Working together in the wilderness

Joint venture leads to historic Duke of Edinburgh's gold award

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A unique partnership between two schools has allowed teenagers with learning disabilities to camp out on a remote Scottish island and gain their Duke of Edinburgh's (DofE) gold award with virtually no adult intervention.

Eight students - four from Park Mains High School and four from Kersland School, both in Renfrewshire - spent three nights on the Isle of Ulva, near Mull, which has fewer than 20 inhabitants.

The students from Kersland, who have a range of physical and educational issues, including autism, were visited only once a day by adults in order to administer medication. Apart from that, they were fully reliant for support on fellow students from the mainstream Park Mains High. The joint expedition was a first for Scotland and further developed the long- standing relationship between the two schools.

When the DofE programme was introduced at Kersland, it became clear that more manpower was required. The solution was to train 10 students from Park Mains - where the programme was well established - every year to become DofE young leaders, some of whom could support Kersland candidates in areas such as map reading and camp craft.

"At gold level, there is supposed to be no adult intervention at all; the kids do it themselves," said Gordon Gregory, Renfrewshire Council's Duke of Edinburgh's Award development officer. "To enable that, we got the four young leaders from Park Mains involved so that all the youngsters could complete the award independently of adult help."

The four from Park Mains were S6 students Miriam Donald, Sarah-Jane MacIntyre, Fraser Gunn and Sandy Sneddon; from Kersland, they were Laura Mitchell, Steven Coutts, Darren McEachran and Rory Wilson.

Mairi Wilson, who is Rory's mother and depute headteacher of Bonhill Primary School in West Dunbartonshire, said she was immensely proud of her son's achievement. When Rory, who has learning difficulties and is autistic, started school he knew only about 20 words and was unable to make eye contact.

"Rory is a fit and strong boy, and all he wants is to be like everyone else, but so many things open to the mainstream sector are out of bounds," Ms Wilson said. "That's why we were so delighted when he was offered the chance to take part in Duke of Edinburgh."

Currently, 19 groups of children with additional support needs across Scotland are working towards DofE awards.

Michael Dewar, headteacher of Park Mains, said it was tough to get a gold award under any circumstances but to do so while supporting young people with additional needs made this "extra special" for his students. "Equally, anybody who has ever worked with special needs kids knows you get as much out of that relationship as they get out of the support," he said.

Photo credit: Getty

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