Fishing is not just a sleepy hobby by a river bank, there's geography, literacy, numeracy and science involved, says Crispin Andrews.Angling - one of the country's most popular participation sports - is helping disaffected pupils from a deprived area of Nottinghamshire get back into learning. While more than a million Britons take to the river banks and piers every year for sport and recreation, pupils from River Leen School in Bulwell are discovering that to fish successfully and safely you need good literacy and numeracy skills, not to mention a basic understanding of the environment.
"For starters you need to be able to interpret written and verbal instructions, measure distances and weights, and know what equipment to bring with you to catch different types of fish," says school site manager Ian Coates, a level two angling coach who launched the National Federation of Anglers' Introduction to Angling and the Environment course as an out-of-school-hours club last year. Level 2 of the course is equivalent to GCSE grades A to C.
Ian and Keith Dyson, a humanities teacher, run a weekly angling club at the school. The water cycle, weather patterns, wind direction and air pressure, along with aspects of the science curriculum such as photosynthesis, food chains, identification and categorisation - all of this is learnt through angling. But there is more.
Different ground baits are needed to catch certain fish at varying depths, making an ideal context for a maths investigation, as pupils use trial and error to calculate the correct weight and ratio of the different types of bait needed. Literacy skills are developed through keeping diaries and writing reports.
Once a week, the group heads off to the Awsworth canal to put into practice what they have learnt in the classroom. To one youngster, the prevalence of water lilies within this particular stretch is an annoyance, preventing him from getting a clear shot at the fish.
His mood changes when a friend explains that without the vegetation and the oxygen it emanates, fish would not be able to breathe. "Why do you think fish don't have to come to the surface for air?" he asks rhetorically. "Doesn't matter anyway," chips in another pupil on overhearing their conversation. "Probably no fish left in here anyway; cormorant has had the lot."
If studied for the sake of it, the realities of coastal and inland ecosystems, where sea birds such as cormorants come inland to feed - allegedly depleting fish stocks - are unlikely to be of interest to this particular group.
When related to the immediate impact on their own leisure time, the thirst for knowledge appears and can be stretched in many directions. What are cormorants? Why are they here now? Is that why the fish swim deeper in these waters? If so, what sort of ground bait do we need to use to make them come nearer the surface so we can catch them? And what about the cormorants? Should we shoot or trap them to protect our fish or is what they are doing just natural?
"Angling can act as the basis for the exploration of many pertinent local and national issues," says Ian. "Personal safety while fishing makes an interesting stimulus for discussion in PSHE, as does the anglers' responsibility for looking after the environment. This is particularly so in an area like ours, where adult anglers' complaints about the behaviour of youngsters mean that young people are being banned from designated fishing areas."
Six River Leen pupils have already passed their exams while the rest await their turn this year. Eleven other schools have introduced the course as an out-of-school-hours activity since its conception last year and, with more already signed up, the NFA hopes that it will soon give youngsters all over the country the chance to use this age old pastime as a stimulus for learning.
Keith Dyson would like to see the course become part of an alternative curriculum for disaffected youngsters. "You are using pupils' interests to alter behaviour patterns and raise aspirations," he says. "One girl who has just left River Leen is determined to become an angling coach and make it into the national team," he adds.