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Alison Hargreaves, Education and Regulation…


20 years ago today, mountaineering lost one of its greats.  Alison Hargreaves had summited Mt. Everest unaided and without oxygen, and was hoping to repeat this huge achievement on both K2 and Kanchenjunga.  During the evening of 13th August 1995, a violent storm hit the summit of K2, killing Hargreaves and five others.  Though never formally identified, she lies there to this day, buried under snow and ice.  A few items of equipment were found, but nothing more.  It is a tragic story, which has caused controversy to this day.  That, however is for someone else to discuss…

Alison and I grew up close to each other and attended the same comprehensive school at Belper in Derbyshire.  It was here that many pupils received what could be called an unusual education.  School uniform was usually Doc Martin boots, jeans and t-shirts, we had a farm and were expected to address all staff on 1st name terms.  This was a heck of a shock for a boy who had just come from an ex grammar school..!  Besides the usual subjects of Mathematics, English, Physics and the like, we spent one morning a week doing Outdoor Pursuits (OP).  Sessions such as abseiling, ariel runway, canoeing, caving, climbing and sailing were given by members of staff.  At the time I detested climbing (as I’ve always had a dreadful fear of heights), but I found ariel runway (now referred to as a zip wire) hilarious..!  Regularly we were thrown down a cable in an abandoned quarry near Coxbench, screaming with joy as we hurtled towards the ground.  I paddled in circles canoeing and struggled potholing, but I excelled at sailing.  Ogston Reservoir was regularly covered in three-man wooden boats, which whizzed across the waters (usually out of control).  If you capsized the teacher would plod over in the safety boat and ask if you were ok.  I’m not saying the water was cold, but you struggled to reply as your lungs were fighting for oxygen and adrenaline was hurtling around your system.  Unless you were in dire need of help, it was your job to rite the boat and get sailing again.  At times OP was scary, cold and painful, but it was also comedic, challenging and has provided some of my most enduring memories from Belper High School.

That was the 1980’s. On 22nd March 1993 the tragedy at Lyme Bay cost four youngsters their lives and overnight outdoor education changed.  New regulations were enforced and all the OP lessons ceased.  It was at a similar time education seemed to move away from a more rounded experience to one possessed with targets.  One of the most dangerous things ever invented seemed to take over life. It wasn’t a police state, rioting or strikes, but the dreaded tick box.  The modern computer age accelerated the desire to fill in tick sheets, which measured performance.  It wasn’t just education.  I know a number of companies which seem more driven by tick box targets (and pleasing the regulatory body) than they are at running a rewarding business for both their customers and employees.  I realise that regulation and monitoring are required, but on too many occasions have I seen people raked with fear upon the announcement that the regulator is coming.  I’ve seen schoolteachers physically and mentally shaking when OFSTEAD visit.  If all we are concerned about is pleasing others, what kind of life are we leading..?

Modern life brings many demands – some financial and some due to employment.  The global financial crisis of 2007-8  forced many families into difficult situations.  I find many businesses more restrictive than ever regarding time off, so when a parent chooses to take a child on holiday during term time, the penalties can be harsh.  We must education our children well, that is obvious, but some flexibility seems to me, appropriate.  The press is rife with stories of prosecution because of short breaks.  I’m not saying parents should be granted free rein by any means, but teachers can throw a strike as and when they like, which disrupts a child’s education.  Knives cut both ways…

Thankfully organisations such as the Duke of Edinburgh Award Scheme and the Paul Hamlyn Foundation have done much to promote education in the outdoors and many centres concentrate on working with children.  The experiences they enjoy can enhance more than just their education. It’s not just the 3 R’s that we need to learn.  Life is about so much more than paper and tick sheets, regulators and league tables.  No one on this planet is the same, so why do we expect them to all do the same..?

Some think outdoor education as just a bit of fun and nothing else, but isn’t that the idea..?  We learn so much better and faster through play and enjoyment than we ever will through exams.  We need to have our hands on to learn, rather than watching someone else.  Today is ‘A’ Level results day.  I hope everyone receives the grades they worked hard for and deserve, but this is not the end of their education, it is not even the beginning of the end, but it is perhaps the end of the beginning.

At Belper we regularly charged Van De Graff Generators, and electrocuted each other, mixed every chemical we had together at the end of a lesson in the hope something would happen (it never did), made alcohol and who knows what else, but it was the experiences in OP that turned me into a mountaineer.  Though we need to educate our youngsters mentally, shouldn’t we teach creativity, experimentation and adventure..?  Only those subjects allow us to think, question and act.

I wonder what Alison would have to say…

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