A walk on the wild side

6th January 2006 at 00:00
Working in the great outdoors; walking, biking and canoeing in some of Britain's most beautiful countryside - and being paid for it. At Kilvrough Manor, on the Gower peninsular near Swansea, 27-year-old Ed Abbley is living the dream... as a teacher at one of the country's network of outdoor education centres.

Kilvrough is one of three centres controlled by Oxfordshire county council.

The three-storey manor house, with its battlements and grounds, takes primary and secondary groups from Oxfordshire schools and offers them varied experiences, from the traditional multi-activity week, to GCSE and A-level fieldwork.

As a Year 9 pupil at school in Abingdon, Ed Abbley first came to the centre. But his interest in the outdoors had already been sparked by trips into the hills with friends. "I started mountain walking and biking while I was still at school," he says.

Mr Abbley went on to complete a year-long outdoor education diploma at Newbury College, which gave him a background in many activities, from mountain walking to caving and climbing. That was followed by a year as a trainee instructor at an outdoor education centre in the Brecon Beacons.

"That gave me the chance to work alongside other full-time instructors, to learn the teaching skills," he says.

Then it was on to the Lake District to follow a degree in outdoor education at St Martin's College in Ambleside. "I was already thinking about teaching, when I was offered a job here at Kilvrough."

Outdoor education varies from big commercial providers such as PGL, which offers a holiday-type experience, to the outdoor centres that tailor the week to the school curriculum. Oxfordshire's three centres fall into the second category.

The county prefers its outdoor education leaders to be qualified teachers.

After a period at the centre as a trainee, Ed Abbley found himself on the graduate teacher programme at an Oxfordshire primary school.

"I enjoyed the experience a lot. It allows you to be more aware of the children's needs when they visit the centre," he says.

Over the past 20 years, centres such as Kilvrough have been under threat as local education authority budgets have been whittled down and schools have increasingly opted for a leisure experience on a school trip. Like others in the sector, Kilvrough's head, Brian Davies, thinks the move away from practical fieldwork has been a mistake and he strongly believes that the activity experience will have better results if the leaders are qualified teachers.

Occasional safety scares have also frightened some parents off residential trips, which is frustrating for those who work in the industry and who know that the statistics show that children are more in danger at home in bed than they are on a school trip to a recognised centre.

Back on the Gower, Mr Abbley is leading groups in the outdoors daily. He has an impressive array of qualifications - in climbing, canoeing, mountain walking and caving. But despite training as a teacher, he doesn't have qualified teacher status, because the Training and Development Agency for Schools will not allow teachers to complete their newly qualified teacher year in an outdoor centre. This, says Brian Davies, is short-sighted.

"We can clearly demonstrate that our work is relevant to the curriculum; our programmes are negotiated on that basis with the schools, and each student has a set of targets for the week."

"It's a lot more than just 'taster' activities: we do curriculum-based work here as well. The centre has geography and science specialists," says Mr Abbley.

When a group arrives at Kilvrough they keep the same teacher-instructor for the week, which builds trust and aids the kind of personal development work that outdoor education is ideally placed to provide.

"You can see the children making progress through the week; they leave here on the Friday with better confidence in their abilities," says Mr Abbley.

His day begins at 8.45am with a group meeting where the activities for the day are discussed, including the weather forecast and start and finish times. Pupils then collect the kit they need from the centre's cavernous equipment store. Then it's into the minibus and out to the venue, which could be the cliffs and coastline of the Gower, Worms Head, Roscilly, the Brecon Beacons or the Black mountains.

However, Mr Abbley does have that induction year to complete. In the long-term, he thinks he may return to the classroom full time. "I'd like to be in outdoor education for a few more years," he says. "It's taken a long time and a lot of training to get here."

And what does he do in his time off?

"I do the same kind of thing, walking canoeing, climbing. It's what I enjoy, and this is an ideal location."

More information about outdoor education can be found on the Association of Heads of Outdoor Education Centres website: www.ahoec.org.Kilvrough Manor: www.kilvrough.org.uk

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