Some 'fun stuff' in the forest is firing disaffected minds in the West Country. Lucy Gooding picks up the trail
Do you know how to clean pots in the woods?" asks an excitable 10-year-old as we sit round a campfire deep in a Somerset forest. "Grass and water," he says proudly as he runs off to collect twigs for the fire. Then he's got a tough choice between rope-making or archery practice.
An hour earlier, the six pupils attending the Friday session at Gordon Woodall's forest school were noisily jumping out of a minibus. The boys - aged between nine and 13 - had been picked up from their homes and schools by Mr Woodall and his partner, Candida May, before being driven to the 40-acre wood near Taunton. The session starts with a quick run-through of the day's timetable in a classroom that doubles as a scout hut before the boys head off into the undergrowth to set about the first task of the day: lighting a fire.
Later on the group tackles everything from coppicing to building shelters. And, in keeping with the spirit of adventure, even a packed lunch is livened up with burgers and marshmallows cooked over an open fire. But despite the fun and the unusual surroundings, this is most definitely a school, with lessons to be learned; the main objective is to develop pupils' self-esteem. To former further education lecturer and ex-soldier Gordon Woodall, this is the key to pulling the group - "the most challenging of my week by a mile" - out of a downward spiral.
Their backgrounds vary from chronically underprivileged to middle-class, but the children have one thing in common: they are deemed "educationally difficult", often having been excluded or self-excluded from the mainstream. They all have behavioural problems: perhaps linked to the loss of a parent, a drug overdose, violence, hyperactivity and dyslexia, or simply being different.
"With this group our work is mainly about helping them manage their behaviour," says Mr Woodall. "Some of them haven't been to school for a year or more. Others do attend but their behaviour is so disruptive it makes learning impossible for the rest of the class."
In the seven years he's been running forest schools, lecturing on the philosophy behind them and training new leaders, Mr Woodall has developed a keen interest in emotional intelligence. "We work with them to help them recognise their emotions," he says. "If they can see the signs and understand the triggers, they can learn to manage them."
Tolerance and reward are pivotal to the group's success. "For children like these," he adds, "the experience of mainstream education can leave them feeling inadequate; here we never set anyone up to fail and we never exclude."
The idea is to find some activity to use as a learning hook, but for most, simply being in the forest is enough to spark the imagination. "I love it here," enthuses 13-year-old Matthew as he shows where he beat a path through the forest a few weeks ago. "I don't go to school because I get bullied, but this is better. We don't have real lessons; it's all fun stuff like building things and making fires."
But behind the "fun stuff", Forest School Somerset has a clear objective: to help the children achieve in mainstream education. And Mr Woodall is determined that the time his groups spend in the forest should complement the rest of their curriculum. Every Wednesday he visits the Castle school, a Taunton comprehensive that sends three boys to the Friday session, to discuss the work they will be doing that week. Working with teachers, he tries to incorporate classroom projects into the forest sessions, and vice versa.
Digital photographs of the campfire can be downloaded for the older boys to use in a creative writing English project. If the group is felling trees they will produce a worksheet of angle measurements and calculations to help them predict the way they will fall. "We can use this environment to bring subjects to life for them; there are very few subjects we can't cover," says Mr Woodall.
Forest School Somerset, which takes groups ranging from entire pre-school classes to small numbers of teenagers, is a private enterprise. The local education authority buys its services, and it is subject to inspections and adviser visits. The three staff have to produce police checks, insurance documentation and health and safety certificates; they debrief schools and parents regularly, sometimes weekly.
Jacob, a 12-year-old diagnosed with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder and dyslexia, is described by Mr Woodall as "a classic kinaesthetic learner, an exemplary student and highly intelligent", who has impressed to such an extent that he has been asked to help teach younger groups. Yet Jake has refused to attend school for almost a year after being labelled aggressive and disruptive.
The experience's positive effect on Jacob is obvious to his mother, Joanne Dickins, who says in the four months he's attended he has grown in self-confidence and developed a renewed enthusiasm for learning. When Jacob - who was statemented two years ago - persistently refused to attend mainstream classes, the Castle school provided a home tutor for him and now pays for him to attend the forest school with two more of its pupils. "It's been brilliant for him," says Ms Dickins. "He has even told us he wants to try to go back to school; that is a massive step for him."
Kevin Freedman, headteacher at the Castle school, is similarly impressed. "It's no magic wand but it's definitely having a positive effect on the youngsters. In turn, they are positive about it, and it's not just about changing behaviour but about working towards a shared goal."
Behavioural strategies are worked out with each child after Mr Woodall and Ms May observe how they interact with the rest of the group in the woods and analyse their coping strategies. Ms May says: "We might get them to build a rope bridge together. If they have difficulties fitting into groups, their natural strategy when things get difficult might be to run away, and that is going to cause problems in a classroom."
The boys are then helped to develop alternative reactions to stressful situations, which can be anything from taking time out, controlled breathing or simply having a drink of water. "They choose," explains Mr Woodall. "But the point is that they are used often enough to replace the negative behaviour and the child has control. We believe in being proactive with behaviour, not reacting to it."
Mr Woodall managed the UK's first forest school, at Bridgwater College in Somerset - awarded the Queen's Anniversary Prize for Further Education in 2000 - after the college imported the idea from Denmark in 1995. He was Bridgwater's national forest school co-ordinator, helping to train leaders across the UK, until he left this year to set up on his own.
Forest School Somerset is typical in that its clients include local schools, voluntary organisations and playgroups. Because there is no national governing body overseeing forest schools and no direct central government funding, finance comes from a variety of sources. Some are run as registered charities while others charge fees.
The situation differs slightly in Wales, where Forest School Wales was established two years ago. The result of a partnership between groups including the Forestry Commission and the Woodland Trust, it is supported by funding from the Forest Education Initiative and provides funding and start-up advice for potential schools in Wales. In contrast to the rest of the UK, would-be forest school leaders in Wales who have successfully completed the six-month training scheme at Bridgwater College are given help to find a suitable site for their school.
Gordon Woodall has big plans for forest schools. Undeterred by a lack of LEA funding in most counties, he sees the future in private enterprises such as his own. To generate an income for his two full-time staff, he takes corporate groups at weekends. But his passion lies in what he calls "the alternative curriculum". He says: "My dream is for as many young people as possible to use this environment. I want it to become part of mainstream education, for the bullied and the bullies - for everyone."
Forest School Somerset: Gordon Woodall. Tel: 01884 840142; email: email@example.com.Bridgwater College Early Years Centre: Kerry Paul. Tel: 01278 441270; email: firstname.lastname@example.org.Forest School Wales: Lucy Kirkham. Tel: 01873 852015; email: email@example.com