Looking out (and in) from up the mountain

20th May 2016 at 00:00
A Welsh primary school has devised a programme to give rural students a greater perspective on the outside world – and help them engage with their local community

JUST AS Inuits have various words for snow, the Welsh have a generous vocabulary for rain. From pigo (spotting) to piso (pissing it down) by way of pistyllio (fountain rain), there are over 25 phrases for Wales’ most typical weather. The best, though, is the somewhat underused equivalent of raining cats and dogs: mae hi’n brwr hen wragedd a ffyn (it’s raining old ladies and sticks).

Right now, looking out of Blaengarw Primary School Year 4’s classroom window, you can’t see the stunning mountain surroundings for old ladies and sticks; it’s certifiably lluwchlaw (sheets of rain), borderline chwipio bwrw (whiplash rain). Yet this hasn’t at all deterred the group, or their teacher, who are set to embark for a day of Mountain School.

Unless you come from Blaengarw, a breathtakingly beautiful but challengingly remote village nestled in a horseshoe of mountains 12 miles north of Bridgend, you probably won’t have heard of the Mountain School scheme.

A programme of outdoor and community-based activities that takes place three days per term, Mountain School is unique to Blaengarw Primary. It was devised by the teachers and it celebrates the school’s surroundings and community in myriad ways; from understanding the regenerated valley’s unique history and character to learning survival skills. Previous activities have included an intergenerational project with the local old people’s home, shelter building, campfire cooking and nature surveys.

Mountain School launched in the spring term 2015. Due to its physical dead-end nature (there is one road in and out), Blaengarw is unlike other south Welsh valleys. It’s not transient, most families have lived there for many generations and, until its regeneration in the early 2000s, it was a harsh, brutal-looking product of post-mining Wales.

With a 20-minute drive out of the valley, it’s also very challenging for the community’s working families to access activities such as scout groups in larger towns nearby. Valley life is sometimes said to create a blinkered mindset, as ambitions and visions are trapped by the imposing mountains.

Mountain School aims to raise aspirations and make the students more outward looking, but it also aims to help students learn about and appreciate their home environment, and to persuade them to engage with the community. As such, it is a programme that would appeal to many a rural school in the UK.

This is the project’s first full academic year and pupils are really beginning to engage with it. A complete switch on the traditional classroom setting, everything about the three-day programme is different; from the environment itself to the social dynamic. Children are organised into cross-year groups so will learn with different peers, while teachers are designated an activity so will teach different children. There are no other days in the term quite like it.

“We’ve got this facility on our doorstep, it would be wrong not to use it,” says headteacher Terry Emanuel. “For the children to develop confidence and risk-taking, you need to get them in different environments and doing different things.”

In many ways, Mountain School is a logical progression from an outdoor learning culture that’s already in place at the school. The Welsh curriculum’s foundation phase emphasises outdoor learning, while key stage 2 sees the children experience a series of residentials in Wales’ many national parks.

But practical and problem-solving skills are only half of Mountain School’s vision. As well as getting kids outside, it aims to lift their vision to be more outward looking, but also to see their own village in a different way, and appreciate just how much is on offer. Blaengarw’s two main mineshafts, for example, are now picturesque lakes while the beautiful Calon Lan park, where many of the Mountain School activities take place, was once the old washery, the dirtiest corner of the village.

“We don’t want the children to miss out on how special that transformation of the valley is,” explains Rebecca Owen, who manages and coordinates the Mountain School project. “It’s incredible the amount of children who, before Mountain School, had never been up the mountains. So we’re making sure they don’t focus on the limitations of growing up in this area, but rather the unique positives and benefits.”

An example of how the area’s assets are exploited into Mountain School challenges include a tourism project where children study one of Wales’ growing sectors and discuss why people would want to visit their valley. Cycle safety will also play a role in a future outing, thanks to the recent addition of a pro-level mountain bike course in the area.

As well as giving the pupils an appreciation of the local landscape and community, there are academic benefits, too. Most of the activities have clear links to traditional classroom topics: numeracy and science are covered with nature surveys and calculating the age of trees; creative skills are covered with various art and nature projects; literacy is covered by following instructions and writing about the challenges after the week. But the personal skills developed during the activities have a direct link to the classroom, too.

“Of course, the academic benefits are hard to measure,” Emanuel admits. “But if you have children who are prepared to work out of their comfort zone and go that extra mile, then that impacts directly on how well they learn in the classroom. By embracing the local environment on their doorstep, the children benefit directly from team-working and taking responsibility of their own learning – both of which are essential in the traditional classroom environment and life in general. You can’t really put a price or a number on that.”

As the rain dies down to a mere gwlithlaw (drizzle) and the waterproofed children race through the alphabet with flags, compete to tie the most secure knot and work together to solve problems, it’s difficult to argue otherwise.

Dave Jenkins is a freelance writer and editor based in South Wales @davethejenkins

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