If you go down to the woods ..

26th September 2008 at 01:00
Lecturers teaching primary children to turn a lathe, using a 1.5m cross-cut saw, is not the usual image of further education. Jean McLeish reports

When they're asked how they got on at school today, the pupils at Insch Primary will have more to say than the usual monosyllabic "fine".

They've been out in shelters at the back of the school learning wood turning, cutting logs with saws and making holes with hand drills. It might have made parents of a nervous disposition queasy just watching but, as one P6 boy said, "This was the best day ever."

The children are making equipment for their Wooden Olympics, which will be staged for all the pupils at this Aberdeenshire school next month. And today P6 and P7 are being taught traditional woodcrafting skills to make what they need for their country-style Olympics.

The initiative is part of a programme of rural skills education being delivered to schools throughout Aberdeenshire by staff from Banff and Buchan College at Fraserburgh. The four-strong mobile team take their trailer full of tools to schools across the region and go out into woodland and countryside locations to demonstrate skills that are dying out.

You can sense the children's excitement - they can't wait to get their hands on all this stuff and once they've got on the goggles and watched the safety demonstrations, they're giving it 100 per cent concentration. "You just push the pedal - we're making skittles," says Paul Clark, 10, who is engrossed in wood turning at a pole lathe.

Amanda Copson is a vocational trainer and assessor in rural skills at Banff and Buchan College and is showing pairs of children how to saw logs to make wooden discs for one of the Olympic events.

"The children are using a big cross-cut saw, an old traditional saw which takes two people to hold. It's probably one metre-and-a-half long. It is a scary piece of equipment, but if you give the children a few safety rules at the beginning, it's amazing how they respect the tools and equipment, respect what you say and just get on with it," she says.

The children are sawing discs from a spruce log, which they'll decorate and younger children will throw them at targets in their Olympics. They're even creating medals and drilling holes in them for ribbons, so the winners can wear them. "A lot of these skills aren't used any more, because they've been taken over by mechanised bits of equipment. So this cross-cut saw would have been taken over - it's labour intensive, but it's something the children enjoy doing.

"It's not to teach them skills for working - it's to teach them skills of co-ordination and teamwork. You can see them discussing the best way to do it and how someone else is doing it. It's teamwork, pride and sense of achievement - all the things which are part of the curriculum which schools have to cover now," Ms Copson says.

Pam Tateson is a lecturer in rural skills at Banff and Buchan College, who heads up this team. "I love woodlands. I want children to understand the beauty of trees really," says Pam, a former countryside ranger who farms at New Deer, 30 miles from here.

Last year, her team delivered Access 2 courses in Managing Environmental Resources throughout the year at seven primary schools. "We worked mainly with P6s and P7s, and by the end of the year they had an SQA in Managing Environmental Resources," she explains.

The team works with these schools one day a week, teaching woodland craft skills, environmental studies and helping the children create a wildlife area within the school grounds. This year they will also be delivering more short-term programmes and visiting around 25 primary schools.

"More than anything, this gives them confidence. It gives children who can't cope with academic studies another way of expressing themselves. A Curriculum for Excellence asks that children become more socially aware and become responsible citizens. This helps the schools achieve the objectives without too much difficulty. The children also get to know about Banff and Buchan College so that when they get to secondary school, or even later in life, they're aware of it."

The college team also delivers Rural Skills Intermediate 1 to third-year pupils at Ellon Academy and the Forest School programme at Meldrum Academy. And it is about to start evening classes in woodcraft skills at Aberchirder and Cornhill.

Headteacher Sheila Middleton is delighted the Managing Environmental Resources programme will be taught to P7s later this year. "It's fantastic, we are thrilled because it will develop their skills across the curriculum. It gets them outside and get to know their community."

John Malster, vocational trainer and assessor in rural skills in the college team, believes rural skills education has cross-curricular academic applications to a range of subjects, like art and science. Children are learning outdoors about measuring wood, about the properties of different woods and are using their imagination to decorate the items they've made.

"I think with the new Curriculum for Excellence coming in, there's a realisation that we have to employ a lot more skills in teaching children," says Mr Malster, who is showing three boys how to shape their wooden skittles at the lathe.

"It's important that all children should experience this sort of thing and understand the importance of working with your hands. I think we've lost so much of that in our society.

"Years ago, I worked in Castlemilk in Glasgow and I always remember some of these children who had probably spent all their school life being told: `Well actually, you're no good, you can't read, you can't write, you can't do anything.

"You put a spade in that child's hand and suddenly they found something they could really do and that was so liberating for them - a fantastic experience. So I think it does all sorts of children a lot of good in different ways."

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