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Sense of reality

A regional shake-up north of the border has forced the creation of a new breed of outdoor centre, reports David Henderson

Peter Wilson is philosophical about the demise of Scottish regional councils. This is surprising given that the financial fall-out from this political redistribution two years ago has dismembered outdoor education in Scotland. For the time being at least, large numbers of pupils, particularly those in the west of Scotland, may find outdoor education an unattainable luxury.

But Mr Wilson is not one to sit back and whinge about the unfairness of it all. He has been forced to adapt or die, and is in the process of reinventing outdoor education.

He is managing director of the curiously-titled Actual Reality Scotland Limited, a company that runs three outdoor centres in Argyll, at Castle Toward, Ardentinny and Achnamara. In common with many similar centres throughout Scotland, all were under threat after the regional council changes. New budget constraints meant that outdoor education was cut back.

In spite of the parlous political situation, Peter Wilson and several colleagues mounted a management buy-out for the centres, partly in the hope that the current situation may yet prove temporary, but mainly, he says, because "the sheer joy outdoor education gives to young people is worth sticking our necks out for. Besides, we can influence things far better from this position than we could have done by any other means."

Actual Reality has transformed the way the three centres operate: "We've halved the costs and doubled the efficiency," he says. "Yes, salaries have been cut, but people are motivated by more than the bottom line in their pay packet. "

Activities have also changed. "We do not routinely use activities with low staff-student ratios, such as dinghy sailing or mountaineering. Nor do we use activities that require expensive capital equipment. We've also introduced other groups of clients at other times who pay more."

A typical day for children will involve cycling or problem-solving in the morning, followed by a ropes course, orienteering and hill-walking, and finishing with a night walk. Mr Wilson says the new-look schedule is "more relevant than ever" for children. "We try to set targets at a level that ensures all participants can contribute and succeed within their own terms of reference. The activities become more relevant because individual members make decisions in their collective interest. It empowers them and gives them responsibility."

The approach has had a significant effect on pupils. Evelyn Pattison, a teacher at Springhill primary school in Glasgow, says: "Some children are applying themselves more than before in their academic work." And Cindy Macdonald, head of Achahoish primary school in Argyll, says: "It provided an excellent opportunity for the children to work together and help each other in a variety of circumstances."

Under the re-worked system, pupils can master new skills, such as orienteering, mountain biking or problem-solving and take some control of their learning. Outdoors, this means using less specialised equipment, such as ropes, barrels and pieces of wood - all materials that occur naturally in rural settings - as well as skittles, milk crates, benches and home-made compasses. These can be used to build bridges, rafts or pontoons, in whatever way the group decides is best for the particular challenge they have been set.

Indoors, responsibilities can range from setting tables to making rules about bedtime, being responsible for group comfort or giving encouragement and support, and celebrating achievements.

There is now less emphasis on recruiting staff with a vast array of technical qualifications (such as mountain leadership) although some existing staff are qualified to take groups out if required. But, says Mr Wilson: "Few groups want that kind of activity when you show them how much it will cost and how much more they could achieve with their entire class if they concentrate on the ropes course or the initiative games."

He wants to return to more adventurous activities if resources ever allow, and to increase salaries for staff and improve facilities. That may require a revamped approach, including funding from the business world.

The Outward Bound Trust, which was recently brought back from the brink of insolvency, has become a model in this respect. It has attracted many corporate and business clients which use its activities as a base for their team-building exercises.

Mr Wilson believes the collapse of the former structures may be "no bad thing" as they may have lacked accountability, educational focus and direction. He says they included too much of the outdoor challenge and too little emphasis on the educational value for all.

His strategy is about personal and social development and raising achievement. Whereas under the old regime, this may have been a worthwhile by-product or an added extra, now "it occupies centre stage. Our instructors are skilled in assisting, aiding and encouraging this. The stated outcome and success of courses are declared and measured in these terms."

All the latest educational research on the way people learn emphasises the importance of emotional intelligence and positive attitudes. Peter Wilson believes his approach to building self-esteem and self-confidence through positive experience in the outdoors is a sure way of achieving that.

Details of courses at the three centres are available from the Castle Toward Outdoor Education Centre, Toward, by Dunoon, Argyll PA23 7UH. Tel: 01369 870249

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