The great outdoors

Written by: HTU | Published:

Tom Donohoe has been organising residential trips at his school for 20 years. He describes how they have evolved and offers some advice on making them an unforgettable experience

‘Don’t forget to check your weed hatch or you will get into all sorts of trouble!” These were not the words of wisdom I was expecting to receive as a NQT back in 1991, but believe it or not these were to prove very important.

I was three days into my first residential trip, accompanying year 6 children on a week-long trip on the canals in Birmingham. In these days of health and safety-driven paperwork it is hard to imagine that I was put in charge of a 70-foot canal boat with 10 youngsters on board, having never been on a barge before! So needless to say I had no idea what a weed hatch was, but when I discovered what one was I understood why my boat was chugging along considerably slower than the other three in our school convoy.

By lying on the floor of the boat and reaching your arms through the weed hatch you could feel your propeller (it is advisable to have the engine off when performing this operation) and when I felt mine it became apparent that it was clogged with rope and therefore not able to rotate very quickly. Ninety minutes later and with two numb arms and a broken bread knife the propeller was free and we were back up to our maximum speed of an incredible 4mph.

I do remember this first trip with tremendous affection as the children had a fantastic time, despite me taking two wrong turnings; one that led me a couple of miles down a disused canal resulting in us finally mooring and eating dinner at just before midnight!

In each of the 20 years I have worked in primary schools since that first adventure, I have led one, two, or this year three residential trips for pupils in our school. In the nine years I have been headteacher at Anton Junior School we have built up and developed our programme of outdoor and adventurous activities so that we now offer a residential trip in each of the four years of key stage 2. We have got to this point in stages, having started with only the traditional year 6 “outdoor pursuits” type trip.

Why have we done it? Because we believe that residential trips can provide children with opportunities to develop life-long skills that are more difficult to teach within the school setting.

Below I have outlined the details of our residential programme and use each trip as a vehicle to illustrate how we feel they contribute to the development of our pupils.

Forest Schools

In September when our youngest pupils enter the school we meet with their parents to discuss the residential opportunity that is available for their children. For year 3 we organise a couple of days each term to go off-site to partake in Forest School activities. I lead these sessions and it gives me an opportunity to get to know the new children a little.

I first saw Forest Schools when I was on an Ofsted inspection team in the Midlands and a very capable headteacher was adamant that we see it in action. I instantly fell in love with the concept of taking children out into the countryside and having fun.

We have developed our own version of a Forest School and have adapted it to suit our pupils, but the basic aims are to build resilience, independence, teamwork and to have a good time. We have been fortunate enough to build up a very good relationship with a local landowner who has a farm about 10 miles from our school. He lets us use a portion of his land (meadows, woods and a field) for free, so each term we minibus half a class out there and have a good time. In the summer term, the children are then given the opportunity to extend this experience by staying under canvas for one night.

Facilities are fairly basic, we cook outside and the children enjoy preparing food and washing dishes, but the thing they love more than anything else is spending time in their tent – they get so excited about this. They have no concept that despite the fact that their tent is zipped up everyone can still hear every word they say – this makes for some quite amusing moments.

We have found that by providing this short one-night trip it has encouraged more children to then go on our longer residentials that are available in subsequent years. Another advantage is that we have found that children at our school are spending less time away from their families; cub camps and sleepovers with friends do not seem as common as they once were.

The beauty of the Forest Schools activities is that it is often the less traditionally academic youngsters that shine; commonly less able children will come to the fore in building shelters, exhibiting practical skills and common sense in abundance. The increase in self-esteem that this can bring about is hugely significant and children often carry this with them back into the classroom environment.

Isle of Wight

In the spring term we offer our year 4 children the opportunity to participate in a four-day, three-night adventure on the Isle of Wight. There are several excellent residential venues on the Isle of Wight and we selected East Dene as we felt it was ideal for younger juniors. There is something about this centre that, in my opinion, makes it absolutely ideal for pupils of this age; the staff are very in tune with our youngsters and there is a genuine warm and caring ethos that pervades the centre. I always feel that the children are secure at East Dene and that they are in very safe hands. Of course, I am sure the centre can alter the programme to suit the requirements of each visiting age group, but to me it feels perfect for year 4.

Travelling across to the island on the ferry is a time of obvious excitement for our children, as lots of them have never been on this type of boat before. I always phone ahead and request a specific part of the boat for our party, so that we do not disturb other passengers too much – apart from the year when they put us in the dog pound this has proved quite effective!

The activities at East Dene are wide and varied and we choose a programme consisting mainly of low-level adventurous activities; archery, orienteering, low ropes, problem-solving, etc. Because the venue is so perfectly situated with the grand old house overlooking the beautiful Monks Bay just outside Ventnor, we also spend half a day on the beach rock-pooling. Again, most of our children have not had this opportunity before and the excited look on their faces after locating and catching a crab is priceless. The boys compete over who can find the biggest creature and much exaggeration about size takes place long into the night; boys will be boys! All creatures are, of course, returned to the sea unharmed, if a little dizzy.

One of the most significant things I like about the year 4 trip is the fact that it combines environmental and athletics activities; we find that there is something for everyone.

Down on the farm

The following year, our children are offered a very different type of residential; a stay on a farm in Devon. Stone Farm is run by two former teachers and it provides very comfortable accommodation in converted barns, as well as the opportunity to stay on a working farm.

Each morning the children get up fairly early and carry out farm jobs, they rotate round a rota of these during the week. The children love carrying out these jobs. They include cleaning out the pigs, taking the rabbits for a walk and feeding the alpacas.

