Bridging the gap while fighting off the midges

3rd October 2008 at 01:00
Alness Academy took its whole first year away in the second week of term to work on team-building and the John Muir Award

A nervous 12-year-old edges her way along the narrow pole 15 or so feet (4.5m) above the ground, wobbling and wailing every few steps. "I'm scared, I'm going to fall," she cries out melodramatically.

She's wearing a hard hat and is securely roped in a harness with her friends supporting her on the ground below. But it's stomach-churning to watch - better to look away. Seconds later, she's laughing in triumph - "I did it, I did it" - as she reaches the safety of the other side.

If A Curriculum for Excellence ever includes "working at heights", these first-year pupils from Alness Academy will be front runners. There is no holding them back - some even try swinging along a line of aptly named "monkey rings" almost 15 metres above the ground. Although they're naturally scared, no one's bottling it. They're completely absorbed in these high-rope activities, under the watchful eye of an expert instructor.

This is just one of dozens of new activities 80 first-year pupils are enjoying in Glenmore Forest over a three-day visit to Badaguish, the Cairngorm Outdoor Centre in Cairngorm National Park, near Loch Morlich. They're being coaxed out of their comfort zone into canoes and gorge walking, mountain biking and archery.

They're also working in teams to solve problems that would have high- flying executives in a sweat. And for some of them, it's the first time they've been away from home alone. But they're having memorable experiences in some of the finest scenery Scotland has to offer. It's the first time Alness Academy has staged an event like this for the whole of the new first-year intake - a residential break in the second week of term, designed to ease the transition to "the big school".

They have come from the five associated primaries and many don't know each other. But it's hoped this trip will help them make friends.

The event has been co-ordinated by a partnership which developed in Alness from the community schoolsocial inclusion pilot of 2000. The staff team includes teachers, auxiliaries, youth service workers, the Active Schools co-ordinator and former senior pupil sports leaders. "This is a further development of our transition arrangements, building on the summer play scheme and the work done in primary by our Active Schools co-ordinator, whose remit covers our associated primaries and Alness," says Kenneth MacIver, headteacher.

During one of the crafts activities, Lewis McCloy, 12, talks about his first week at Alness Academy: "I was excited and I was a wee bit worried, because it's going to be harder, and in case I get lost because it's much bigger. It's been good, except I've been lost once," he smiles shyly.

Over the next few days the children are working in teams on a range of challenges geared to encourage them to work together in groups. It's also hoped the activities will help teachers get to know them.

Alness Academy was the first school in the Highlands to be awarded an eco- schools flag this summer, so to maintain the momentum, these children are all working towards their John Muir Award.

Learning support teacher Cathy MacLeod runs the award programme and has put together a series of talks by visitors from the RSPB, the John Muir Trust and Cairngorm Ranger Service.

The children spend time building bird boxes, weeding and collecting litter to do their bit to safeguard this magnificent location. They have a packed programme - but, with superhuman stamina, some still manage to be working on those new friendships hours after lights out - talking in their chalets until 4am.

Mr MacIver is a keen hill-walker and cyclist and a long-standing member of the trust. So when staff came to him with this idea, he was right behind it.

Excursion leader is principal teacher Jill Sharp, who hopes this project develops teamwork. Last year's first years were weak at working together in team sports like hockey and football when they first arrived. "They couldn't last for more than 10 minutes without arguments with each other," she explains.

This venture developed from discussions with youth development worker Janette Douglas, who is based in this community school, along with Wilma Kelt, the Active Schools co-ordinator for the associated primaries and now Alness Academy. Both women worked with the primary pupils and know them from the summer play schemes.

Today, Mr MacIver is kitted out in outdoor gear, traipsing through the rain and midges to see what his new pupils are up to. "They are going to have a huge amount of fun," he says enthusiastically. "And they're going to have lots of new experiences. It might just be the sort of thing that strikes a chord for them and gives them an interest they will follow."

The trip's been heavily subsidised by a range of contributions, including school funds. "Parents have been happy to pay the pound;60, because they know the real cost is pound;200. So we are getting a lot of money from other sources and they can see they're getting a real bargain. And they're all getting a rest at this very moment," Mr McIver laughs, as the midges regroup for a fresh onslaught.

"The feeling was that our transition arrangements are really very good, but that this would be another addition to what we do in terms of transition. So the idea was to try and get all of the first year away at the beginning of the year and give them an outdoor experience, but also provide them with the whole ethos as well as team-building."

Tuition is from outdoors activities company Boots n Paddles - instructors who take the pupils through these new skills with great patience. There are 20 staff with pupils - some of them are also apprehensive about what lies ahead.

Sonia Ramsay, the chemistry teacher, is a non-swimmer who is hoping she'll overcome her fear of water when it comes to the gorge walking. This is also her first time away with the school. After a morning problem solving with pupils, she's already seeing the potential benefits this trip will bring back to the classroom.

The children struggle to work out how to get over a mock electric fence without jumping, using only a plank of wood. Some pupils won't join in, while others immediately know what's expected. "This allows us to get to know the kids and their characters - how they work together, or how they don't work together - and all the things we can do to just pull things together. It's a very quick way of getting to know them, just being thrown into all these activities," she says.

"You do have to be a team player in schools nowadays. In science, in particular, in first and second years, they work in groups all the time. So much work is done in groups now - this will stand them in good stead for all of their subjects."

If Mrs Ramsay speaks to English teacher Wendy Harrison before the gorge walk, she might decide against it. Miss Harrison has just finished and returned exhilarated for a heat in one of the chalets. "It was absolutely freezing. But the kids do it first so if you're last, you can't not do it," she says. "No one fell once, which is amazing because you're going up some pretty steep stuff and there's water coming down it all the time. But they were all really careful."

It's not all about being scared and soaked and bitten to death by midges, though. On day two the sun's out and in the evenings there's a massive choice of sports and games and even pampering sessions where the girls (and some boys) have been lathering on chocolate face packs and watching their favourite DVDs.

Face-pack provider is school-based youth development worker Janette Douglas, who has played a key role organising this trip. "When you take away a group of youngsters from mixed-ability and very, very mixed backgrounds, then it gives them the opportunity to learn from their peers as to behaviour, to build confidence and self-esteem. It's just a long learning curve for all of them," she says.

"This is a huge, huge thing. It can shape a lot of their lives because I think Alness has historically been seen as an area of deprivation, but we have picked ourselves up and moved on from that. The town, I think, has blossomed. It's recognised now as having this huge partnership-working going on and I think that's made a huge difference to how older members of the town look at young people and how young people feel pride in their town."

Principal teacher Jill Sharp's "chalet girls" were talking most of the first night, so by mid-morning she's on the hunt for milk for a coffee kick-start.

Mrs Sharp knows from teaching PE how shared activities can strengthen relationships. "We would push them quite far. We wouldn't force them if they're really scared. But we just show them what it's like and how much fun they can have.

"It's got to come from them," says Mrs Sharp, who led the school's successful bid for a Gold SHAW (Scotland's Health at Work) award for health promotion last year.

In the chalet next door, Fiona Weaver is assembling trays of baked potatoes for tonight's supper. A former biology teacher and now a learning support teacher, she's been taking the pupils out on evening walks, investigating lichens and toadstools and looking out for red squirrels for their John Muir Award.

She began teaching at Alness Academy more than 30 years ago and is still enthusiastic.

"The ethos of the school has always been the thing that people talk about. It's a really good ethos. Inspectors have come and said you can feel it when you go in the door. The ethos is about caring and sharing and supporting and making the best of your potential."

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