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Roped into the climb to success

'This is not about academic improvement, but academic improvement may result'

North Lanarkshire, whose education motto is "Aiming Higher", has put climbing and hillwalking at the centre of its strategy to lift achievement among 15-year-olds.

In an unprecedented Pounds 100,000 initiative, the council teamed up last year with the Outward Bound Trust at Loch Eil, Fort William, to offer a thousand third and fourth-year pupils the chance to increase their confidence and skills through outdoor adventure.

The 15-week programme, involving 26 secondaries and three special schools, ends this month. Around 70 "average" pupils from a mix of secondaries make the journey north every week.

The programme is free to pupils and is part of the attempt to raise overall achievement levels in an authority rated the second most deprived in Scotland. Michael O'Neill, the council's director of education, says underachievement is linked to a lack of self-confidence and aspiration.

"It is a logical extension of our raising achievement policy and self-esteem and self-belief are at the heart of it. We are hopeful it will lead to improved exam performance," Mr O'Neill said.

The strategy also includes early intervention, supported study and Easter and summer schools.

The council says achievement "should be marked by key attributes such as the development of self-esteem and self-determination, good interpersonal skills and community involvement".

Geoff Hewitt, Outward Bound's manager, said: "This is not about academic improvement but academic improvement may happen as a result."

Morag Ferries, principal teacher of home economics at St Margaret's High, Airdrie, has just come back from one of the courses and believes they are instilling the "can do" philosophy. "If anyone can jump off the parachute jump, they need never be frightened of anything again," Mrs Ferries said.

She admits one or two participants drop out but many form new friendships across the religious divide and achieve feats beyond their dreams.

"A lot of kids have come out of their shell and some have astonished themselves. They have set out targets for achievement, kept a record so that they can see their improvement during the week and they are committed to a team. Nobody really cares whether you are the best. It is the ability to be a team player and support others that matters," Mrs Ferries said.

Pupils are deliberately mixed up and work in teams throughout. Individuals put down a Pounds 5 deposit for their cagoules, boots, gloves and rucksacks but team members are collectively liable if any member loses a piece of kit.

Mr O'Neill wants the programme to continue and is optimistic the Government's New Deal cash could be channelled towards it. A research project may be established to assess the full educational value of the experience but in the meantime feedback is positive.

"Teachers are seeing a difference in pupils who are coming back talking all about it. One pupil who hardly ever talked before got a grade for Standard grade English," Mr O'Neill said.

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