Stone Farm is used as a base for the trip and after breakfast a coach is provided to take you out on each of the day trips you have chosen. Our trips include a day to Morwellham Quay, a living Victorian village. This fits in very well with our year 5 topic, Victorians, and as anyone who has ever visited Morwellham Quay will testify, it is a spectacular day. With shops, working docks, a school and a fantastic mine to visit, there are plenty of exciting activities for the children to enjoy.

We also choose to spend a day at the Eden Project and this too proves to be a terrific experience. Although a little more expensive, we enrol our children for workshops while they are at Eden as we obviously then benefit from the incredible knowledge and experience of the enthusiastic Eden staff.

In order to make our travelling days part of the experience we make visits on route, so on our way down to the farm we spend a couple of hours at Buckfast Abbey. The children enjoy this more than you would imagine as the abbey has a really well thought out and resourced education centre, with around 20 hands-on activities for the children to do. We also book a talk with a monk and this invariably proves interesting, as the children try to understand the life of a Benedictine brother.

The Stone Farm experience is completed for our children with a memorable trip to Lydford Gorge. We tell the children we are going for a 45-minute walk, which indeed we do, but what they do not know is that as we turn the final corner of our stroll we come face-to-face with the White Lady; a spectacular 90-foot waterfall, the likes of which our children have never seen before. We talk in schools of engendering “awe and wonder”, this is undoubtedly one of those moments.

Activity week

In July our oldest pupils spend some of their final days in primary education away on an activity week in the New Forest. We chose Avon Tyrrell for a number of reasons; the excellent staff, the adventurous activities, the super accommodation and the terrific food. In addition, one of the most significant advantages of this venue is that there is a relatively small number of youngsters on site at any one time. The school had previously used providers with up to 1,000 young people on site at a time, whereas with Avon Tyrrell we tend to share the 60 acres of grounds with only one other school.

The activities that we participate in are pretty standard for an outdoor pursuits week and include abseiling, mountain biking, raft-building, climbing, shelter-building, canoeing and not forgetting the zip wire across the lake. The staff are an impressive bunch and display considerably more patience than I would when trying to coax a nervous child to step off the zip wire tower or to take that first, scary backward step in abseiling.

Year-on-year, one of my abiding memories of this type of residential is the way children overcome their fears. Youngsters have the opportunity to push themselves a little, to step outside their comfort zone and the boost to their confidence when they achieve this results in them visibly growing in stature.

Secrets to success

I would hope that it is apparent that we have developed a complementary programme of activities for children to participate in our four residential trips. The success of our programme has obviously been built on a wonderful staff who are prepared to leave their homes and families in order to accompany our children. The leadership team provide the example – we all attend trips and no trip takes place without the headteacher or deputy present.

Over the years we have led trips and subsequently shadowed young staff while they take their opportunity to lead. I talk a lot at school about “setting people up to succeed” and this is a graphic example of how this works in practice. I know it sounds obvious, but I also ensure that we thank staff for giving up their time to go away. We buy a voucher for everyone who attends a trip and write a simple card showing our appreciation. This is only a small gesture, but one I know is appreciated by members of staff.

Obviously as we have developed our programme by initiating trips for younger pupils there were parents who were a little sceptical. We alleviated any fears by organising parents’ meetings for each year group in September where we cover a number of curricular issues before carrying out a presentation on the residential trip.

Financial concerns

There are obviously financial implications for parents in having a trip in each year and our school serves a very mixed catchment, but no child is ever excluded on financial grounds. All a parent has to do is to alert me about their situation and we will fund 50 per cent of the costs of the trip. The remaining 50 per cent can be paid by the parent in instalments. I will apply to trusts for funding support for kids, and failing that we put aside money that I bring in with some work I do with a local university and with governors’ approval this is used to ensure any child who wants to can attend our trips.

When we introduced each of our residential trips, we have carried out a trial beforehand. Before we took year 3 children camping at the local farm for the first time, we trialled the experience with some guinea pig year 4 children who helped us evaluate the experience. Before we took children to East Dene, Stone Farm and Avon Tyrrell we stayed there ourselves so that we had a good idea of the quality of accommodation, staffing, food, facilities etc. Making a pre-visit trip is obviously essential to ensure that the specific venue matches the needs of the children you are taking away.

Also paramount on a pre-visit is the safety and security of the site – both the accommodation as well as the grounds. Security has come a long way over the last 20 years and venues will go to great lengths to ensure all the children are as safe as they possibly can be. Our trips have got better every year because we believe in giving honest and constructive feedback – the children are paying a lot of money and it is our responsibility to ensure that they get the best possible value.

We are taking children as young as 8-years-old to the Isle of Wight for three days and we understand that mums and dads will miss their little ones. Recognising this we put photographs and a written report on our school website each night after dinner so parents can log-on to read about what their child has been up to as well as to see pictures of their smiling children. We do this carefully and make sure that every child is in at least one photograph every night. It does take a little time to do, but if you take pictures of children in their bedroom groups, work groups or dinner tables, it is easier to ensure everyone is photographed. Doing these nightly website updates is one of the easiest things I have done in my years at the school and yet it is one of the most appreciated by parents.

While I am sure our residential programme is not perfect, it works really well for our children. I am pleased that in line with a phrase from the new Ofsted framework we are definitely providing children with “memorable experiences” that they will look back on with fondness in years to come.

• Tom Donohoe is headteacher of Anton Junior School in Hampshire.

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