Surviving in a harsh climate

7th February 1997 at 00:00
Dick Louden looks at how Scottish outdoor and residential centres are having to adapt to keep the wolf from the door.

In picturesque rural areas of Argyll there are eight outdoor and residential centres be-queathed by the old authority of Strathclyde. Although the Property Commission has yet to decide ownership - the new Argyll and Bute Council has started searching for neighbours who might be willing to become partners.

Fortunately some of these neighbours, equally concerned that such a service should survive, have been ready to share the burden. Management of the centre at Arrochar lies with West Dunbartonshire, while East Dunbartonshire is responsible for the operation of the Garelochhead centre.

The City of Glasgow Council has continued to operate the Blairvadach centre at Rhu and the Caol Ruadh centre in Colintraive, while North and South Lanarkshire jointly control the Kilbowie centre in Oban.

"We offer a basic property service," explained Argyll and Bute's director of education Archie Morton, "and we provide catering on a contractual basis. The other councils are the managers and it is they who employ the staff."

The three remaining centres - Achnamara, Ardentinny and Castle Toward near Dunoon - are being constituted into a trust involving Argyll and Bute, East Renfrewshire and the City of Glasgow. The other trustee is the Argyll and the Isles local enterprise company, which donated Pounds 20,000 for the creation of a business plan.

Achnamara and Castle Toward, which went out of commission for a while, have now reopened but Ardentinny remains closed until April 5. "We intend to bring in primary schools as well as secondary," says Archie Morton. "There is a high level of potential interest from further education colleges and community groups. The charges we are applying are Pounds 135 per five-day residence for those living in a council area covered by the trust, Pounds 165 for others. "

He emphasises that the trust will in effect be offering a 52-week-a-year operation, aimed at leisure as well as education.

Apart from these eight centres, Argyll and Bute also plays host to two others - Ardroy near Lochgoilhead, owned by Fife, and Benmore near Dunoon, which belongs to City of Edinburgh Council. It is an ideal part of the world to offer a communal residential experience, with one centre in particular capturing the imagination.

Caol Ruadh, by the waters of the Kyles of Bute, is a Victorian mansion attractively adapted to provide residential courses for pupils with special educational needs.

It takes young people from the ages of 10 to 14, offering in particular an exposure to environmental studies and expressive arts within the framework of the 5-14 curriculum programme.

A typical residential stay lasts five days. Though school groups are accompanied by their own teachers, Caol Ruadh has four full-time teaching staff of its own, not counting headteacher Eileen Sutton, depute head Helen Currie and assistant head Catherine Montgomery.

"The Caol Ruadh teachers are responsible for the programme here," said Eileen Sutton. "Though there has been earlier contact, we discuss specific needs with visiting groups on their arrival. Our environment lends itself to infinite possibilities - forestry, farming, conservation, village and town, mapping, orienteering, fish farming, how people used to live and so on."

The programme for each school group contains a half-day spent exploring the hills. In the evenings there are structured optional activities which either introduce new skills or reinforce existing ones.

Choices include table games, indoor curling, torch activities in the grounds and a visit to nearby Heather Cottage, which is unheated and unlit and where the children light a fire, eat and tell ghost stories.

Until recently, the uptake of places at Caol Ruadh has been strong. It offers 44 beds, though because of limitations on the size of special educational needs class groups the capacity is often smaller.

The centre is unusual in having its own staff of houseparents as a result of its SEN orientation and that enhances its reputation as a caring establishment.

However, the financial storms of last year did not spare the Kyles of Bute. There was a proposal to close Caol Ruadh and staff were informed. Only a dramatic reprieve at Glasgow's education committee saved it but at the cost of the imposition of charges, which have radically affected uptake.

Until then residential stays had been free. Now there is a charge of Pounds 100 for Glasgow pupils, except for families on income support where the rate is Pounds 10.

For all pupils living outside Glasgow the fee is Pounds 150.

Predictably, Caol Ruadh is not bursting at the seams any longer. Even many families which qualify for the reduced Pounds 10 charge feel unable to afford it. "For the financial year to the end of March we were set an income target of Pounds 85,000," said Eileen Sutton. "So far we have achieved only about Pounds 12,000 because most of our customers are from Glasgow and on income support. "

Her management team has taken a decision designed to attract extra business. "We want to bring in more mainstream primary schools," Mrs Sutton said. "Last year they accounted for only six weeks out of 39. Next session our objective is to have a mainstream primary in the centre every week along with an SEN group."

Glasgow Council is expected to initiate a review of the Caol Ruadh's staffing structure. Some degree of rationalisation seems to be inevitable.

Scottish Secretary Michael Forsyth's recent announcement of the 1997-98 council budgets intensified the depression enveloping the outdoor and residential sector. Caol Ruadh, like all other centres, can only go about its business in its normal professional manner and hope for political understanding.

There are no long-term guarantees. The centres are living from month to month rather than year to year and that situation is not about to improve.

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