An outdoor centre helps excluded pupils - and many others - find a way back in
A huge transformation has taken place at Ynys Hywel activity centre, one of the jewels in the crown of Caerphilly. In the tranquil setting of the 1,000-acre Sirhowy Valley country park, on the site of the Nine Mile Point colliery, which closed in 1964, a conference centre was built. Two years ago it was taken over by the education department, and in November it opened a residential centre funded by pound;350,000 from the National Lottery.
Bob Keep, the outdoor education manager, describes the centre as being "two minutes and a million miles" away from pupils' normal lives. It is visited by up to 60 schools a year and offers courses on rock climbing, abseiling, canoeing, kayaking, mountain biking, hillwalking and navigation. It caters for all ages from nursery children right through to adult learners - the oldest student is 66.
Caerphilly has one of the highest rates of permanently excluded children in Wales. Ynys Hywel is making inroads with these. Groups of excluded pupils visit the centre five days a week: there's a primary group called the "mini-me gang", three secondary groups, and the pupil-referral unit visits once a week.
"A trip to Ynys Hywel is a reward for good behaviour," says Bob. "For some of these kids, it is the first positive experience they have had of education."
He speaks proudly of a Year 9 boy who has just got a certificate to say that he can handle other people's ropes safely. "He was chuffed to bits," says Bob. "He was an excluded kid but he now knows how to relate to adults appropriately."
Bob explains that the centre gets results because it offers such a different environment: "The primary purpose of them being with us is to get them back into some kind of formal education.
"Most of them don't really know what to expect, which works in our favour: they are a bit insecure. We are able to give them a lot of attention and because of this we are able to establish a good relationship with them."
But how can the centre's achievements be measured? What performance indicators are there to show that it works? It is early days yet, so it can only be measured in individual success stories and in Bob's humbling words:
"For some of these young people to have a positive relationship with an adult is a very rare thing."