Picture by Katie Hyams
The Year 7 students are dwarfed by the 10 foot high wooden wall. Those at the bottom are heaving and shoving their classmates upwards, while others haul from
above. There's a real sense of camaraderie.
"Nice boxers!" quips Louis, as one boy almost slides out of his tracksuit bottoms. "It's the strong ones first, and the bouncy ones last," explains Eilish. There's a huge cheer as the last student is pulled up onto the platform. The challenge is complete. Afterwards they gather with Glen Lambert, who is leading this outdoor session, to reflect - and to give themselves a perfect 10 for the task, naturally.
The activity is part of an adventure-based Learning (ABL) programme, which is now in its third year at The Boswells School, an 11-18 mixed comprehensive with 1,500 students on the outskirts of Chelmsford in Essex. It all began when a group of marginalised pupils went on a week-long outdoor activity residential course at the nearby Danbury Outdoors centre. The significant improvement in their behaviour and performance convinced the school that many more students could benefit from a similar approach.
"Through ABL, we aim to develop students' emotional intelligence, and their capacity for leadership, problem-solving, teamwork and decision-making," says headteacher David Crowe. An area of the playing field contains walls, balance beams, tyres and a spider's web of bungee ropes. Although the equipment presents challenges, none of it is too intimidating for the nervous or unfit. For the first two years, ABL ran as an adjunct to the curriculum but its success means it now has a secure place on the timetable. All Year 7 and 8 students take part for an hour a week over a term.
"We clawed back half an hour from tutor time and have now incorporated ABL into our curriculum," says David. The apparatus is made of inexpensive materials so the main cost is salaries for the staff, who are not qualified teachers.
"We decided to get in people with different expertise, who could bring a new perspective to the programme," says David. So Glen, a psychology graduate with a background in outdoor education, was appointed to run the programme, along with an assistant, Debra Smith, who has a sports science background.
"ABL gives students the opportunity to develop a degree of self-regulation that would not be possible in other circumstances," says David. "They also begin to understand how they can have a positive influence on others."
The intense focus needed for the balance beam is a good example. Twenty students edge shoulder-to-shoulder along three low beams laid in a line, with gaps between them. Team effort is key because if one student steps off, they must all start again. Before today's session, they identified ‘concentration' as their main objective from a range of possibilities written on laminated cards. "If you're at the front and you're not listening to people at the back, everything will go wrong," offers pupil Shorif. But ‘perseverance' seems equally appropriate, as strong winds sabotage every attempt.
"Turn the concentration button up!" urges Glen. They're almost there when one boy forgets what he's doing and steps off. In the ensuing discussion, he accepts responsibility and the others seem more interested in how they can support him to concentrate better next time instead of blaming him.
"This exercise teaches them how to get the best from themselves and others," Glen explains. "They become more aware that when they are concentrating, things go better and, importantly, their willingness to focus is carried over into other lessons."
Like all the students, Eilish is a big fan of ABL. "Girls and boys work together more, and some people who used to mess around don't do that now," she says. History teacher and Year 9 tutor Eoin McHugh has already seen the evidence. "The students have certainly started to demonstrate a greater awareness of their behaviour and responsibility to learn in my lessons," he says.
SENCO Cheryl King agrees that ABL has been particularly good for her students. "They're used to being helped, and this has given them a situation in which they can actually help others," she explains. "It makes them feel valued; they can overcome their fears and build friendships."
Research backs up the teachers' comments. Observation of ABL groups across subjects over the course of a year show that, at the beginning, only around half of the teachers' Time was spent delivering lesson content, with the rest taken up with class management and discipline. But by the end of the year, over 70 per cent of time was spent on content delivery. By contrast, observation of a control group not involved in the programme showed a decrease to around 40 per cent. Parents have also noticed changes.
Julie Fancesario's son Mateo, a Year 9 student, had previously displayed behavioural problems. "He is more thoughtful and responsible, and not so self-absorbed. He now has a sense of pride and a positive reputation in his peer group," she says. It seems that the programme is achieving its goals. Perhaps having students climbing the walls is the mark of a good school, after all.