'It has changed me as a person'

22nd January 2010 at 00:00
Duke of Edinburgh's Award has been a steep learning process for pupils from two Renfrewshire schools

A few years ago, the Duke of Edinburgh scheme could have been described as a success at Park Mains High in Erskine. Today, looking back, that was only the beginning.

Numbers have since snowballed, links have been made with a local special school, and the high school is in the enviable position of having an expanding band of qualified volunteers.

Roll back to 2005. Part-time principal teacher of religious, moral and philosophical studies Craig Whittie is stressed. He is working on the Duke of Edinburgh seven days a week, staff volunteers are at their limit, and something has to give.

"It was becoming too much for me," he recalls. "We're out every second weekend, and every weekend May to October. We are training three nights a week and holding training days. In many ways it is a full-time job. So I spoke to the headteacher about it and it was agreed that I would be paid for half-a-day a week on the Duke of Edinburgh."

But rather than contain it, the change resulted in an expansion, and the school was recently praised by HMIE for the impact and innovative organisation of the scheme.

More than 150 pupils are going through their Duke of Edinburgh at Park Mains, and the school has built up more than pound;4,000-worth of equipment. "We are hoping soon to have six core youth leaders," says Mr Whittie. "We've been training former gold awardees who have been helping take on the responsibility of the bronze."

Its popularity is due in part to an outdoor education day - a taster event the school runs for the second-years, the majority of whom go on to do their Duke of Edinburgh.

Parents' views are also taken into account. "Parents were constantly coming to us, saying that their children had to focus on their exams," says Mr Whittie. "So we decided to make the silver a two-year programme to give them more time."

Teachers report an improvement in the atmosphere of year groups, and pupils become more confident and more able to work as a team. This is no surprise when you consider some of the challenges the scheme hits them with.

Jill Denhom, 17, felt pushed to the limit when, as part of her gold award, she took part in an expedition at Fort William in September. "It rained non-stop, there were gale-force winds, and rivers flooding. On the first day, we got up and halfway through the morning we came to a stream which was not on the map. It was huge and we couldn't cross it," she says.

"We didn't know if the other team had crossed it or not and couldn't get hold of them by phone (mobile). We went back to the minibus to keep warm until we found out what was happening."

Jamie Lawson, 17, also went on that trip. He admits that he could not have done it without the support of the others, and can see in himself the changes it has brought. "I have met so many people, and now have a broader outlook in life. It has changed me as a person."

Part of the award scheme involves pupils working with Kersland School in Paisley, and since August, Park Mains students have been helping those students to complete their Duke of Edinburgh.

Four Kersland pupils with complex needs achieved their bronze award in June, with another 12 managing partial awards; the four are going on to their silver this session.

Gordon Gregory is development officer for the Duke of Edinburgh's Award at Renfrewshire Council. "Michael Kelly (the depute headteacher at Kersland) asked me what we could do for them. I realised very, very quickly that it was going to be an impossible task to do by myself, so had the brainwave to develop a new Park Mains-Kersland partnership."

Park Mains High pupils from the bronze award go to Kersland to run a fun and fitness club each week. They also help pupils studying light engineering at Reid Kerr College to build a gravity racer car. And recently, over two days, seven Park Mains pupils supported the Kersland pupils on the Woodland Trust's Ancient Tree Hunt.

Mr Kelly says: "At first we didn't want to devalue the award, as we knew our guys couldn't do some of the activities. But we look at ability, rather than disability. They have risen to the challenge and have grown in confidence. Park Mains pupils have been fantastic with the kids, and it has been a learning process for both."

Gordon Gregory was aware of a difference in approach from both sets of pupils. "There was more fear from the able-bodied pupils than the Kersland pupils," he claims. "When they were out on the hills, the able-bodied pupils worried about food, about spiders and where they would use the toilet. Kersland pupils didn't think that way.

"A lot of the Park Mains pupils wondered if they would be able to work with the young people from Kersland. It humbled them."

Mr Whittie agrees that his pupils benefit from the partnership. "It pushes Park Mains pupils to the limit to see less able people overcome challenges. It is an inspiration to them and helps them put things in perspective."

Both schools are happy with the partnership and are keen for it to continue. Explorations and expeditions are planned and Park Mains pupils are keen to retain the links.

The relationship may be unusual, but everyone agrees it is one which could easily be replicated. "The model would work in most schools," says Mr Whittie. "We are entirely self-financing. It doesn't cost the school other than 0.1 teaching time."

Gordon Gregory is also keen to sing its praises. "The way I see it, Duke of Edinburgh was made for Curriculum for Excellence," he says.

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