Hackney Free and Parochial C of E Secondary School doesn't look the obvious place to go to if you're searching for a hotbed of orienteering. Hedged in by some of the unloveliest tower blocks and low-rise housing estates this side of Bucharest, the neighbourhood is quintessentially inner city, inhabited by people you might expect to feel more at home indoors than out.
But you'd be wrong - or at least not wholly correct. Under the direction of head of PE and assistant headteacher Adrian Mullis, there is a thriving, enthusiastic and highly skilled core of pupils who love nothing more than chasing around with a map and compass, whether it's in car parks and around the backs of portable offices or in parks, forests and open countryside. Being situated in one of the poorest, most built-up areas in the country has not stopped Adrian Mullis and his adventurous young team doing what they like.
Neither should it stop any other school. The British Orienteering Federation's schools development officer, Pauline Olivant, believes Hackney Free and Parochial is a model of good practice for any school that doesn't think orienteering is possible in urban areas. "You can do most of the teaching on the school site in preparation for the trip, and then go on location for the actual experience. And it helps that it's a fairly inexpensive outdoor adventurous activity that often appeals to children who don't like team sports - or any sports for that matter."
Adrian Mullis is a vigorous proselytiser for the adaptability of any school to the demands of orienteering in the PE and sports curriculum.
"You can do it anywhere. You can use features already existing in school - gates, pathways, trees, stairwells - to paint markers on, and then you have them there permanently. It makes it easier than spending an hour every day planting markers around the place, like I used to do. For instance, I could use a distinctive tree in the south-west corner of the car park as a clue, telling the pupils to go and find it and there will be a marker nearby that I've planted. You can be creative with what you've got."
The fundamental task is getting your school mapped. Every school gets a free map of their grounds when they join their local orienteering club or you can get the geography department to do it. After that, all you need are compasses. "You don't need expensive or perfect ones," says Mullis. "All you need is for the bevel to work."
His school was mapped through its involvement with the Royal amp; Sun Alliance Panathlon Challenge, which chooses one school in each London borough to enter its competition. Participating schools get mapped by professionals and are also given money to enable them to set up orienteering and other sports. Through being in the Challenge, the school got involved in the local orienteering club, which supports schools by offering expertise and advice. It also runs local competitions and will map partner schools in the area, which is what it has done for the primary schools in Hackney Free and Parochial's neighbourhood. In addition, it offers teacher qualifications in orienteering, a welcome innovation for the majority of teachers with little or no experience of the activity.
The mapping skills all the pupils learn on the school grounds at key stage 3 are put into practice at a permanent site in nearby Victoria Park. But for those with talent and interest in developing their skills further, there are after-school and weekend clubs and events, including regionally organised orienteering activities. While there are still fewer girls than boys in the extra-curricular group, the gap has narrowed in the past couple of years. Where there used to be only one or two girls in a group of 13 boys, the club members are now roughly a third girls.
Fatma Cokgezici, Year 9, is one of them. "It's like a quiz show, having to rush around following the clues. I like competition and I'm not scared to try out new things. And you learn things that you can use in your outside life, like planning and organising."
For Alishea Robinson, who's in the same year as Fatma, there are other reasons for being in the club. "You're doing something together with other people, you're doing something to get fit and it's fun. I wouldn't be running about in parks if it wasn't for this."
Adrian Mullis sees his pupils' self-esteem rise as their skills increase. He starts them off with one marker, then builds up the numbers as they become more sure-footed. Which they invariably do. Given the white-dominated nature of orienteering in this country, the high status that it is given in a school with a predominantly ethnic minority intake is a lesson in how conventions are meant to be broken when they're for the sake of your pupils.
"We're the only inner-city team competing nationally on a regular basis and the only group presenting a multicultural team," he says. "We can compete with the best orienteering schools in the country and we're not in the Lake District or the Pennines."
Orienteering Key Stage 3 and 4. by P Palmer and C McNeill. Harvey's Publishers. Tel: 01786 841202. email: firstname.lastname@example.org
Orienteering in the National Curriculum Key Stages 1 to 3. by C McNeill, J Martland, P Palmer Harvey's Publishers, as above.
Map Reading Made Easy. Ordnance Survey. Tel: 08456 05 05 05
Let's Go Orienteering! British Orienteering Federation Tel: 0629 734 042
British Schools Orienteering Association www.bsoa.org
Royal amp; Sun Alliance Panathlon Challenge. www.panathlon.uk.royalsun.com