The Duke of Edinburgh's Award should not be viewed as simply an extra-curricular activity - participation can reap rewards in students'
classroom work too. Carolyn O'Grady reports
It's not on the periphery of our school, it's at the heart and core," says Johannes Juettner, a teacher at Yardleys School, an inner-city Birmingham comprehensive for 900 11 to 16-year-olds.
What he is talking about is not his school's caring ethos, its behaviour policy or even aspects of the national curriculum, though all these are at the heart of Yardleys. Rather it is the Duke of Edinburgh's Award, a scheme which the school has applied to a whole range of activities which have improved students' self-esteem and motivation and affected the curriculum in myriad ways.
Headteacher Heather Jones says: "A lot of our children are from disadvantaged homes (47 per cent of pupils have free school meals) and would never have a chance to do things offered by the award. It's saved a lot of our borderline children who otherwise would be truanting or worse."
But surely the Duke of Edinburgh's Award is for leafy suburb schools? It's about expeditions and mountain climbing. By no means, says Steve Sharp, operations director of the scheme: "Many schools are now finding the award particularly good with disaffected, ie seriously at risk of exclusion, children. It is very flexible. As long as they meet the requirements schools can use it in a huge variety of ways."
And, though regulations stipulate it should be an extra-curricular activity, the award can benefit the curriculum in many ways, he says and it has recently published a series of guidelines to show how this can be done.
At Yardleys, the use of the award sprang from environmental work that teacher Frank Hooper (since retired) introduced in the school. He says: "We found that students' behaviour and morale improved when they were involved in the maintenance of the school garden, we were giving back ownership to them. Then it was suggested we do the Duke of Edinburgh's Award and things really took off."
Now at any one time about 10 per cent of Yardleys' students are participating in the award. Three schemes at the school form part of the award. The first two are Aiming Higher, a programme for under-achieving Year 8s which involves activity days and staying at an outward bound centre in Wales; and Excellence Through the Outdoors which involves outdoor activities. These culminate in the Duke of Edinburgh expedition, which for the Bronze Award involves a weekend 15-mile hike. These two schemes also whet young people's appetite for new sports which they might do as part of the physical recreation component of the award.
The third scheme is Talking Achievement, which is designed to improve communications. For this, young people attend workshops during school time; it takes place on a different day each week so students miss a minimum of classwork. Run by a private company in about 20 Birmingham schools, the scheme at Yardleys fulfils the requirements of the skills section of the award.
Students give a presentation on their goals and how they are going to achieve them. Yassar Bashir is one of many pupils who talk about how it improved his confidence. "I got better at speaking in class, because my self-confidence, self-belief and listening and speaking improved," he says.
It also helped him clarify his ambitions.
Students also do community work with elderly people, helping them with tasks such as gardening and shopping, an aspect of the award which Heather Jones emphasises "is all about being good citizens, but which also brings rewards for the school in that old people contribute to history lessons and other projects".
All these activities go towards the Bronze Award.
Johannes Juettner, the outdoor education co-ordinator, says: "We don't want them just to have a wonderful week in Wales. We want them to have a wonderful week in Wales and apply what they have learned in school."
Perhaps the most important benefit of the award is the affect it has on pupils' classroom work. Again and again students say how the activities have taught them to focus more and trust others, including teachers. "I don't mind accepting help from others now, because I had to work as part of a team", says Joey Schilling.
Emily Mackay recently left the school and is now at college. "It gave us so much confidence and independence." For her service component she raised money for a primary school. "We had to work as a group and there were a lot of arguments. It helped us learn to resolve issues. You're so localised in school, just other pupils and teachers. It opened our eyes to the community outside the school," she says.
The award scheme produces many educational resources, including a headteacher's pack. This and the teachers' pack contain leaflets on how the award can contribute to PSHE, careers guidance, citizenship and other aspects of the curriculum. There are also governors' and key skills packs.
Duke of Edinburgh's Award Scheme, Unit 1819, Stewartfield Industrial Estate, off Newhaven Road, Edinburgh EH6 5RQTel: 0131 553 5280www.theaward.org
What does a school need to make the scheme work?
* Enthusiastic commitment by the headteacher.
* One or two dedicated teachers prepared to take responsibility for making the programme work.
* Money for equipment, students' fees and to pay teachers who go on expeditions.
* Staff should be encouraged to bring award activities into the curriculum wherever possible.
* Take pictures so staff, governors and other pupils can see what's going on. Put them in the school magazine, governors' report and on the website.
* Safety is paramount and depends on staff training. At Yardleys the six staff who take children on expeditions have the Basic Expedition Leader Award, which includes a St John Ambulance Certificate.
* Buy your own equipment. This sort of commitment shows the school considers the award important and means equipment is always available. If you can't buy it, hire it. The award provides a list of vital equipment.