Climb every mountain...

11th March 2005 at 00:00
With outdoor education now firmly on the political agenda, Robin Illsley reports on an innovative approach adopted by Perth High, where two outdoor education instructors are part of the school's pupil support team

It was when I saw her tears that I realised what an impact our foray into outdoor education was having. This lady had just witnessed her son, a very quiet first year pupil, help to deliver a presentation and she couldn't believe he had had the confidence to do it.

Her son's first few months at Perth High had been an increasing worry to her. He wasn't making friends, he wasn't happy and he had begun to show signs of not wishing to go to school. Then came the opportunity to take part in First Steps.

The school's outward bound course offers a weekly series of progressive challenges designed to build self-esteem, confidence, teamwork, empathy for ourselves and our environment and decision making skills. While on it, her son made some friends, was happier and was able to face going to school.

Indeed, one day, when he looked ill, he demanded to go because it was his outdoors day.

Now he had helped the rest of his team to deliver a presentation of their achievements to an audience of parents, staff and the two outdoor education instructors who had nurtured, challenged and strengthened them.

His mother's sincerity and relief at what the programme had achieved couldn't fail to touch anyone who witnessed it. The evidence was there: personal and social development through outdoor education can have immediate impact on the lives of the participants and their families. The question for the school was how to build on this initial success and extend the benefits to others.

Having run the Duke of Edinburgh Award programme at Perth High for several years, I have witnessed the many benefits that outdoor activities can have.

But for children who lack confidence in themselves, who may have additional support needs or have parents or carers who are unable to encourage them to take on new opportunities, the scheme is often beyond their reach. Yet these are the very people who have so much to gain from it.

For years there has been a growing sense of frustration that for some pupils there has been too little time in the curriculum for personal and social development. Moves towards curriculum flexibility offer the chance to build in alternative, powerful learning experiences, so why not explore the potential of outdoor education within a pupil support context?

With funding for integrated community school developments, Perth High set out to pilot outdoor programmes, to establish what impact such an approach might have and to examine the long-term viability of outdoor education within a school setting.

Initially the school had to use instructors from Outward Bound Metro, who already had experience of the type of programme we wished to offer. The positive impact was immediate - not that we didn't have critics.

The common complaint was that outdoor education should be for everybody and it was wrong to limit it to a few selected pupils. There is little doubt that the benefits of outdoor education should be available to all but, with minimum resources, choices have to be made. Deciding between a taster session for many or an extended programme of progressive learning experiences for a targeted few was not difficult.

The initial programmes experimented with different groups: disaffected S3S4 teenagers, S1S2 pupils with low self-esteemfew friendspoor social skills, pupils with significant additional support needs and P7 pupils who were likely to struggle with the transition to secondary school.

The first group comprised 12 highly disaffected 14-year-olds. After the first two days, the instructors were uncertain about what they could achieve with them. To their credit, they didn't give up and by the last day had turned an argumentative, unco-operative rabble into a group who could listen to instructions, work together, take responsible decisions and complete challenges.

Despite this progress, the school had not sold the concept of what we were doing. Some pupils didn't understand why they were not getting a bit of the action. We had to re-examine our selection processes and communicate better the purposes of the courses.

We continued to get very positive feedback from pupils, parents and staff after further courses and it was becoming clear that the school needed to expand its impact and work towards the longer term sustainability of what we believe is a new approach to outdoor education.

Perth High's model is significantly different from traditional approaches and has the potential for greater impact. The school has ensured outdoor education does not become linked to a discrete subject, such as physical education, because we wish to use its methodology in an integrated way.

For the same reason, outdoor education instructors are part of our staff, serving our pupils and the wider community. They are part of the core pupil support team, made up of guidance, learning support, behaviour support and community school colleagues. This promotes continuity of relationships, understanding of needs, trust, communication and sharing of information with other key workers, and an ability to support each young person better.

Having two outdoor education workers based at the school - one on the permanent staff and one funded by Perth and Kinross Council for the life of the integrated community schools programme - has been a tremendous leap of faith, which is already reaping dividends.

Since their appointment five months ago, a variety of learning experiences have been implemented, includingl First Steps courses (one day a week for five weeks, providing personal and social development to vulnerable pupils); l Second Steps courses (a one-day follow-up after two to three months to reinforce the progress made); l a weekend leadership course for prefects; l team building and problem-solving activities for S3 and S4 groups through the Prince's Trust XL programme to boost self-esteem; l an outdoor activities club for P7 to S2 pupils; l health promotion events for our community, including a family night time walk and a treasure hunt for families; l a sponsored abseil; l a winter walk and sleepover at a bothy at 2,500ft and l staff development activities, including a weekend residential at Kinloch Rannoch.

Pupils have begun to approach the outdoor staff with their own ideas for challenges or ways of raising money to help others in the community.

Great emphasis is placed on raising attainment and achievement; yet schools are still judged mainly on their academic successes through exam performance. For some pupils we must rectify this imbalance.

There is an increasing number of types of accreditation which can help to build a sense of achievement, and therefore motivation, in students. In addition to the Duke of Edinburgh Award, Perth High now offers the Youth Achievement Award, the John Muir Award and the Step It Up programme. All are proving easy to operate for pupils, some of whom have significant barriers to their learning. The regular recognition of achievement through these awards is helping to sustain the commitment of pupils who may otherwise gradually opt out.

The sustainability of any scheme depends on commitment and partnership. Our pupils are lucky: as well as two outdoor education instructors, about 20 staff give up their spare time to support the programme and the older students are being encouraged to undertake sports leader awards, first aid training and other competencies so they can assist adult leaders. Perth College plans to offer students on work experience placements; volunteers from outwith the school help with hill walking and mountain bike excursions; and local groups have helped to raise funds to buy equipment for the various ventures.

At the heart of the five national priorities in education lie the elements of inclusion, well-being and equality. Anyone involved in pupil support knows the importance of resilience to a child's ability to cope with whatever challenging circumstances they find themselves in. This may be one of the biggest gifts that integrated outdoor education programmes can provide.

The strengthening of resilience in a person is difficult to measure but perhaps the words of one of our pupils, when asked to reflect on their outdoor experiences, gets nearest to the truth: "I thout I cant do it but i can."

Robin Illsley is acting depute rector of Perth High

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