Grace, confidence, peace: something in the water

9th July 2010 at 01:00
You don't have to be an ugly duckling to benefit from the experience of outdoor education

The cygnets feeding with their parent swans in the shallows by the sea are so appealing it's hard to fathom how the myth of the ugly duckling began. But Arran Outdoor Centre has a way of bringing out the best in every youngster, says learning manager Nigel Marshall: "It changes them profoundly."

Not that the young people from Auchenharvie Academy, colourfully kayaking in the sea beyond the swans, were lacking in potential when they came here. It wasn't as obvious as it is now. On the third day of their leadership course, 26 new fourth-year pupils have firmly bonded and learnt lessons that somehow passed them by in 10 previous years of schooling.

"We are in an area of real social deprivation," says headteacher Steven Quinn. "There are lots of problems: drugs, alcohol, unemployment, parenting issues. There's third-generation unemployment and a lack of belief that anything is possible. So these youngsters are growing up in a very difficult environment. Nobody has ever believed in many of them. We are saying that we do, and here's what we think you can achieve.

"Nigel and his team are fantastic at tailoring activities to match what I want the kids to get out of it. So each of the five days has a different theme. Yesterday was about leading and following. Tomorrow is about staying strong when you face a challenge. Today is about trust."

It does take a lot of trust to abseil, the youngsters discover when the kayaking is over: trust in the rope, in the instructor and in your team members 80 feet below, who have already done it and are urging you to take that first backward step into space.

"Getting over the edge was the hardest part," says Victoria Northcote. "You are holding onto the rope for dear life."

"You look down and think `Oh no,'" says Gillian Palmer, interrupting herself to yell "GO Shannon!" as she sees another classmate stepping over the edge, high above her.

The connection of the growing group of children on the ground with each seemingly isolated teammate on the rope is intense. They are taking every step with them, feeling their fear, sharing their sense of achievement when they reach the ground. "You are almost there, Cameron!" Gillian shouts up. "Move a wee bit to your left."

But while many emotions are shared around the group, there are some differences. "It doesn't feel that high when you're coming down," says Lauren Telford, having just done a fast and confident first descent. "I was more scared of a wasp up there that had me running round in circles."

But for Cameron, the abseil was really scary, he admits, breathing a sigh of relief as he touches down and looks delighted. "But I wanted to do it. I decided I was going to do it."

A disparate bunch of individuals has been forged in just two days into a group that cares about each other, Mr Marshall comments quietly. "On the first day, they were all standing back and just watching. But not now. They're all very much involved in how everyone else is getting on."

The biggest challenge for these youngsters is one that struck a chord with Shelley Neil, 17, a former pupil of Mr Quinn's when he was depute head at Cumnock Academy. "I was their age when I first went to Columba 1400 on Skye. It was because I got so much out of it that they asked me to come this week to help the teachers.

"The hardest part at first is thinking you can do everything on your own. They come here feeling they don't need support from anyone. But already they're like `Can you help me please?', which is a big factor for them. I was exactly the same, so I know how they feel. I want to help them realise they can be on their own when they want to, but get help when they need it."

Confidence is the other huge change in youngsters who go through this kind of experience, she says. "Going into fourth year is really important. Like on Monday, none of them would stand up and speak. But last night they were great. It's because they're supporting and encouraging each other."

Although two-and-a-half days seems a short time for such a transformation, it felt gradual, says Shannon Payne - and having to make mistakes was a part of it. "Like with the kayaking, they teach you what to do with the oars before you go in. I did it a different way and capsized. You're wearing a lifejacket, though, so you just bob in the water."

Shannon has been forced to reassess her classmates, she says. "Three days ago, a lot of us didn't know each other. Like I thought Sam was this know- it-all boy. But I completely underestimated him. He's got loads of knowledge. We have learnt a lot of skills here, but you can't really take that with you.

"You can't go back and practise abseiling and kayaking. But you can take back the teamwork, the commitment, the drive, the motivation.

"My ideas have changed completely since I came here. I never thought someone motivating you could affect the way you did something. Before, if you'd told me I was doing well at something, I'd have said `No, I'm not.' Now I would agree.

"I've abseiled off 80 feet - oh yes!" she calls over her shoulder as she heads off jauntily along the path, following in the footsteps of her teammates, who are off to have another go.

That transformation in attitudes is the whole point of bringing youngsters to the Arran Outdoor Centre, says their headteacher Mr Quinn - and investing the time and effort needed to make it happen. "It brings them to a different world. It lets them see what's possible and helps them fulfil their potential."

But how teachers work with participants when they are back in school is the key to making it stick, he says. "It is a lot of fun here. But it is definitely not a holiday.

"In return for all this, we expect a great deal from the kids who come. They will be taking the lead with activities in school and the wider community. They'll be mentoring younger pupils. There will be a continuing expectation on every one of them that they'll achieve beyond anything they ever thought was possible."

Arran Outdoor Centre, Lamlash, Isle of Arran T 01770 600532, E

A haven where pupils can be at their peak

On the winding, off-road drive up to Cloud Base, learning manager Nigel Marshall shares his thinking, shaped by 30 years in outdoor education.

"There was a girl a few years back who came to the centre with big problems. Her boyfriend had got her into a drug habit and she was trying hard to get clean," he says.

"So I organised days filled with activities for her. I was thinking: `If you're on drugs, you're looking for that buzz.' But after a couple of days, I asked what she had enjoyed most and she really surprised me. It was when we took them out on a walk through the woods, she said. `It was so quiet and peaceful.'"

This was one of many experiences that convinced him over the years, he says, that something happens in outdoor learning at a deeper level than many realise. "There is a subtlety about it. It's not about thrills and spills. People can be changed profoundly by coming out here, if you work with them in the right way.

"You just heard it from the kids who were abseiling. Well, I believe that effect is even deeper and longer-lasting if you take them out on an expedition. Most of our courses now include an expedition up here to Cloud Base."

Set in a small clearing in the trees, Cloud Base consists of half-a-dozen pine huts with windows, powered solely by a small wind turbine and an even smaller panel of solar cells. The centre looks spartan but peaceful and welcoming. And more so, says Mr Marshall, if you arrive in the late evening, having trekked across the island all day.

"I love it when children come back from this place," he says, opening the door of the main hut to reveal hard-looking wooden bunks with free-sliding drawers full of bedding. "We cook in here and sit around and talk. The only concession to modern technology is this projector, connected to a telescope outside that's pointed at the sky. On a clear night, the views of the moon and stars are just wonderful.

"When kids come back from here they are very quiet, and it's not just tiredness. They're in a reflective, contemplative mood. They've had to share and look after one another out in what to them is a wilderness - and all they've had to do to get here is walk and keep on walking."

The work of the Arran Outdoor Centre builds on the efforts of two outdoor instructors who tour North Ayrshire schools, says Mr Marshall. "That's important, because it means there is a progression."

The whole outdoor experience is about much more than having fun, he says. "Some people say what happens in an outdoor centre is very different from what goes on in school. But it shouldn't be.

"My chief instructor and I are both teacher-trained. We use well-equipped classrooms at the centre. We've been working with teachers in subjects such as geography and maths to match activities on our courses with Curriculum for Excellence outcomes and experiences. It is a profound learning experience the children get when they come here."

The coming financial cuts mean the future might be a little uncertain, he says. "We may start offering some courses to businesses. But the centre has grown out of a commitment, by the community and myself, over many years, to the educational value of the outdoors. Learning and teaching are at the heart of everything we do here."

  • Original headline: Grace, confidence, peace: there's something in the water on Arran

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