Land for young leaders

4th January 2013 at 00:00
A leadership academy for pupils set up by a Scottish secondary is giving youngsters life-changing opportunities to take the initiative - and its impact on children's confidence appears to be matched by a boost to their academic achievements

The casualty has a suspected broken leg and it's already begun to snow when the teenagers discover him lying on the hillside.

He also appears to have no face. But since he seems to have broom handles for legs, the absence of a head would probably not be worth relaying to the emergency services.

It's day two of the St Machar Leadership Academy. This afternoon is a search and rescue exercise for the Aberdeen pupils in the Cromdale Hills, near Grantown-on-Spey.

The St Machar Academy pupils and their teachers set off up the hill singing. When they come down, to their credit they're still in good spirits - after facing rain, snow and mud. And the man with no face has been successfully stretchered off the hill.

These heathery slopes were the scene of the Battle of Cromdale in 1690, when 400 Jacobites were killed by government troops in the last engagement of the first uprising. That was in May, and hopefully milder than this wintry, late November afternoon.

But St Machar Academy is better kitted out than the Jacobites - everyone is wearing waterproof trousers and jackets, hats, scarves, long woolly socks and sturdy boots. Two pupils at a time take turns to lead the group - studying the map, navigating, making decisions about how to deal with the casualty, giving instructions and, most importantly, organising stops for hot chocolate.

Graeme Sedgwick worked for seven years as the school-based police officer within the guidance department at St Machar Academy and is running today's exercise on behalf of Adventure Aberdeen. He is a former soldier and, since retiring from the police, a part-time instructor at Adventure Aberdeen, which is the local authority's outdoor education provider.

Mr Sedgwick has completed this course previously as a participant alongside the pupils, just like all the other teachers and school staff who come to Leadership Academy. "St Machar is a great school for doing things like Leadership Academy and developing youngsters and encouraging them to say, `Yes, I can do this,'" he says.

The third-year pupils did a forest walk yesterday to discuss their core values for this leadership journey, but during the week they also work indoors on creative tasks to encourage them to work cooperatively and think imaginatively.

"It does develop them, it does challenge them and get them out of their comfort zone, and shows them things about themselves that they perhaps would never have realised. Sitting at home or in front of their PlayStation is not going to develop them," says Mr Sedgwick.

This afternoon's round trip in the Cairngorms National Park takes just a couple of hours and would be an easy route in ideal conditions. But it's muddy underfoot and the sleety rain is briefly quite heavy, so the conditions are a challenge for those less accustomed to winter hill- walking.

Bubbly 14-year-old Sara Nowaczyk arrived in Scotland from Poland when she was nine, with just one word of English. "The only word I knew was `yes'," she laughs, walking up the hill with the 14-strong group.

She is articulate and frank about her reasons for spending this week at Cromdale Outdoor Centre, as the first blasts of another Scottish winter sweep across the hillside. "I wanted to try something new and enjoy myself and meet new people. I always wanted to improve my confidence as well and believe in myself more."

One of the school's deputy heads, Janice Duncan, is monitoring the group's performance as leaders, occasionally struggling to write in her notebook as the rain comes on. She's a dynamic redhead and devised this Leadership Academy for the school five years ago with former colleague Pat Innes.

They had been inspired by a Columba 1400 Ambassador's Leadership Programme, which staff and pupils attended on Skye as part of their Schools of Ambition endeavours in 2007.

It proved a life-changing and inspirational experience for the visitors and Columba 1400 agreed to help the school to create its own version - the St Machar Leadership Academy. Delivering a programme inspired by Columba 1400, using local authority accommodation at Cromdale Outdoor Centre, is now a sustainable and affordable option, empowering teachers and children to continue developing confidence and leadership potential.

"From being quiet and shy and holding themselves back and not feeling that they've got as much to give and as much to contribute as everybody else, in the course of the week the programme makes them realise, `Well why not me? I'm just as good as anybody else, I've got ideas like everybody else, I have got things to give and I can be a part of this,'" Mrs Duncan explains.

