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Making waves for an open-air adventure

People who run outdoor centres are inclined to let their actions speak louder than words. They prefer to get on with activities - take a few pupils potholing, persuade some bolshy members of a youth club to stop arguing and start abseiling - rather than talk about them.

But this year the doers are going to have to become talkers and publicists as well. 1997 is the Year of Outdoor Education - OE 97. There will, of course, be special events, but the main thrust is to increase public awareness of just how much adventurous outdoor activity takes place on these overcrowded islands and how valuable a part of children's education, in the broadest sense, it can be.

Rebecca Stephens - conqueror of the highest peaks on seven continents, including Everest - is one of OE 97's patrons. "There are risks in life," she says, "and we don't want children to be swathed in cotton wool. We need to make people self-reliant, but we also need to do it as safely as possible." She believes regulation of outdoor centres is essential but that it should be realistic about valuing experience rather than just qualifications.

Safety is an issue which those in outdoor education come back to ruefully.Most publicity for outdoor activities comes when disasters, or near disasters, happen. Ian Lewis, vice-chair of the National Association of Outdoor Education, believes children are safer on expeditions than they are on their way to school. He thinks the current regulatory Act does not cover many outdoor situations and he believes "resources could be much better spent in creating greater involvement. After all, the three major parties have said they want more adventurous people in Britain".

So what else is on the agenda besides more publicity? In Birmingham they advertised four modern apprenticeships for outdoor activities and got 140 replies. When their chosen candidates get through their three-year course they will be able to train others.

It is going to be a busy outdoor year in Hampshire. There will be a schools' expedition to Kilimanjaro. A coast-to-coast walk will be organised in the north of England. And a Hampshire Youth Service action plan will take advantage of the different outdoor facilities the county has to offer - from the coastal activities in the south to the woodlands and canals of the north.

The plan is for youth groups to be able to earn certificates by completing three tasks. They have to take part in a new activity - perhaps canoeing or orienteering; spend several days catering for themselves - ideally camping, and complete an environmental activity - perhaps painting a street mural or doing a wildlife survey.

A high priority in Hampshire is to get more involvement from adults. "Opportunities for young people, let's face it, are provided by adults," says Dane Oliver, county inspector of outdoor education. Hampshire Education, like other counties, is facing budgetary problems. Staff costs at outdoor centres can be high, so the aim is to try to create more volunteers. "Come and try it" days at Hampshire outdoor centres, provided at minimal cost, will be one way of drawing in more adults during OE 97.

In the north, Stuart Igoe, who runs the Manchester Outdoor Activities Service, sees OE 97 as a way of "raising awareness of what the outdoors can do". He wants to promote "personal skills, trust and confidence".

He has, for example, been working with children from the Ridings School in Halifax, whom he took to the climbing wall at Huddersfield Leisure centre. They had to learn the special language by which the climber and the belayer (the one standing with the rope at the bottom) talk to each other.

"Young people who said they couldn't climb were able to take the responsibility of belaying and so build up trust with their partner," says Igoe.

He believes you do not always have to go on a long expedition to Wales or the Lake district to have successful outdoor activity. He takes groups of primary schoolchildren abseiling in Bolton Park and he finds suitable locations in the area which do not involve expensive bus or car journeys.

In Cornwall OE 97 is going to be a special year for one primary school. Polruan School in East Cornwall, which has 60 children, has decided this coming April to have not the usual book or poetry week but an outdoor adventure week instead. "The idea is for every child to be able to take part - ideally at minimal cost - in climbing, wind surfing, snorkelling, archery, orienteering, mountain-biking or canoeing," explains Andy Barclay of Cornwall Outdoors.

He is trying to get subsidies to make the activities entirely free, but funding is the biggest barrier to expanding outdoor education. "Cornwall Outdoors is a business unit of the local education authority," explains Barclay. "There are now no subsidies from the LEA and the costs have had to go up for schools.

"We've done a customer-satisfaction survey of 100 schools and their main concern is the question of cost. There's not a vast amount of money about in Cornwall. So our biggest problem is to provide a service and still cover our costs."

"All high quality and effective education costs money, " says Ian Lewis. "Outdoor Education provides a really powerful learning environment which represents an excellent investment."

He is optimistic about outdoor education, but it looks as though pockets and purses - both public and private - will have to be dug into more deeply to realise its full potential.

Further information about OE 97 is available from The Outdoor Institute, Eastgate House, Princesshay, Exeter EX1 1LY. Tel: 01392 272372

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