Natasha is swabbing the deck at 7am. “It’s like a morning run,” the 15-year-old says. She pauses. “We don’t do those any more. Just for the record. That’s a myth.”
She is a pupil at Gordonstoun, the £10,550-a-term boarding school in the north of Scotland. Famously, Gordonstoun is where Prince Charles went to school; equally famously, he hated its regime of enforced vigour and outdoorsiness.
Gordonstoun: no ordinary school, a new fly-on-the-wall television series beginning tonight, offers an insight into what the school is like now, half a century after the Prince of Wales was a pupil there. It follows the pupils through a year of trekking, mountain climbing, swimming and sailing.
Education secretary Nicky Morgan has said that character-building lessons are as important as academic education. She has promised £3.5 million in funding for activities designed to boost children’s grit and resilience.
And grit is Gordonstoun’s speciality. “The character education element of it just comes out,” series producer Nick Kenton tells TES. “In almost anything the kids did while they were on camera, we saw how the ethos of the school percolated through them.”
So the programme shows two girls setting out to climb a Cairngorm in a blizzard. “Not in a jolly-hockey-sticks way,” Mr Kenton says. “This was a real situation and they just dealt with it.”
In fact, those girls were experienced mountaineers when they arrived at Gordonstoun. “You’re always going to get students who are drawn to Gordonstoun because of what we offer – who are keen sailors or keen mountain climbers,” housemistress and economics teacher Amy Chapman says. “But they change over their time here. They find something in them that they didn’t know existed.
“Maybe they come knowing that they love climbing mountains, but they’ve never gone out in winter conditions, with ice and crampons. We can see them just developing and changing and flourishing in the environment that we offer.”
Weathering the storm
Meanwhile, 15-year-old Natasha is spending a week – along with her Year 10 classmates – as crew on the school’s £800,000 yacht. “I love the smell of brass in the morning,” one of the boys says, polishing a bell. “Actually,” he adds, “it is quite nice.”
The 80ft yacht hits a storm, during which green-faced pupils vomit into an orange bucket. Afterwards, in calmer waters, they watch a school of dolphins swim alongside the vessel.
“I think it inculcates a character into the kids,” Mr Kenton says. “Some of them may not have had those opportunities before, and they seize on those opportunities and embrace them.”
Shalise, 16, arrived from East London on a fully funded scholarship place. When she was seven years old, Shalise was thrown in the deep end of a swimming pool; she has been terrified of the water ever since.
The cameras follow her as she learns to swim, and then prepares for a charity sponsored swim of 22m. Just before she is about to take the plunge, she suffers a bout of nerves.
Ms Chapman takes her aside. “I think you can do it,” she says. “I think your body can do it. It’s just up there.” She taps Shalise’s head.
It is precisely this kind of pastoral support that is key to character education, Ms Chapman insists. “It’s about belief in themselves,” she says. “And having an adult who believes in them, who will make them realise that, yes, I can do this. Having an adult to champion and praise them, who will motivate them.
“I believe in all my girls. We go through tough times, but we really see them flourish. We see them ready to face the outside world, in part because we supported them. It’s really nice.”
She thinks about this. “No, it’s not just nice. It’s really special.”
Gordonstoun: no ordinary school is on Sky 1 at 8pm on Fridays
‘Character education isn’t just about going out on a yacht’
Not all schools have access to yachts or mountain-climbing equipment, housemistress Amy Chapman (pictured) acknowledges. But this need not stop them stretching their pupils, Gordonstoun-style.
“There are opportunities,” she says. “Maybe not as many, but the state sector could support pupils to find a local kayaking club or whatever’s about.
“I think character education is anywhere and everywhere. It’s about finding out about yourself and pushing your boundaries. It’s about always being challenged to find the best in yourself, whether in the classroom, out on the ocean, in the theatre or on the sports field.”
In fact, Ms Chapman says, character education is as much about applying indoor skills outdoors as vice versa. “You’re working on your homework and making sure you’re getting this and that done,” she says. “Then you can bring that – time-management and getting your skills up – to the hockey pitch.
“Character education isn’t just about going hiking or going out on a yacht. It’s finding out about yourself through a variety of things.”