Up where the air is clear

5th November 2010 at 00:00
Outward Bound programmes are helping children climb over the transition from primary to secondary

Wreathed in smiles and eating chocolate biscuits, the Springburn Academy youngsters catch their breath and survey the spectacular sweep of Glen Nevis from the top of the Scimitar Boulders. An Outward Bound instructor draws their attention to the massive bulk of the Ben behind them, and pulls their legs a little. "Right, you have had your wee break - now you are going up that."

They turn and look, and three of them answer at once:


"Can we?"

"Let's go."

An hour earlier these same youngsters had surveyed a slab of sloping rock, way below, and said with anxious frowns, "I can't climb that." Now they are ready to tackle the highest mountain in Britain - mentally at least.

"I was worried because I'm scared of heights," admits S1 pupil Eilish Burnett. "I still am. But I would be able to do that again. And I would do it better. I wouldn't say `I can't do that.'

"We are getting loads of different activities. Like yesterday we jumped in the loch and my friend didn't want to, so I said I would do it with her. I feel it's changing me already, giving me more confidence."

Taking city kids to Scotland's mountains is not something to be undertaken lightly, says Springburn depute head Craig Hamilton, as the group begins their descent by a different route; but the benefits far outweigh any risks when pupils are in the hands of skilled instructors.

"A nice feature is that second-year pupils, who have been on the course before, act as mentors for the first-years, which is who this course is aimed at."

Liam Brownlee, an S2 pupil and one of those old hands, had been particularly attentive to possible pitfalls and solicitous of younger colleagues on the ascent - mindful maybe of his own accident on the three- day course last year.

"We were building crates and one of them fell on me and broke my tooth," he says, pointing to an incisor that now looks normal. "They fixed it and I came back.

"It's brilliant here. The second-years helped me and showed me what to do when I first came. Now I'm doing the same.

"I like secondary school much better than primary. You are not stuck in one place. You get to do great stuff like this."

Outward Bound senior instructor Matt Lander stops the party on a patch of grass and draws pupils' attention to a slab of vertical rock. It's not high but it is smooth and featureless, except for a few barely-visible indentations, like those on a well-stuffed pillow in the morning.

"That is one of the hardest climbs you will find anywhere," Matt tells the youngsters. "None of us here has done it.

"But there is this guy called Kevin Shields, who works in Nevisport in Fort William. He was born without a left hand, just a little stub of a thumb. Kevin didn't enjoy school much, growing up, but then he got into climbing."

Matt nods towards the rock wall and says, "Kevin climbed that."

Silenced for the first time this morning, but with brains clearly hard at work, the youngsters turn to study the sheer, flat face.

"If Kevin had looked at his hand and just accepted it, I wouldn't know who he was," Matt tells them. "And he wouldn't have been one of the best disabled climbers in Britain. Kevin went on to great achievements because he gave it a shot.

"You just did that on the scrambling. You can do it again whenever you want to."

The dramatic location, the youngsters' efforts to conquer their fears, and the way the story has been told to them all combine to mark the message in their minds. They won't forget it. Clearly there is more to these Outward Bound instructors than fit bodies and a spirit of adventure.

Smart, young, confident and capable, the instructors come from a variety of backgrounds, with the majority having degrees and postgraduate qualifications, says education executive Freda Fallon.

Interestingly, the Outward Bound marketing material chooses to lead on none of these qualities, but goes instead with compassion, and only then mentions the instructors' skills and qualifications.

All three are in evidence on this morning's expedition. Lena Brune, who led the ascent, her booted feet firmly planted on the rocky sections, the rope belayed around her body for the children's safety, came to Scotland from Germany initially for just a year, she says: "That was the plan. But I did the outdoor education postgraduate diploma at Edinburgh and now I think I'm going to stay.

"Scotland is very advanced in outdoor education, compared with other places. In Germany we have something similar, but it's new and people are still trying to figure out what it is and what it's for. Here you have a history and you know what the outdoors can do for people. That makes it a great environment to work in. I love this job."

The need to stay alert, when taking youngsters beyond their comfort zones, keeps her focused, she says. "I like putting them into situations they haven't met before, and seeing them learn. It's good to give them a responsibility they don't always get. Some of them are driven to school every day and a few didn't know how to tie their shoe laces."

There is a limit to how much transformation can be expected in only three days in the outdoors, she says. "But you can plant new ideas in their heads - about community, working with others, challenge and support, being aware of yourself. All these are important for young people to learn."

