Does Higher Challenge Result In Greater Achievement?

By Natalie Harling, Head of Education Business Development at The Outward Bound Trust. 

Great Barr 1

With its school mantra of ‘nurturing potential and creating opportunity’ Great Barr Comprehensive in Birmingham is a co-educational secondary school which aims to do just that for all its 2,200 pupils.

Over 50% of its young people qualify for pupil premium and come from a diverse ethnic mix with many E.A.L.(having English as an additional language.)  The schools improvement formula hangs off four key pillars which are: 1. attendance, 2. behaviour,3.  attitude to learning and 4. general health and well-being.  The school is no stranger to using adventure in the outdoors as a powerful and effective way of learning and school improvement.  For many years Great Barr has been taking its inner city pupils to Ogwen Cottage in Snowdonia to nurture and encourage the potential of each child through challenge.

October this year was no exception, with the school taking two groups to Wales for two high challenge yet very different Outward Bound® programmes. One group comprised of Year 12 &13 BTec Sports Students taking part in a Credit & Qualification course designed to develop skills in leadership, risk management and decision making by using water and land based activity. Named the Leadership Group, an emphasis was placed on each pupil to be a positive role model to the second group from the school and lead them by good example.  

Great Barr 2

The second group had pupils ranging from Year 7 to 11 from Great Barr’s inclusion support unit (ISU) taking part in a Raising Aspirations programme. Pupils from ISU were a combination of young people with learning, mental health, emotional and social issues. Called the Nurture Group, the pupils were chosen with specific aims to encourage resilience, boost confidence and raise self-esteem throughout the week via a variety of outdoor activities and class based exercises, discussions, goal settings and reflection.

To embed learning, The Outward Bound Trust’s instructors gave both groups intense experiential outdoor learning experiences. The Trust’s lead instructor for the Great Barr Programme, Will Kilgore explains: “The pupils were challenged from the get go, arriving on a coach from Birmingham and immersed immediately into the remote Welsh wilderness of Dyffren Ogwen Valley. Both programmes involved the young people facing and overcoming challenges throughout the week, starting with small initiatives and then scaled up and moved to more challenging experiences.”

During the week the groups went abseiling in Cwm Idwal, canoeing on Llyn Padarn, rock climbing at Capel Curig and hill walking over the Snowdon range. The action packed week of high challenge activities were enjoyed by two groups despite the standard upland Welsh weather conditions of persistent rain! Back in the small and intimate environment of Ogwen Cottage in the evenings, both groups were able to reflect on what they had learnt and achieved that day, as well as share their learning experiences. 

Great Barr 3

Despite the Leadership’s group relatively high level of fitness through their interest and participation in sport, they were amazed at the physical and mental demands of the outdoor challenges they met. This was especially powerful when they completed a two day, overnight, self-sufficient expedition which involved scaling the summit of Snowdon, the highest peak in Wales. As Will Kilgore explains: “Not only is this an achievement for an accomplished mountaineer, but this is glorified by the fact that these students were also carrying everything essential to survive a night camping just below the summit.”

Pupils returned to school the following week, perhaps still tired from all their efforts but highly motivated and with positive attitudes and great sense of self-belief. Great Barr Deputy Head Teacher, Andy Williams concludes: “Immersing our urban pupils into the upland mountainous environment of Ogwen is really powerful. We’ve noticed that the more intense and greater the challenge The Trust set our pupils, as the week progressed, the more impactful the learning outcome. Outdoor learning has a positive impact on the school all round and improves our attendance data and progress data because it motivates and raises confidence in our pupils.”

The Outward Bound Trust is an educational charity which provides bursary funding to schools to assist attendance on their residential programmes. To find out more visit our education pages here.

Original article featured in Education Today Magazine – December 2015 issue