At a preparatory session a few days before the trip, the group meets to discuss the qualities of a good leader and to share their hopes and objectives for the week. Third-years who volunteer for the Leadership Academy have to write about why they want to come and then discuss it further at interview with Mrs Duncan and the headteacher.

Thirteen-year-old Martin Carle wants to be a writer when he leaves school, but he's pragmatic and coming here equips him for all eventualities. "Most jobs you are in require a good leader and teamworker," he says.

"This has been an eye-opener. Although it's just a day that's passed now, you notice everybody's starting to work with people that they might not know and they're working well in teams. Everybody seems to be cooperating well, there have been no arguments and they're all taking consideration of other people's ideas."

At the start of this week, the group spent time focusing on values such as honesty, trust and friendship and have chosen which values are most important to them. Jade Clarke, a lively 14-year-old, is eloquent about what matters most to her.

"My best value is friendship, because without friends life would be boring and you need someone to trust, someone that's there by you, so you can have a laugh and a bit of fun."

But Jade has not just come here for fun: "It's to gain more confidence and to get to know people better. And it's for my presentations, because we're doing a lot of presentations in third year and I am nervous when I get up in front of class and speak."

It's Jade's turn to lead the group when the "casualty" is found and she soon discovers how important it is to speak up if you're going to take command.

Later, back at the centre after hot showers and welcome plates of spaghetti bolognaise, they will reflect on their day together and share feedback on their efforts. Everyone has agreed that trust and confidentiality are crucial this week, so the group can comfortably share private hopes and fears on this empowering journey. Then in a few weeks, they will celebrate their achievements with a Leadership Academy graduation ceremony.

But before that, there are more hurdles to negotiate - including Perseverance Day on Thursday, when two teams are tasked with saving a dwindling island community with social problems and financial difficulties.

Given this scenario, they must use what they have learned already this week to decide how to revive the island economy and present their ideas and business plan to the island trustees. That means resolving controversial issues like whether they should support plans for a wind turbine farm and how to invest in the island's future.

"It's not about winners and losers at the end of the day; it's about using all the skills and qualities they have developed through the week and working as a team, taking leadership roles on within the team and working towards a common ground," says Mrs Duncan.

For 14-year-old Shannon Kindness, this week is a chance to push herself outside her comfort zone after last year's outdoor activities trip. "When I went on the Loch Eil trip, I didn't do very well - I was backing out of everything," she says. What a difference a year makes: "I'm enjoying it," she says, as she squelches through the mud to the top of the hill.

At the end of the week on Friday, the theme is "service", when they consider how they can continue to use and develop their leadership skills for themselves and the wider good of their school and community.

There will be plenty to talk about back at school, including the herd of 50 or more reindeer which looms out of the darkness as the stretcher- bearers arrive back at the foot of the hill. And it's only day two.


Leadership Academy brings academic benefits to this school, as well as encouraging confidence and citizenship.

The school has analysed the results of pupils who have successfully completed the leadership programme.

"They have all come out really well in the SQA examinations in their respective year groups," says deputy headteacher Janice Duncan.

"They know they have the potential to do and be whatever they want and so it gives them an extra push to get stuck in and get the exam results they need to move forward."

The programme, which takes place twice a year, also encourages young people to become involved. "They take on roles within the school - many of our Leadership Academy graduates go on to become prefects in the school."

And working on confidence and leadership skills also encourages them to support younger children as buddies or informally, as they make the transition into secondary school.

"And so, yes, it does build a real feeling of being part of a special community," Mrs Duncan says.

Until this week gets under way, teachers and school staff who are learning about leadership along with pupils are in the dark about what's going to happen. "It was just hearing about it from the other staff - they loved it," says design and technology teacher Nicola Tanner.

"Everybody spoke about it and how they learned so much, because they were in the position of the children."

Colleague Rose Sharp is the school's family liaison officer who works with guidance staff on attendance. As well as developing her own leadership skills, she appreciates the opportunity to get to know pupils better. "I'm loving it," she says.

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