Patrick Boxall: Newbattle College rural skills course is ground-breaking

Students on the rural skills course
Students on the rural skills course
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EVERYONE loves trees – and everyone deserves the opportunity to enjoy spending time in forests and ­woodlands. We know that better than most here at Newbattle Abbey ­College, with our glorious setting in a ­beautiful 125 -acre estate, including Lord Ancrum’s Wood.

Many locals come to walk in the wood and breathe in its history. The Cistercian monks and the Lothian family who once lived here are long gone, but there are fascinating traces of history throughout the grounds.

As you enter the wood across the bridge from the college grounds, there is a magnificent carved gateway, taken from the Lothians’ grand house when it was altered in the 1600s. Behind the gateway is an ice house, where ice was stored in the days before fridges. And hidden among the trees is a cavern called The Priest Hole, which might have been a hiding-place in the bitter struggles between the Covenanters and the established church.

Inside the college is furniture made from an ancient sycamore tree, thought to have been planted by the Earl of Lothian in 1560. It stood 95ft tall by the college driveway before crashing down in May 2006.

Trees matter to Newbattle and I’m delighted to be taking forward the ­latest chapter of the rich historic ­relationship between the college and its woodland – as Newbattle establishes itself as Scotland’s first-ever Forest College.

This involves developing Newbattle as a centre for outdoor learning, building on our rural skills course and encouraging the young and not-so-young to enjoy and celebrate Newbattle’s woodland and gardens.

As Scotland’s adult education ­college, Newbattle is committed to offering second chances to those who didn’t thrive in education the first time around, but want to return after diverse life experiences. Our ­college motto, Sero Sed Serio (Late But in Earnest) sums this up beautifully – and our National Certificate in rural skills is one course offering this second chance.

However, the Forest College is not just about adult returners, but young people too. As a Forest College, we are committed to working with local schools, particularly with youngsters from disadvantaged backgrounds.

We give them support to enjoy the outdoors and learn skills in a safe, attractive environment, an approach which has paid dividends and opened up new life opportunities. We are already working with local schools, including Woodburn Primary, St David’s High and Newbattle High, as well as Earlston High School in the Borders, as we develop the Forest and Outdoor Learning Awards (FOLAs), the first of their kind in Scotland.

There is so much positive work going on with outdoor learning and it deserves to be recognised formally with a qualification. The Scottish Credit and Qualifications Authority accredited the awards at the end of June, from Level 2-8, offering opportunities to a wide range of people. This includes encouraging the development of a new group of forest leaders who can help embed the awards across Scotland and, in turn, train the next generation of leaders.

We will run our own FOLAs at Newbattle for teachers and leaders working in the college and locally – but as Scotland’s accreditation centre for FOLAs, we will also work with partners to deliver them in different locations across Scotland. The early signs are that there is a huge appetite to do this, which is great news. Currently, we are working with two clusters, in Midlothian and the central belt, and Scotland’s Rural College (SRUC) at its West Lothian campus. We are also in discussion with schools and local authorities in North-East Scotland.

The aim is to plug the Forest College and FOLAs right into the heart of the curriculum, as they fulfil many of the key areas of focus for the Scottish Government – including health and well-being, skills development and improved attainment, leadership, sustainability and social inclusion.

A number of exciting developments are allowing us to take the Forest College and FOLAs forward – the development of our gatehouse building as a Forest College centre and the imminent appointment of a Community Woodland Ranger to lead on the engagement between the college and our local community. This post is supported by the Green Infrastructure Community Engagement Fund.

With so much interest in the project, we look forward to an exciting and rewarding journey ahead as we write the latest chapter in the rich history of Lord Ancrum’s Wood.

Patrick Boxall is Forest College co-ordinator for Newbattle Abbey College.