Like the instructors' qualities, the educational aspects of the outdoors are not obvious to everyone, says Freda, who was once an instructor at Loch Eil but now has a national role. "My job is to go out to schools mainly, but also colleges and universities, around Scotland and work with them to design exactly the courses they want, based on what we can provide.

"Ours school courses follow a progression from First Challenge, aimed at primaries, to Year Group Induction - which is the one these Springburn Academy pupils are on - to Adventure and Challenge, and Team and Leadership Development."

Industrial sponsorship to the tune of pound;2 million a year allows Outward Bound to offer up to 50 per cent bursaries to schools and individuals, who would otherwise be unable to benefit, she explains. Besides Loch Eil, the trust also has a peripatetic unit, based in Glasgow, known as Metro, which operates across the central belt, working with youngsters who would initially find residential courses too challenging.

"There are a lot of young people like that," Freda says. "So at Springburn Academy, for instance, we run another course, in which the primary schools identify children who might struggle with the transition to secondary school. Metro trains Springburn S4 students to be mentors, and they go into the primary schools and work with those vulnerable pupils.

"Then, as they come up to secondary school, they see friendly faces there and have the opportunity to come on the residential course and be mentored by the second-years."

At the foot of the hill the youngsters doff harnesses and helmets and pile into the minibus for the drive back to the lodge at Loch Eil - built originally for the chief of Clan Cameron. Over lunch they meet with colleagues who have headed off in different directions in the morning - raft building, gorge walking, loch dipping, kayaking, scrambling and hill walking - and will do so again in the afternoon.

More relaxed activities in the evening include a session with their teachers and The TESS, which allows them to reflect, individually and in groups, on the day's experiences and what they meant to them.

Seventy Springburn Academy pupils are taking part in this second three-day course of the week, says Mr Hamilton - 52 first-years and 18 second-years - with a similar number attending on the first three days.

"The numbers are a bit down on last year, but it's still well over half of the year group. The best way we have found to sell it to them is to get those who have been on it before to give wee presentations. That works well."

Evaluation of the course by Strathclyde University identified a number of benefits to pupils taking part, including increased confidence, independence, teamwork, tolerance and determination, as well as benefits that "permeate wider school life".

Better relationships are at the heart of this, says Springburn Academy maths teacher Brian McGarvie - between pupils and the school staff who volunteer to accompany them on the residential visit. "You build a good relationship with them faster than you would in school. In fact, you never would build that same relationship in school.

"You see another side of them here - and they of you - than in a classroom setting, with the pressures of the curriculum and the course you are teaching. You make a connection with the pupils - and learning and teaching definitely benefit from better relationships with pupils."

Bound to please

Outward Bound has just got the go-ahead to prepare one of its schools courses - Adventure and Challenge - for SCQF accreditation.

This is a key component in the strategy for Scotland, says Loch Eil head of centre Tony Shepherd. "We are aiming to strengthen our links with schools through courses and support for Curriculum for Excellence.

"Our structure in Scotland means we are well placed to do that. We have the Loch Eil Centre. We have got Metro, which goes out to schools and works with young people. Then we have a separate fundraising trust that allows us to provide bursary support.

"We recognise that up to 80 per cent of our participants need bursary support of some kind. Our business model allows us to bridge that gap. Curriculum for Excellence through outdoor learning is a fantastic opportunity for those who are keen to embrace it - and visionary enough to devise outdoor learning for the curriculum."

The connection with Springburn Academy began five years ago. Headteacher Liz Ervine says: "We talk a lot about leadership, self-awareness and taking people out of their comfort zones. These courses do all that.

"I had worked with them at my previous school on the mentoring programme. As depute head of a year group, I saw the effect on the young people and realised you could do that with a whole school."

They learn to work as a team, she says, and get away from the idea that "You're not from my street, so I don't know you". It also gives them a vision beyond Springburn, beyond Glasgow.

The school does a lot of fundraising, so the pupils are not charged more than pound;35 for the three days. "We hope to be able to sustain that," says Ms Ervine. "That is our plan."

Courses for schools and colleges at Loch Eil: http:theoutwardbound trust.org.ukeducationcourses.html

Outdoor learning in Curriculum for Excellence: www.ltscotland.org.uklearningteachingandassessmentapproachesoutdoorlear ning

Liz Ervine about Outward Bound on video: http:vimeo.com13107070.

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