Saved by the outdoor life

25th May 2007 at 01:00
Kayaking and surfing pave way to jobs for the 'no-hopers'

problem pupils are being given a last chance to gain a qualification before leaving school on a course that is mostly taught on the beautiful beaches of Gower.

Surfing, kayaking and gorge-walking might appear to be a soft option but tutors know this could mean the difference between the young people gaining employment or joining the dole queue.

The Gap Project was created in Swansea eight years ago for 15 to 16-year-olds who teachers believed were in danger of becoming NEETs (not in education, employment or training) statistics.

This year's average attendance rates of a boy-only cohort is 94 per cent, with more than 50 per cent leaving the nine-month course with all 17 OCN (Open College Network) qualifications open to them.

The remarkable turnaround in the staying power of teenage boys, often absent in their mainstream schools, has been down to a curriculum that has failed to motivate or engage them in learning, according to course leaders.

Two secondary schools in Swansea, Bishop Vaughan and Pentrehafod, are able to refer students who they believe are lost to the system.

The pupils must achieve 10 OCN qualifications at level 1 - more than they were ever expected to get at school.

Most of the young people live in impoverished communities within the city where 60 per cent of homes do not have a car and 52 per cent only have one parent.

But the five-strong Gap team has turned around the fortunes of the young people entrusted to them by local schools. One girl went on to become a lawyer, with many others finding employment as plasterers, shop assistants or care workers.

The course is based at the Cornerstone church hall in the Penlan area of the city and is a charitable organisation, funded voluntarily. All staff are members of the church but say religion is not the impetus for the project.

Qualified teacher Sarah Richards, who set it up, said: "When we interview teenagers for a place they nearly all say that they can't stand teachers.

"Throughout their lives most of them have been called failures."

New recruits have to go through a tough interview to gain a place. Records are kept at every session and each pupil produces a portfolio of work that is moderated externally by OCN Wales. They also participate in the Duke of Edinburgh Bronze Award.

Outdoor learning is turned around indoors where pupils talk about their experiences. It is then that tutors teach basic life skills, such as the importance of getting up for an interview and wearing the right clothes.

One year, tutors even handed out alarm clocks.

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