Classroom at Sea blows them away

9th October 2009 at 01:00
Never has learning been so engaging - or exciting - for pupils than aboard a 105ft ketch

As the bow slices through the night sea, the teenage crew of "Leader" lie on deck gazing at the stars.

It has taken all their strength to raise the sails, but once the engine's cut, the wind takes over, urging them on and into the waves.

Gale-force winds and rain have battered the west coast of Scotland and they've already spent two days stormbound in the Sound of Mull. Fourteen- year-old Roy Cook writes in his daily journal: "Wet, wet, wet, wet, wet."

Tonight, the sea is calmer as they take turns on watch, eyes scanning the darkening seas as they set off on their night sail from the island of Eigg for Ardtornish Bay, south of Lochaline.

Under full sail, this 105ft gaff-rigged ketch attracts smiles of admiration wherever she goes. She's a working relic of maritime history, a traditional sailing ship built in 1892 when she was used for fishing under sail. But for a week each autumn, "Leader" becomes The Classroom at Sea for third and fourth-year pupils like Roy, from Alford Academy in Aberdeenshire. This annual voyage of discovery was instigated by the school's principal teacher of art and design, Alistair Thomson, a tousle- haired, middle-aged man with a boy's appetite for adventure.

"The idea that learning happens in the classroom is very efficient, but it's not natural, it's not where human beings were designed to learn. On the whole, they were designed to learn by doing," says Mr Thomson.

The Classroom at Sea aims to encompass all aspects of the curriculum in line with A Curriculum for Excellence and has been identified as innovative practice by HMIE.

Mr Thomson first came aboard seven years ago on a teachers' continuing professional development course organised by SpeyGrian Trust, which promotes outdoor experiential learning for artists, writers, scientists and educators. His experience proved inspirational and each year he leads this journey with colleague Pat Masson, acting principal teacher of support for learning, and an invited guest who brings specialist expertise. This year it's Douglas Gilbert, an ecologist from the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds.

The historic sailing ship is chartered from Trinity Sailing and, under the watchful eye of her professional skipper and mate, the 10 pupils sail her through the Inner Hebrides. "They cook, they clean, they sail the boat," says Mr Thomson, who has run the project for the last three years.

This year, the weather has been unseasonally bad, forcing them to revise some of their original route. "We were sheltering in the Sound of Mull for quite a lot of the time. It was Force 6 or 7 when we were out. But safety is paramount, so the skipper said: `We're not leaving the Sound of Mull until it's blown over,'" he says.

Fortunately, it did.

"One of the best bits was discovering we were going to be able to sail up to Eigg and Rum," says third-year pupil Roy. "At the start of the week, we thought we were going to be stormbound to the Sound of Mull for the whole week, because there was a big storm coming."

This was his first sailing experience, but not even "wet, wet, wet" could get him down: "It was amazing - it was one of the best experiences I have had in my life. Every moment you were doing something, and learning to sail was just really good. It feels impressive being under full sail, so that the wind is powering you and there is nothing being used up like fuel or anything. It's very efficient.

"When you're steering the boat, there's a compass, and we were given a bearing and you had to sail off the bearing. When we did the night sail, I was given a flashing light that I had to sail towards - it was once every ten seconds, so that was quite tricky."

The group left the mainland on Saturday from Oban, and during the week they drop anchor to explore some of Scotland's wild and remote places - beaches and bays accessible only by boat - islands each with a unique and colourful past.

They meet the islanders of Eigg and hear a first-hand account of their historic community buyout from resident Maggie Fyffe; they go ashore on Rum and tour the fascinating Kinloch Castle as guests of Scottish Natural Heritage.

Ecologist Douglas Gilbert talks them through different habitats on island walks, studies the shoreline with them and can tell them more about the porpoises which suddenly arc out of the sea alongside them.

Each day the teenagers write a journal, recording the highs and lows of life at sea in their own words, drawings and photographs.

They write about the new adventures a new day brings and the skills they are learning - taking the helm of this incredible sailing vessel, understanding charts and navigation, learning knots, meeting the islanders and learning about their way of life.

Fortunately, not every minute is filled with earnest endeavour. They also develop a rich seam of humour, which they plunder like a team of sitcom writers from dawn until well after dark.

