Pump up the pulse readings

27th September 1996 at 01:00
Field studies, computers, sport - from fencing to raft-building and orienteering. Roger Frost checks out a company with an un-cool name but a rich diet of activities in their camps . . . unless you prefer a shower or don't like sharing with ants

It's quiet at the Little Canada activity camp on the Isle of Wight. That's surprising because on this sunny morning, more than 500 school children are very active somewhere on this woody site. If you really want to hear children having lots of fun, you have to go find them.

In the pool you'll hear the echoes of a group practising canoeing, in the trees others are loudly discussing strategies on Jacob's ladder - a team-building obstacle course, while another group are revving up and driving their quad-bikes round a track. But the noise gets lost somewhere in 40 acres of woodland, water and log cabins, not too far from the Fishbourne ferry.

This is my first taste of Superchoice! - a rather un-cool name for a rather rich idea in school trips for 7 to 18-year-olds. It's been running for five years, and is enormously successful part of Scottish Newcastle, famous for Centre Parcs.

For teachers who will happily miss the hassle of running a trip this is perfect. They can pick and mix from four ready-made sessions a day of field studies or computers. Or they can choose from fencing, raft-building, trampolining, orienteering - nearly 40 sporty things in all. And it's run a huge team of 70 instructors - so teachers can lead, or take a side seat as they choose. A day ends with something entertaining, which for me was the bar.

People worry about sports, but the staff training here may be unparalleled. Every year 1,500 applicants, and many graduates are whittled down, whisked off for 10 days of personal skills, first aid, games and so on. If any of 150 survivors manage a sport, they will have its national governing body qualification at instructor level. And they have strict protocols: canoes must operate in a buoyed area, staff have radios, a twin-engined boat is on hand, the wind must be below force three and so on. The belt and braces approach might kill creativity, but kids will live with that.

Entering reception, there are files on display: staff records, equipment and accident records, even mid-week evaluations - which, in search of the low-down, I piled into. But in 100 forms all I found was that one teacher's lock didn't work, another preferred showers to baths and another is sharing with ants. Despite this invitation to criticise there is much contentment, and high praise for the staff.

Osmington Bay in Weymouth is another Superchoice camp. Set in yet more holiday country, it's placed for Portland Bill or Corfe Castle. But there is also so much to do on site, like their Active-IT programme which cleverly meshes hands-on computers with sport and team building exercises.

On this morning, Roehampton Church School, a London primary, not only abseiled, they also recorded their pulse rates on a data logger, as they descended the sheer drop from the tower. Now in the afternoon they were learning to use the computers, one each, by drawing the climbing tower.

Next session they will look at their pulse reading and anyone posing as unmoved by the experience will soon be exposed! But this is day two. Tomorrow they might snap pictures on a digital camera and edit them using an image processor.

If they do archery, they'll record scores on a tiny Pocket Book computer, and analyse them on a big computer. Or after a go on quad bikes, they'll use a computer model of the track, and tune virtual bikes for performance.

It's soon clear why IT co-ordinator, Patricia Peek has come back for a second year. Class sets of multi-media, Lego and computer controlled traffic lights are a rare thing in school, so she says this is an excellent way to enhance their IT as well as build their independence.

Her colleague Mary Freeman was also impressed, "The abseiling was good for those who'd be really scared of doing something like that independently. And they like the food and being in charge of what they eat, love sharing a room and having a door key."

Accommodation was in chalets sleeping 2-4 children each with en-suite. The teacher's chalet is nearby, with tea-making facilities and a maid to do the beds. While the instructors run the sessions, teachers find it hard not to climb a tower, shoot an arrow at a target, or shoot a tick at an attainment target. As Mary Freeman seems to be recommending: "It's a really full day - so highly structured it's amazing."

As these groups were mouseing their computers, others were field studying at nearby Durdle Door, a piece of coast rich in curriculum curiosities. Heather Marston, the centre's field studies co-ordinator, knows the area well and champions its unique geology and contrasting environments. Before a visit, she speaks to teacher about their imperatives and plans the programme with them. Whether its coastal erosion, marine zonation, or rocks and soils that's wanted, she supplies background notes, activity sheets and follow-up activities from her portfolio. And whether it's A-level groups doing beach surveys or nine year-olds doing rock pools, she adapts it to suit.

A former science and geography teacher, Heather Marston will tell you about Chesil Bank, a harsh lime bay and a high energy beach. She explains how a quadrat analysis shows specific adaptations, like plants living close to the ground or having lots of cuticles. She'll show too how their study units handle the national curriculum.

Her knowledge is impressive, almost frighteningly so. What's reassuring, is that pupils are going to be well focused. They have soil guages, moisture meters and clipboards as you'd expect.

Unusually, their 48 computers, pile of Pocket Book portables and IT expertise is put to use in the field. So pupils might use the portables to record pebble shapes and sizes and then work on the data, or write up their work back at base. And if this seems like no fun, or there are broader objectives to the trip, schools can opt for Field Studies Plus, meaning plus sports and activities.

Your Superchoice school trip, for pupils aged from seven upwards, can last from a long weekend to a week. Five nights on full board, costs about Pounds 150 in the July high season, with a slight differences between these two centres and another at Prestatyn in North Wales. Your travel arrangements can be arranged in the same phone call - just remember that we school-types book way ahead. Little Canada, with Pounds 1million just spent on it, is the smarter of these two camps. It also has better cover against the weather, like indoor climbing, although there's a solid plan to do this and more at Osmington Bay.

The IT facilities at both impress, and a dreamy delivery of Lego computer control equipment will soon be on its way. Come the holidays, Little Canada becomes an American-style Summer Camp. It is here that parents can lose their kids for a week of wall-to-wall activity. The cost is about Pounds 250, and only a little more to have the children picked up from Portsmouth harbour.

I know that saying that the staff are accommodating, that the food is good, and that time is so tight there is no time for mischief will raise expectations. But I did like it, and hint that if anyone prefers a shower or can't stand ants - to mention it before booking!

Superchoice AdventureTel: 01273 676467 Little Canada Summer Camp Tel: 01983 882523

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