Uphill struggle brings risks - but rich rewards

19th November 2010 at 00:00

Holidays are often anxious times for me. The most recent half-term started with a text letting me know that a trip to Snowdonia had begun, and ended with one letting me know the group was back. I was particularly relieved at their safe return because of two pieces of news reported while they were away.

Firstly, a walker slipped and died in, of all places, Snowdonia. Secondly, a jury in Exeter returned a narrative verdict at an inquest into the death of Charlotte Shaw during a Ten Tors hike on Dartmoor. Both pieces of news made my heart race just a little more quickly. I could all too easily have received a very different kind of text.

The death of Charlotte has resonance for our school because we had groups of students up there on the same weekend, and for me because my daughter was among them. It had been a foul weekend. The moorland bog was saturated; the streams were swollen torrents. Charlotte was swept away and drowned while crossing the innocent-sounding Walla Brook.

I make no judgment about what happened. My heart goes out to Charlotte's mother, as it does to the teacher in charge of the group. Such incidents bring into sharp focus the responsibility that teachers take when leading groups on adventurous activities. It is a responsibility of such awesome scale and potential consequence that no teacher would ever lead a trip if they stopped to think about it for too long.

The coroner's judgment was beautifully balanced. She called for proper training and preparation while reiterating that "the Ten Tors provides a unique opportunity for young people to push themselves on a personal voyage of development before they set out on life's great adventure".

I know what she means. To stand on the moor at 7am on a Saturday and watch 2,400 young people set off on expeditions of 35, 45 or 55 miles is an awesome experience. To watch them return sometime before 5pm the next day is simply humbling. Most peel off sodden socks to reveal blisters the size of pancakes. I thought the red liquid that my daughter poured from her boots was dye until I realised it was blood. Yet the pride, the satisfaction, the growth is manifest as they cross the line to cheers and applause.

I am intrigued by what motivates young people for this sort of endurance challenge, and by what it means for the current state of learning in schools. Much was made at the inquest of the fact that the girls had asked the teacher if they could abandon the expedition. It was a very fine judgment call that he had to make.

By its very nature, the Ten Tors demands that youngsters give more than they ever have before; that they push themselves through barriers and emerge stronger. Training for the expedition needs to prepare them gradually for the challenge. Leaders not only need training, but also the experience to know when someone is wet and tired but has more to give, or is so wet and so tired that the adventure has become a potential disaster.

I think it is becoming even harder to make those judgment calls in the context of an education system which values apparent success over effort. We have rightly come a long way from the days when children were threatened into learning and had Latin conjugations beaten into them with a cane. However, we are still grappling with unresolved tensions.

Neuroscience tells us that the parts of the brain most closely connected with memory are also located in the areas which process emotions. An insecure or frightened child is incapable of learning. One of the key outcomes of Every Child Matters is to enjoy learning. It is a short step to an expectation that unless a classroom is filled with merry, joyous faces there must be something wrong with the teaching.

Add to this our again rightful concern that too many children leave school having experienced more failure than success. If the exam is too tough, we put them in for an easier one. If the learning is too difficult, we make the hurdles so low no one has to jump them - they can be fallen over.

This might well be the right thing to do if it produces a generation with the self-esteem to stick with education and training beyond school. The risks are that we produce children who do not associate success with effort; schools and parents who see failure as the responsibility not of the child, but of the teacher.

Success in the Ten Tors or French or music is not all about enjoyment: it is often about sheer, bloody drudgery, discomfort and even pain. There are all kinds of risks in allowing young people to discover this for themselves, but the risks for our future society if we do otherwise are even greater.

Roger Pope is principal of Kingsbridge Community College, Devon.

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