The great outdoors spending spree

The New Opportunities Fund is boosting sports and adventure facilities for communities, especially young people. Raymond Ross finds out where some of the pound;87 million available in Scotland will go.

Outdoor education will be one of the main beneficiaries of the Government's New Opportunities for PE and Sport initiative, which was launched in Scotland in March. It amounts to an pound;87 million (pound;750.75m across the UK) boost to an area of education which does not fall under statutory provision.

The New Opportunities Fund programme commits pound;52m (60 per cent) of National Lottery money to upgrading or building indoor and outdoor sports and adventure facilities for the benefit of young people and community use. The remaining pound;35m has been committed to activities supporting out-of-school-hours projects and an "active steps" programme to promote the role of sport in diverting children aged five to 16 from crime or behaviour likely to lead to crime and encourage positive life choices.

John Hall, a member of the national committee for physical education and sport in schools, a body which reports to the NOF in Scotland, says: "The NOF was created in 1998 to distribute grants for health, education and environment initiatives. Can you think of a more appropriate fit than outdoor education?

"With it not being statutory, the provision for outdoor education is very disparate across the country. So it is significant that, under the facilities programme, the Government is saying that between 5 and 10 per cent of funding must be spent on adventure facilities.

"This is one of the most significant development opportunities we've had in my 25 years of involvement in outdoor education. It's very heartening, a big boost. It means that local authorities without this provision can now begin to create one or buy into neighbouring local authorities'

facilities," he says.

NOF guidelines on the facilities allocation recommends refurbishment rather than building anew, he says, which recognises the loss of facilities which need to be reopened or revamped. "This is the sensible spend, the right use of the money," he says.

In Scottish Borders, where Mr Hall is assistant adviser for outdoor education, part of its pound;1.3m allocation will go towards refurbishing activity bases such as the climbing tower and dry ski slope at Jedburgh Grammar, an outdoor climbing wall at Peebles High, sailing bases at St Mary's Loch, an outdoor centre at Grantshouse on the Berwickshire coast and a canoeing base at Kelso.

"We will want to upgrade some of these," Mr Hall says.

"Although the provision seems healthy, you have to recall that before the cuts of the 1990s we had five outdoor education centres. Two were closed and two taken over by charitable trusts. Although the latter do give us access, we effectively lost four out of our five bases.

"The facilities funds will enable many local authorities to reopen andor improve such centres."

The fact that activity sites around the country are largely in schools means that schools will benefit directly from the initiative while providing more opportunities for young people to participate in out-of-school-hours activities. But the thinking is that there should be community access to these facilities during school hours as well as after.

"It's about innovation in design and management of these facilities to enable fuller participation. Daytime community access will depend on innovative design and management.

"A key focus of the initiative in recognising the wider curriculum is to give young people better access to sporting and adventure facilities and to benefit the community at large," says Mr Hall.

Of the pound;35m activities budget, local authorities must spend at least 40 per cent on each of the two strands - out-of-school-hours projects and anti-crime steps - with the remaining 20 per cent to be allocated between the two at each authority's discretion.

"The out-of-school-hours activities strand builds on the now established idea of after-school clubs. The second strand is about physical activity and health promotion, offering alternatives to bad lifestyles which can lead to drugs andor crime," says Mr Hall.

"This money is being put where it is needed. Healthy, happy pupils perform better."

Outdoor education is an important part of the work of the Wilton Centre in Hawick, which caters for pupils with social, emotional and behavioural difficulties from all over the Borders, supporting them in mainstream schools and providing one-to-one and small group support at the centre.

Moira Buckle, the head of the joint social workeducation provision, says:

"You need to play to the strengths of young people who are disengaged and disaffected. Outdoor activities succeed more with these young people because they can do a lot of it on their own. They are not necessarily good mixers, good team members.

"The pound;182,000 awarded to the active steps programme in the Borders is clearly tied to the needs of these young people."

When it comes to spending the funds, Mrs Buckle says: "We want opportunities for a whole range of new activities which will stay with these young people for the rest of their lives, everything from hillwalking and climbing to watersports. It's a tremendous opportunity."

In Aberdeen, Jonathan Kitching, the outdoor education co-ordinator, says his city plans to split its NOF allocation of around pound;170,000 for activities between two major projects: the Cromdale residential centre and a new watersports facility.

"Our remote outdoor centre in Cromdale needs upgrading to 21st-century standards," he says. "It needs new heating and better security. It's pretty run-down and all right for basic short stays. We want it ready for longer visits.

"Within the city, we hope to identify a location for a new watersports centre. Although Aberdeen is surrounded by water on three sides - the Dee, the Don and the North Sea - we don't have a secure, guaranteed base to introduce young people to watersports before they go on to lochs, rivers and the sea.

"We have guaranteed access to rocks, hills and forest. A friendly, sheltered waterbase is the missing piece of the jigsaw."

In Glasgow, Richard Barron, the depute director of education, says: "Our facilities spend will focus on Blairvadach Outdoor Centre near Rue. It's our only residential centre and caters for watersports, hillwalking, cycling and orienteering."

The authority plans to increase accommodation from 48 to 60 places and upgrade the fabric of the centre, including cooking, showering and dining areas.

"It's an excellent, essential centre, open to community and youth groups over the summer as well as to school groups," he says.

"While all our young people will benefit from activities monies, we will also focus on the active steps programme to facilitate one-day and half-day trips for vulnerable young people, those at risk due to non-attendance at school andor at risk of offending. In this we are working closely with social work, the culture and leisure department and the police.

"Outdoor activities are extremely beneficial in increasing motivation, self-confidence and achievement in all young people. All our feedback suggests that the personal and social benefits of outdoor activities are as powerful in benefitting young people as the actual skills learned."

Ron Christie, the community education officer for Highland, responsible for outdoor education, says his authority plans to spend some of its NOF monies on setting up an outdoor education response unit to work with young people at risk of exclusion from school or at risk of offending and those with social, emotional and behavioural difficulties.

"This will be a unit made up of experienced staff used to supporting these young people and able to negotiate a programme with schools for them," he says, "a unit that can respond quickly and flexibly and go to schools rather than have the young people come to us.

"In an authority the size of Highland, that's important. The demand for a unit like this has come from the schools and groups we work with."

The facilities budget is likely to be spent on upgrading the residential centres at Nethy Bridge, Kinlocheil and Torrin on the Isle of Skye. Specifically, Highland wants to convert the centres' large dormitories into smaller ones, making them more user friendly and, incidentally, easier to monitor, and to improve the internal fittings, furniture and decoration.

"The centres are vital to us for summer and winter activities, including Nordic or cross-country skiing, hillwalking, water sports and climbing," he says.

"I think the NOF funding is a vehicle towards change but it's only a three-year programme. Expectations are and will be raised. If the programme is the great success we hope it will be, the local authority will need to look at ways of funding it to keep it going," he cautions.

"I'm saying this at a time when there are cuts being made to core budgets in local authorities.

"But, then again, you have to fund good practice, don't you?"

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