Still the great outdoors

13th November 1998 at 00:00
Expeditions to the countrywill always beone of the best ways of widening children's horizons, says John Cairney

"SHHHH, LISTEN," said Mr Boyle. The group of 14-year-olds walking with him on a hill in South Ayrshire stopped and stood in silence for about 10 seconds. "Do you hear that?" he asked.

"I cannae hear anything, sir," said a girl. "Yes, you can," said Mr Boyle. "That's the sound of silence." There was a short pause, then the same girl spoke up. "Ye cannae hear the sound of silence in Springburn, sir."

That is one of my favourite stories from the time I was involved in organising residential visits to the All Saints Secondary outdoor education cottages at Tairlaw, near Straiton in Ayrshire. It came to me when I read an article about the claim by a senior education lecturer at Edinburgh University that children are being robbed of outdoor learning experiences in favour of "short-term excitement" such as abseiling, "which offers little educational value".

I didn't agree with him totally, having once had a very painful learning experience while practising this descending technique in Clachaig Gully in Glencoe, after spending some time in the nearby inn of that name. It happened during the days when pubs closed in the afternoon and I learnt that if there had been all-day opening I would not have had my mishap.

The claims were based on the fall-off in outdoor education opportunities, particularly in the Lothians area. No one quoted in the article disputed that there had been a decline, and at least two people identified curricular pressures and cuts in funding as contributory factors.

During the heyday of our Straiton programme I used to refer to it as the school's most precious asset, because of the valuable experiences open to pupils and teachers during the four-day stay. At its peak almost 200 children a session visited the cottages in groups of 10, usually five boys, five girls and two teachers.

Looking back on it now I am amazed at the effort to which teachers went to ensure the success of the trips. Groups had to be chosen, briefed and money collected; food purchased, stored and taken down; bedding collected from the home economics department; the mini-bus filled with petrol; maps, compasses, logbooks, cagoules and wellies had to be organised.

Self-sufficiency was the key. Teachers usually took charge of the cooking, not always to the satisfaction of the customers. "Miss Brogan's chips were a disasser," was how one boy logged the culinary efforts of a PE teacher.

Meal times could be an eye-opener, and not only because of the table manners. There was one boy who ate almost nothing but cornflakes and bread for the whole four days.

All groups followed a prepared programme including a hill or forest walk, depending on the fitness level of the teachers, a visit to Culzean Castle, where rangers took the kids on either forest or beach investigations, and farm visits.

The pupils' ignorance of rural matters was sometimes surprising, such as the time Mr McHugh's charges were on a hill walk and spotted an animal. "Sir, " shouted a boy, "wid ye look at the size of that coo." Mr McHugh did not have to call upon his expertise as a BSc (biology) to correct the boy and tell him that the large animal having difficulty dragging its nether parts along the ground was very much a bull.

Naturally, some groups hit it off better than others. I once had a dreadful time when the five boys quite simply "ganged up" and refused to make any attempt to co-operate or socialise. They picked on the girls and almost ruined the experience for everyone.

When the then school chaplain, Fr Tim McGlynn, came to visit us on the last evening he provided more than spiritual solace by producing a bottle of Famous Grouse from his cleric's hold-all. I got further consolation later when I learnt that one of the offenders had been literally kicked out of his morning slumber by an irate mother waving my letter.

It is gratifying to know that after a number of fallow years the cottages are being used again, and even more heartening to hear from the assistant head in charge that, though the programme is more limited than previously, for the pupils taking part "it is the highlight of their year".

At its most successful Straiton was run on a shoe-string and was an add-on to the rest of the curriculum, made to work by the efforts of a number of committed teachers. Given the increased demands of curriculum and assessment initiatives, target-setting and league tables, it says even more for staff who are still willing to take on the extra tasks involved.

Almost certainly it will never again reach the heights of earlier years, largely because it cannot be measured or appear on a league table. Yet I am sure that Mr Boyle, now, like myself out of the profession, contributed something quite immeasurable when he introduced a group of Glasgow kids to "the sound of silence", and I like to think that every time they hear Simon and Garfunkel sing the song of that name their Straiton experience will be fondly recalled.

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