that balance right."
Phil is more than happy to put in the extra hours to make sure teachers and pupils get the most out of their trip to the Ardeche.
"What I really miss about teaching is directing the school productions. But here I'm directing everything."
LET'S GO OUTSIDE
There are about seven million pupil visits from UK schools annually. This means that every week thousands of pupils are out and about on activities ranging from a geography field trip to seven days at a residential centre.
- At Black Mountain Activities in Aberllynfi, near Brecon, qualified instructors give pupils and teachers a chance to gorge-walk, orienteer, abseil or even try their hand at archery. The activity centre runs day and residential courses for schools with the Welsh national curriculum in mind, but also welcomes schools from all over the UK, as well as individuals and families.
www.blackmountain.co.uk or call 01497 847897
- Raasay House on the Isle Of Raasay in Ross-shire is a 250-year-old clan mansion with an outdoor centre offering sailing, climbing and coasteering. Residential outdoor activity holidays for families and schools will be available from spring 2009, when the centre reopens after refurbishment.
www.raasayoutdoorcentre.co.uk or call 01478 660266
- Mill on the Brue, an educational summer camp in Bruton, Somerset, offers traditional activities such as orienteering, plus slightly more unusual activities, such as grass tobogganing and team tasks including getting barrels across a river.
www.millonthebrue.co.uk or call 01749 812307
PUTTING HEALTH AND SAFETY FIRST
Accidents on school trips are rare, but the ones that do occur tend to be well publicised, putting some teachers off taking pupils on visits.
Phil Gasson and Mike Smith from Ardeche Adventures visit the school in the UK before each trip and give a presentation to the senior management team covering every aspect of the adventure holiday, particularly safety.
Technical experts in France go through risk assessments and operating procedures for each activity, providing instructors with specific training. There is at least one instructor to every six pupils, and all participants wear helmets for every activity and buoyancy aids when on the river.
Their instructors are mature, professional and obsessive about safety.
Ardeche Adventures complies with the government guidelines contained in Health Safety of Pupils on Educational Visits 1998 and the appendices added in 2002. All risk assessments are available to party leaders.