Using the outdoors to help refuge pupils feel at home
Dawn Conjoyce is Deputy Head at St Augustine’s Primary CE School in Kilburn, London. Dawn talks about how her school uses outdoor adventure to help build confidence and unlock potential for children with complex social needs.
Imagine living in a war zone. Imagine fleeing your home and country and travelling thousands of miles looking for a haven. Then imagine moving around Europe in search of a permanent residence.
This is the situation for many of the children attending my school, St Augustine’s Primary CE School in Kilburn, London. A large proportion of our pupils have been traumatised by events such as these during their childhoods and arrive at the school in a state of unease and vulnerability.
Speaking languages other than English, their status and living accommodation is often temporary and uncertain. Now imagine these same children on top of a mountain in the Lake District, experiencing fresh air and adventure, learning to build confidence in themselves and those around them. This is their ‘happy place’, a state of mind that the children can remember when times get tough.
Building, Confidence, security and resilience
St Augustine’s is a school steeped in the Anglican tradition but we celebrate the roots and traditions of all faiths. We make strong links between Christian and Muslim values and emphasise the similarities between beliefs and practices, focusing on the ‘common ground’. After all, we are all Londoners. We welcome everyone.
Since 2014, we’ve been taking Y6 children on a 280 mile journey to Howtown in Cumbria to attend a week-long Outward Bound residential. We organise the trip for October each year so that the children get the maximum from it in terms of bonding as a class and building skills for the demands of their SATs tests the following May.
The more confident, secure and resilient they are, the less stressful the year ahead will be. There is no escaping the pressure of the end-of-year tests. These pupils have to work twice as hard and at twice the speed to get the same results as children from more advantaged backgrounds.
Given that 45% of our pupils attract the pupil premium and many working parents are also on zero hours or insecure contracts, financing the trip can be an issue. In addition to receiving financial assistance through bursary funding from The Outward Bound Trust, the year group fundraises and we also reach out to charitable organisations for sponsorship. Parents have the opportunity to pay in instalments over an eight month period.
For parents who have experienced life-threatening circumstances, and whose extended families may not be safe, allowing their children to go away for a whole week can be a terrifying prospect. Although parents know they can trust us, the fear of separation can be extremely strong. When we first offered the trip, both parents and children had many misgivings.
Multiple benefits of the outdoors
Preparations begin four years in advance, with school assemblies, presentations given by children who have already attended, and as the time draws nearer, workshops for parents and pupils. The workshops focus on allaying fears but also look at practicalities such as who the children will be sharing a room with and what kind of food will be available. The realisation that Halal food is available comes as a huge relief.
Nowadays, pupils really want to go, although parents can be anxious. In some cases, religious leaders visit families to reassure them. It is a tribute to our staff that of the 30 pupils in Y6, around 20 attend the course.
For me, the benefits of the course are multiple. Our students realise that we are all in it together. It’s not teachers determining the learning but the Outward Bound instructors responding to their abilities and dynamics. They learn that in different situations there are different experts. This carries them through the year to secondary school and beyond. The realisation that you need others and that someone needs you is invaluable.
Big wholesome lunches and suppers, clean air, a bed to themselves, a good night’s sleep: these are things that many children take for granted. Quickly, Howtown is referred to as ‘home’ by the children, if only for a week. The Outward Bound Trust staff make huge efforts to get to know and understand the children and continually use new ways to deeply engage with them and help them. It’s amazing to see this process.
As for SATS, outcomes are dependent on a complex range of factors, but all the children who have gone on the trip have benefited emotionally, socially and academically. This intervention means that when SATs are looming, remembering that ‘happy place’ helps focus and ground them. That makes it absolutely worth it.
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