Karen Gold reports on the finals of this annual outdoor event
The rain, mild and drizzly at breakfast, gets into its stride just as 48 students and a multitude of teachers, minders and scorers start to fan out across Northumbrian forest and lakeside. "Remember one thing..." says Ian Newman, chief executive of the Fieldfare Trust and mastermind of the day ahead. "I Even if it's raining, teachers are not allowed to stay on the bus."
True grit, much of it splattered on the limbs of participants, is what the annual outdoor problem-solving Kielder Challenge is all about. Out of the 180 teams that entered the regional heats in the spring, 12 teams remain, each comprising four able-bodied and four disabled 13 to 16-year-olds, who will contest the finals. These are held over six days in a residential centre belonging to the Calvert Trust, which has facilities fully adapted to disabled people's needs, set high in the coniferous forest above the massive man-made Kielder Lake.
Competition is central to the challenge, says Ian Newman: "Some of these disabled youngsters have probably never been on a team in their lives.
There used to be a thing in disabled sport where everybody got a medal.
That's so patronising. Life is about winning and losing. Disabled kids need to know that as well."
But the competition's substance is not primarily how well the teams solve the six mind-boggling problems constructed for them by Fieldfare staff such as Rod Holmes: "There are three of us and we all have evil minds," he says.
Instead, the focus is on teamwork - on how disabled and able-bodied students can plan together, communicate their ideas, support and encourage each other to ensure everyone's strengths are exploited and everyone's weaknesses underpinned. "Sometimes the only thing a kid can do is drive an electric wheelchair and that puts them in a key position in a game where the activity can't go on without them," says Ian Newman.
After an exuberant first night of ice-breakers and social activities, the teams look tense as they face the first challenge of the day. Even an old hand like Steven O'Shea, who is in his second year on the team from Southend's Kingsdown Special School, had initially been chipper - "The challenges aren't too much of a problem. You make your plans and you sort them out." However, he's frowning as he tries to absorb the detail of the first challenge, alongside mainstream team-mates from St Thomas More School.
The game is called Dalek and Ducks. It involves transferring cupfuls of water from bucket to bucket, funnelled through a cross-section of plastic pipe guided by ropes and balanced precariously on the spinning base of Rod Holmes's office chair. Eventually, all the water collected must be poured through a Heath Robinson array of pipes, each deliberately peppered with small holes. Steven, who has foreshortened arms due to thrombocytopeia and absent radius syndrome, gamely lifts his legs to cover some of the holes in the pipe. "If you do that Steve, you're going to get water right the way up your trousers," says a team-mate.
As people get wetter, tempers tighten and articulate able-bodied students shift from making suggestions to giving orders. They even commit the cardinal sin of criticism: "If you didn't understand what was going on you should have said," snaps one. In his post-challenge evaluation, Kielder judge Matt Duckworth, one of many volunteers among whom are several local bank managers from Kielder Challenge sponsors HSBC, suggests team members cheer each other on more loudly.
Hazal Taylor, a Kingsdown student with cerebral palsy, makes a blunter point: "My school chose me because I speak up. I don't think people heard me this time, because the leaders in the group have their own ideas and they want to do them. I'm not saying we are a bad team, but you need someone to make sure we all get a say without taking over."
Further along the lakeside, the team from Victoria Special School and the Purbeck School in Dorset, who will ultimately win the Challenge Cup, are planning the rescue of PE teacher Rob Belbin, who is marooned in the middle of the lake. They have two motor boats and two canoes; they also have student Gemma Mitchell, who has cerebral palsy and no speech. Since team-members met for the first time in January they have been working on news ways to communicate with Gemma. Their solution is a book of custom-made words and phrases (including up, down, left, right, I think we did well becauseI, and I need help withI) to supplement her everyday communication aid from which she points and spells. They even thought of laminating it.
Even with so much imagination, teams still struggle for an equal input from all members. Up the hill in the forest, the team from Range High School on Merseyside is negotiating the passage of a huge inflated silver ball along a rope channel to hit a hooter.
Since Range is an integrated school, its team members have the advantage of knowing each other well. Even so, says learning support assistant Pat Harwood, the stress of wind, rain and competitive pressure - quite apart from the logistics of keeping four wheelchair-users holding ropes on the ground while able-bodied students are high in the trees - means that potential leaders with disabilities under-perform: "We did have disabled kids with the potential to be leaders, but it didn't come out. Generally, they do take a slightly backward role."
So might disabled students not be better served in their own challenge, in which their leadership qualities as well as their adventurous experience could be enlarged?
It depends whether you think the adventure or the warts-and-all, real-life experience is what counts, says Rob Belbin: "Our students gain so much confidence from this. They get acceptance. They have complex needs - some have had a bad experience in mainstream schools, some lead very sheltered lives. They see that just because they can't do what other people can, which is quite a realistic message, doesn't mean they are any less important to the team."
For details of next year's Kielder Challenge Tel: 0115 950 8415 www.fieldfare.org.ukkielder-challenge.htm