And with their own young piper, Grant Noble, onboard, their distinctive Scottish soundtrack drifts eerily across the sea, heralding their arrival in each new port. Grant, 14, has a great week and in his journal describes everything as ace - the sailing, the mackerel he caught and even on one occasion, the weather.

The pupils are awarded RYA Competent Crew Certificates after their journey - but some like Grant are hooked and already investigating how they can get their day skipper's qualification. He has also appreciated the opportunity to get to know the other pupils better: "We knew each other, but we never spoke unless we were sitting next to each other in class," he says.

Leadership and team building are key elements of this journey, and at sea youngsters get the chance to show qualities that might go unrecognised in a classroom setting.

Closeness to the sea also inspires their writing - like this extract from 16-year-old Mhairi Lawson's journal from last year's voyage. "Water is flying over our heads, we were standing whooping at the back. It was Force 6 wind - we were all clipped on . It feels wonderful being part of something so wild and strong, flying over the surface of it all."

Roy says learning here is much less formal than in a real classroom. "It's just the things that you do are linking learning with sailing - sometimes you're learning about navigation, then about the birds and things like that."

Shipmate Kirsty McKain, 14, says: "It did feel like you were learning, but it was in a subtle way, not in your face - `you're going to do this, this is how you do that.' You do a lot of different activities in different places, which teaches you more than a long hard slog of just one subject."

Like her friends, Kirsty enjoyed the camaraderie of life at sea. "My best bit was when we were all together - it was Sarah's birthday - and we jumped into the water and it was so cold you couldn't breathe, that was in the loch at Rum."

Birthday girl Sarah Anderson, 14, had a day to remember: "It was really good, they made a cake and everything for me, which Mr Thomson decorated himself."

They also loved the chance to fish off the boat, catching and gutting mackerel, which they prepared for tea with advice from the ship's cook. "It always tastes nicer when you know you've put the effort into catching them and cooking them," says Molly Spooner, a bubbly 13-year-old.

This project is in response to Aberdeenshire Council's curriculum framework for three to 18-year-olds and Learning and Teaching Scotland's recent paper Outdoor Connections. The charter costs around pound;5,500 and the local authority contributes, along with The John Muir Trust. Pupils must pay to make the journey, but they fundraise throughout the year to help their cause.

As this year's Classroom at Sea draws to an end, 13-year-old Lindsay Middleton records her thoughts in her journal: "It's an absolutely glorious day today, it's a bit of a shame that it's the last day. There's a periwinkle sky with mackerel clouds, the sea looks almost tropical and we've seen too many porpoises to count .

"My time on Leader is coming to an end and it's really quite sad. I'm just going to sit back and enjoy it and soak up my last minutes.";;

`Tweak to transform'

Teacher Alistair Thomson's inspiration for this annual adventure came from his earlier voyage on "Leader" (above) in 2002, on a teachers' course organised by SpeyGrian, a charitable trust promoting outdoor experiential learning.

"This programme was based on the CPD project that I took part in called Making Connections - it's making connections between the arts and science, the classroom and the outdoors," explains Mr Thomson, now one of SpeyGrian's trustees.

During a study trip to Northwest Canada, SpeyGrian founder Joyce Gilbert worked with educationist Bob Jickling of Yukon College. He ran courses for teachers and other professionals, enriched by outdoor trips accompanied by ecologists.

Dr Gilbert then launched SpeyGrian back in Scotland.

Through his experiences with SpeyGrian, Mr Thomson developed The Classroom at Sea, adding value to children's outdoor experiences to enhance their learning. "If you are on a camping expedition and a storyteller was to arrive at camp, or you were to walk with someone who can interpret the environment for you - it can be enriched. I heard a phrase, `tweak to transform', and I've been bringing that into practice in the school."

Earlier this year, Alford Academy pupils showcased The Classroom at Sea when they joined the Real World Learning Partnership at the Scottish Parliament to lobby MSPs to develop outdoor learning experiences for children across Scotland.

Forty-five MSPs signed the following mission statement: "Every child, regardless of their background should have regular access to inspirational and challenging outdoor learning, where they can enjoy first-hand experience of their cultural heritage and natural environment, as part of a complete childhood."


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