An innovative project to inspire young people and encourage them to explore Higher and Further Education opportunities has been trialled with pupils from three Kent schools.

Canterbury Christ Church University partnered with alternative education provider Willowbank Education to deliver a six-week fishing and forest school project, named ‘Stretching the Line’.

Funded through the Kent & Medway Progression Federation Strategic Outreach Fund, the project targeted hard-to-reach young people to open their eyes to future education opportunities.

Each week, pupils tried different outdoor activities, including campfire cooking, den building, wildlife identification and fishing. The course was structured to provide practical, hands-on topics that are also linked to Wildlife Ecology and Conservation Sciences, taught at Canterbury Christ Church University. Students got to work alongside experienced academics who work in the Section of Natural and Applied Sciences. They analysed swabs and samples taken during the forest school sessions and performed experiments with the samples.

The first five sessions took place at Willowbank Education, which offers fishing and forest school activities set in 26 acres of wetland in Canterbury. In the final week, students attended the university for a day of taster activities and a tour of the laboratories and campus.

Dan Stretch, Director of Recruitment and Business Development in the School of Psychology and Life Science at the University, said, “We wanted to find a way to inspire the kids and nurture that curiosity within them. We saw the potential of something like fishing and forest school as a way to engage those hard-to-reach children. Our goal was to create a project that is good for the soul.”

Pat Kelleher, Director of Willowbank Education, said hosting the last session at the university worked well. He said, “They achieved here at Willowbank and were successful here, they then achieved and were successful at university. It made it purposeful. They were testing water they’d been splashing around in for five weeks and testing mud samples with a lot of play and experimentation. We got the sense that the students were genuinely excited about coming to the university as it brings science to life. It opened their eyes to consider Further Education and maybe Higher Education in the future.”

Dan added, “Pat’s experience really helped. He allows students to learn by discovery; therefore, we can build that trust, so they feel a little more receptive about their future careers. It’s more of a focus on ‘where’s this going to take me?’ rather than forcing them down a particular path.”

The course was supported by ambassadors from the university, who participated in the fishing and forest school and then helped at the campus event.

Lara Shilston, a postgraduate student from Canterbury Christ Church University, was one of the student ambassadors who attended all the sessions to help tie together the university and forest school aspects.

She said, “This project was all about the students being outdoors and having fun. I was tasked with coming up with some of the activities they did during the sessions, like making wildflower seed bombs and bug traps, sparking their curiosity about nature. Through hands-on experiences in science, from observing spiders to culturing bacterial samples, they were able to try new things and were given the freedom to embrace a new way of learning. They embraced it with enthusiasm, proving that given the chance, every child can shine and discover their strengths.”

Dan was also encouraged by the level of commitment from students. He said, “Even when the weather wasn’t great and there were teacher strikes, attendance was still exceptional. They hardly missed a session because they saw they were part of a project. The positive feedback from teachers highlighted its value as a motivational tool supporting classroom learning.”

The course was made up of pupils from Dover Christ Church Academy, The Sittingbourne School and St Edmunds Catholic School. Each school chose young people from harder-to-reach groups, such as those from lower socio-economic areas, children in care or care leavers, disabled students or pupils who may also be presenting in school with low attendance, issues with behaviour or low motivation.

St Edmund’s Catholic School recorded a shift in attitudes of the 12 pupils attending from their school and three pupils in particular displayed markedly improved behaviour at school while attending the course. Staff fed back that the children taking part were also joining in during class much more.

The School said the course had a positive impact on pupils. A staff member who took part in the project, said, “We saw personalities shine through that we had only ever seen tiny glimpses of, and we saw pupils gain newfound confidence in an environment that was safe and secure. As staff who attended, it was such an amazing experience. As we observed pupils around the lake, which was so calm and serene, we considered ourselves so lucky to be part of this project and to watch so many of our pupils come alive. We all agreed that whilst our pupils gained from this experience, as staff, we had taken much away from it as well and, for some of us, had taken us out of our comfort zone.”

Parents and children from St Edmund’s also spoke highly of the opportunity. Pupils said:

“University was actual mad. I didn’t think it would be like that. I thought it was for posh people, but I met people who were like me.”

“I did not think this was going to be as much fun as it was. I loved the day and particularly playing the hiding game and having to think on my feet.”

“I am a much better person out here; I can be myself without feeling stupid.”

Parents also praised the project:

“Thank you inside and outside of school for providing this great opportunity. He came home absolutely cream-crackered and soaking wet but so happy. I haven’t seen him like that in a long time. He also got straight on with his homework and had a shower without me needing to nag him, so keep doing what you are doing.”

“When he came home from school, for the first time in a very long time he sat down and spoke to me for over an hour telling me everything he did. He told me that was the best day of his life! Bless him, I haven’t seen him so happy in a long time. He thoroughly enjoyed the whole day, especially fishing.”

Canterbury Christ Church University and Willowbank Education hope to run a similar course again this academic year to explore further how the project can be used as a blueprint for encouraging students to re-engage with their education.

Lucy King

8 Dec 2023

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