Between a rock and a real hard place

The challenge of the outdoors prepares youngsters for the workplace and for life’s challenges, says Martin Davidson

School students are offered a series of daunting experiences on visits to the wild outdoors. Picture: Contributed

North Lanarkshire was once a thriving industrial region, but the decline of mining and other heavy industry meant that the area has struggled economically and socially. Opportunities for young people were limited and over time this led to widespread apathy and low aspirations among many of the underprivileged young people in the area.

The situation was worrying, but North Lanarkshire Council’s education department was not prepared to let the situation worsen. So in 1997, the department launched a series of initiatives aimed at improving the prospects of young people, thereby hoping to pave the way for a brighter future. One of the most successful of these initiatives was a partnership with The Outward Bound Trust, which has now been running for 17 years. The partnership began when the council approached the trust to work together to design a residential programme for young people in S4. Timed in this way, it forms a vital link in the pupils’ preparation for the workplace or further education.

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Every year, in the cold winter months from November to January, all 26 secondary schools in North Lanarkshire as well as 4 SEN schools, send 25 per cent of S4 pupils on a five-day outdoor adventure course at the Trust’s Loch Eil Centre in the Scottish Highlands. The figures are significant – with around 850 pupils per year taking part, more than 15,000 young people have benefited since the programme’s inception.

The target group for this particular programme is what might be termed the “forgotten middle”, that is those pupils identified as having unrealised potential, who need to move forward, to get help with confidence and to raise their aspirations, so they may find a way to do their best and improve their performance at school.

Many other initiatives are aimed at either high achievers or those living in the most desperate economic and social circumstances, so those in the middle were often left out. This programme aims to redress the balance by focusing on precisely these “middle” young people. It is a move typical of North Lanarkshire, which has long been at the forefront when it comes to trying out new learning experiences.

A key example of the strength of the partnership is the way it is funded, with 55 per cent of the necessary funds being provided by the council, and the Outward Bound Trust providing the remaining 45 per cent. From the outset, both design and delivery have been planned and carried out jointly. Teachers are prepared for the course by the local authority and they work alongside the Trust’s expert instructors when in the wild outdoors with the participants.

The five-day course, which involves encountering new situations and people in a series of team and individual challenges, is demanding, exhausting even, but highly satisfying for its participants. It includes such activities as a full day hill walk, team dynamic work whilst rock climbing and self-awareness and team work development through high rope challenges. As Jordan, aged 15, from Calderhead High School says: “I have experienced a lot of scary activities and it helped me do things I never believed I could.”

Learning through outdoor adventure is only part of the story though. The aim is to improve not only confidence and self-esteem but recognise achievement as well. The programme incorporates the Adventure and Challenge Award, credit rated on the Scottish Credit and Qualifications Framework at Level 5. So the emphasis is on the learning journey, on education, not just on adventure. In addition, participants also gain the John Muir Award.

So, does all this work? Well, there is evidence that over the 17 years since its inception, the programme has achieved its aims and more. Feedback from pupils and teachers during and after every course and external evaluations have provided assurances that these courses really make a difference. An external quality assurance report presented in January 2013 by Pauline O’Neill, development officer at North Lanarkshire Council found that participants are “stretched, challenged and encouraged to engage in outdoor adventure and wilderness experiences which will impact significantly on them and ultimately will assist in preparing them for life, learning and work in a unique way which could not be achieved within the traditional classroom environment”. Despite its success, it has not all been plain sailing. In 2012, cuts to local authority budgets almost meant the death knell for the partnership. North Lanarkshire Council, needed to save £73 million and this annual programme looked set to be cut. But The Trust evaluated the programme, and launched a successful campaign to save it, securing funding until 2016.

Given the longevity of the programme and the numbers of students who have been through it, the programme now has a strong foothold, with local benefits in evidence. This is a programme worth supporting for the future benefit of all.

• Martin Davidson is Scottish director for the Outward Bound Trust