Nothing better than a ski break

17th October 2003 at 01:00
Follow one primary school's example and encourage pupils into a range of midday activities to refresh the mind and stimulate the body, writes Eleanor Caldwell

Tillicoultry Primary is abuzz with excitement when the bell rings at 12.30pm and the pupils head off purposefully to their selected lunchtime activity.

Within the 45-minute break, the Clackmannanshire children might be skiing, tubing or blading down the neighbouring dry ski slope, practising funky dancing, acquiring football skills, learning first aid, conquering chess or even knitting. The choice is impressive.

The school's now well established daily lunchtime activities scheme is run by Avril Murray, an experienced and well-known local youth leader. Her salary as the appointed organiser, which is slightly above the rate for classroom assistants, is paid from the school budget and she works with the depute head, Christine Wallace, to devise the timetable.

From 10am to 2pm Mrs Murray works to a tight schedule. Based in an office overlooking the dry ski slope and nursery playground, she collects the children's 30p weekly charge at morning break and ensures that their lunch arrangements are in place. She maintains the records of each child's activities and then oversees adult supervision at all times during the lunchtime period. She is also sometimes enlisted to playground duty in the mornings.

Activities are open to classes from P3 to P7 and are organised on a rolling programme in four- or six-week blocks. Most weeks about 130 pupils - out of the roll of 450 - are involved. The children can choose three activities from a menu of five selected as suitable for each age group. P3s are not allowed on the ski slope or to play touch rugby, which is offered to the older children.

Headteacher Carol Leddy has a twofold aim for the programme: to encourage children's participation in physical and relaxation activities and, in so doing, to try to raise their attention and performance rate in afternoon classes.

"Many of our pupils stay in school all day and it seemed important to offer them a richer lunchtime experience," she says.

Tillicoultry Primary occupies the former junior secondary, so it has good accommodation for clubs, and is located under the Ochil hills with expansive green playing fields and Firpark public dry ski slope immediately beside it, offering excellent facilities for different sporting activities.

Mrs Leddy and Mrs Murray have worked closely with the sports development team leader at Clackmannanshire Council, Marjorie MacFarlane, and its active primary school co-ordinator, Paula Geatons. Ski lessons are led by qualified instructors from Firpark and other sports instructors are drawn from the Clackmannanshire team.

While some teachers help with activities such as dancing and knitting, Mrs Leddy says there is no pressure on them to take part. The school has co-opted a number of community friends to help.

Mrs Wallace's husband and another man run the chess club. First aid classes are taken by a former teacher from Dollar Academy and parents are involved too. The chair of the school board, Jacqueline Primrose, plans to start an art group.

"The scheme is a credit to all those involved," she says. "We have been very impressed with the excitement the children have shown for the activities."

Lessons are being learned all the time about the effectiveness of activities for different children. Knitting for P3s proved to be a tough call for the teacher in charge, whereas the choir was an unexpected hit.

Pupils are encouraged to offer suggestions for new clubs, with the result that playground games and line dancing are being added to the menu.

A new reading buddy group is already proving popular. Primary 7 volunteers, trained and assessed by teachers, act as big buddies to P2s and P3s who need help reading. As the big buddies become more confident, and develop a sense of responsibility and commitment, Mrs Wallace hopes that they may be able to work with older pupils too.

On a sunny autumn day, Mrs Murray flits between the ski slope, dance classes and chess club, overseeing the supervision. With military precision at the end of the activity period, she directs the children to collect their lunches and sit in the dining hall for a 15-minute break before returning to classes.

The children look alert and tuck heartily into their packed lunches, which have been pre-booked and marked with each child's name. Mrs Murray listens to their stories about all the day's activities, then despatches them happily to their afternoon classes.

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