Learning to branch out

A FORESTRY project gives hope to teenagers with learning difficulties

presented with the option of a warm classroom in December or a day out working in the forest in torrential rain and howling winds, there are few pupils who would eagerly don waterproofs and head for the woods.

But two lads in Livingston are currently spending every Wednesday in wellies and rainproofs "brashing" - hacking off branches - and felling trees as part of a citizenship project. "It can be like a sardine can in here," says 14-year-old Harley Goldie about his classroom. "And we were fighting all the time."

His class teacher, John Ward, remonstrates with him that they were not actually fighting, but he lets it go as Harley continues, a soft American drawl surfacing now and again. But at least he is talking. "We never got to go out. Well, OK, we go swimming and to the library, but that's it."

Only a few moments before, Harley, who is one of only two pupils in the autistic unit at Cedarbank School in Livingston, had been refusing to look up from a book. Asked repeatedly to close it, he insisted on reading to the end of the page while four adults stood waiting. Harley has been diagnosed with Asperger's syndrome and oppositional defiance disorder. It can make him pretty tricky to deal with.

Yet here he is, talking fluently - eventually - about the new project he and fellow pupil James Cameron are working on, and he is pleased to share his enthusiasm for the outdoors.

During the worst two months of the year, James and Harley have been out of their classroom, spending every Wednesday in an area of forest given over to the special needs schools in West Lothian by the Forestry Commission.

"It is part of citizenship training that I am coordinating at the school,"

explains David Banks, a teacher working at Cedarbank two days a week.

The plan is for the boys to clear a space in the forest, then build a wigwam to be used by the schools as an outdoor resource and forest school.

The whole area must have wheelchair access, which the two boys must also construct.

"It's freezing," says James, who has delayed speech, but has recently completed a scale model of the Forth Road Bridge by himself.

The day before, both boys had been outside cutting down the trees and lopping off branches in the rain, while the wind whipped the treetops.

Huddling alongside, but leaving the boys to do the work as agreed, were Mr Banks, Rhona Telfer, a support assistant, Tom Wallace, the principal teacher for outdoors at Livingston's special schools (Pinewood and Cedarbank) and the autistic unit at St Kentigern's RC Academy. Jim Smalls and Andy Gallagher from the Forestry Commission were also there.

The adults were there to supervise the use of tools, and to act as general guides, but on the whole the work was left to the boys who are working towards their John Muir Award for conservation.

"For these boys that award means a lot, because it may be the only certificate they will get," says Mr Banks.

When finished, the wigwam will be 10ft in diameter, giving shelter to 20 pupils at a time for lessons, or six to seven sleeping overnight. The first two to sleep there are likely to be James and Harley, who must clock up an overnight stay outside for their award.

"We want to be able to use the wigwam as a base for outdoor education for all the children," explains Mr Wallace, who suggested the project when he joined the Livingston school last April. "One of the hardest parts is ensuring the path is fully accessible to everyone."

After completion of the wigwam and the first stage of the award, the boys will have the chance to go on to further stages. Meanwhile, the schools are benefiting from a new outdoor resource, which the worst of the weather can't spoil.

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