A guardianship scheme at Hatfield Forest in Essex is providing inspiration for students with behavioural problems, reports Jerome Monahan
The first time the students had a deer dropping pointed out to them their reactions were mostly 'uggh, pooh!' On a subsequent visit they amazed a warden by drawing his attention to similar signs only moments before a deer actually broke cover."
Cate Leonard is explaining the kind of experience that convinced her that the West Essex Pupil Referral Unit (PRU) should become the guardianship school for nearby Hatfield Forest - a National Trust property covering over 1,000 acres of ancient woodland, grassland with trees, lakes and marshland.
Probably the hardest requirement of the new citizenship curriculum to fulfil is to encourage students to participate in and reflect on some sort of community involvement. Often this translates into doing good works around the school or fund-raising. By contrast, the National Trust's guardianship scheme seeks to build a relationship between some of its individual properties and local pupils. This enables the students to gain a range of experience, including practical conservation skills.
In the case of Hatfield Forest, the scheme has involved students in traditional forest management activities that probably date back millennia.
On a particularly damp day, the students and I accompany acting property manager Adrian Clark to see the results of their labours. In an area bounded by denser woodland and crossed by a stream, we come across what appears to be a field of giant birds' nests. Closer inspection reveals that within each intricately wound network of branches there is a tree stump covered in shooting stems.
"These trees have been coppiced," Mr Clark explains. "The process is part of an 18-year cycle in which the trees are cut down almost to ground level.
These clearances are essential for retaining the rich bio-diversity associated with open areas in the forest and the crop of poles that emerge from the stump are harvested for use in a variety of traditional industries. It also prolongs the life of trees by hundreds of years."
But not if fallow deer get to the juicy new growth first - and that's where the nest-like defences come in. "Having explained the problem to the students," Mr Clark says, "it was up to them to collaborate, gathering the branches and coming up with their own defence design. The whole point of the work is fostering independent thought alongside teamwork."
The project was one of a series of activities the students undertook, the emphasis being on maintaining a rapid-enough succession of events to keep their attention from wandering. As well as nature walks and specific team-building exercises, they were asked to create a wildlife area from scratch.
"They cleared the spot, took part in planting and built a habitat pile out of branches," Cate Leonard of West Essex PRU says. For her, the greatest value of the scheme is that the students were encouraged from the beginning to think of themselves as professionals doing an important job. "Most of them responded positively to being out of the classroom," she says. "And the National Trust people showered them in praise, so they really felt they were making a valuable contribution - something that was also emphasised on subsequent visits, when they could see the results of all their hard work."
Gareth Parker, 15, is convinced that participating in Hatfield Forest's conservation helped him to reverse some negative tendencies.
"Before I went to the Unit, I was unsociable and getting into a lot of arguments at school," he admits. "Alongside all the other help I got, the time in the woods was really good. Now I really don't mind who I work with and I wasn't the only person there who had light bulbs going on in their head. We have been back a few times now and it's good watching what we did grow."
Cate Leonard says that Gareth dedicated himself to the coppice protection work, sticking at it doggedly when others moved on to different activities.
"He hasn't looked back," she says. "He is now in school doing his GCSEs and carrying out two days' work experience with the conservation team in Epping Forest as part of an environmental care NVQ."
Gareth is clearly passionate about the vocation he has discovered: "People take the woods for granted. You see plenty of ignorant behaviour, people dropping litter, and some of the things that people expect to see are ridiculous - giraffes and bears. I'm also keeping fit."
This is something Cate Leonard has also noticed. "I was amazed at how the students persevered when we were getting the nature area cleared. I was knackered, but they kept going. And at the end, one of them even offered to give me a lift in their wheelbarrow."
Hatfield Forest. Takeley, nr Bishop's Stortford, Essex CM22 6NE. Tel 01279 870678. Opening times: Open all year, from dawn to dusk. Full education programme.
* Sustainable development and the environment
* Value of voluntary work
* Political, spiritual, moral, social and cultural issues
* Reflecting on participation
* Taking part in community-based activities
* Demonstrating personal and group responsibility