| Share

At Highgate Senior School we offer a wide range of co-curricular activities including Outdoor Education, led by Will Blackshaw. This popular programme has several aims – supporting pupils’ personal development; promoting adventure and fun while recognising the value of being outside and engaging with the natural world; and to enjoy the benefits for physical and mental health.

Can you tell us about your role as Director of Outdoor Education and how that links with teaching Geography?
They are separate roles but they are closely linked. If I take a group of pupils climbing, they’ll ask questions about the rocks they’re climbing, or if we visit the Lake District for their Duke of Edinburgh’s Award (D of E) training, they want to know how the landscape was formed and what they can see. It all closely relates to what we study in the classroom so there is that direct link between using that knowledge from their course when they are out in the environment, whether it’s to help navigate or working out what terrain will be suitable to walk on.

What is the Duke of Edinburgh’s Award and how can pupils get involved?
The D of E is an internationally recognised, highly respected scheme that aims to help young people develop a range of skills, such as teamwork, resilience and community engagement. We had over 270 pupils involved across the Bronze, Silver and Gold awards in the last year. Pupils don’t need to be studying any particular subject to sign up but obviously it does link with subjects we teach, such as Geography.

What age can pupils take part in D of E?
The first level is Bronze which is for pupils in Year 10. We have most of the year group signing up with about 160 pupils taking part. The Silver Award is for Year 11, and Gold in Year 12. It’s remarkably popular here and we see a high uptake: 53 pupils are training for Gold this year which is much higher than at other schools who would get around 20 pupils at that level.

Why do you think it’s so popular at Highgate?
One element is the snowball effect when you get some pupils signing up, and then their friends want to do it. Another part is that our pupils really love the expeditions and the opportunities to get out into the countryside; this is a big pull for London pupils. Generally, pupils really want to do the activities and they genuinely enjoy volunteering or learning new skills.

How much time do they have to put in to complete the different levels?
The timescales go up with the levels. With Gold the minimum commitment is 12 months doing at least one of their activities for around an hour a week. The expeditions go up incrementally, Bronze is one night away, and the Gold qualified expedition is four days and three nights unsupported, so they have to carry a lot of kit including all of their food. It’s a big undertaking for a young person but it gives them massive levels of independence and responsibility for themselves and as a team.

They have to work together in pretty challenging conditions on the qualifying expedition and supervisors would only intervene if there was a serious safety concern. They have to be responsible for themselves and sort out anything that’s within their capability. We check in with them once a day and make sure they’ve reached their campsite but we don’t camp with them. I think that’s why they really want to do it – for their own independence.

What are the benefits of doing D of E?
D of E really pushes you out of your comfort zone. Being put in challenging conditions where you have to make a decision and manage yourself is something you don’t really experience every day. It develops confidence, plus there are numerous health benefits to being outdoors, getting fresh air and being physically active. I consistently have pupils telling me that D of E was the favourite thing they did at Highgate.

What other Outdoor Education activities and trips do we offer here?
We run two outdoor climbing trips to the Peak District in the Autumn and Summer; there’s a Winter skills trip to Scotland in January and a week-long sailing trip in the Spring and we’re potentially looking at an adventurous training trip in North Wales this Summer term. I also take pupils to a fully-equipped indoor climbing centre near Highgate where we learn and practise climbing techniques before going out on trips.

The skills they’re learning are quite advanced, particularly when we go to Scotland: it’s snowing and cold and they’re experiencing the same things they’d do if they were in the Alps, such as using crampons and ice axes. I’ve done the Scotland trip three times now, and afterwards the pupils say it was their favourite trip. In these small groups, they get to know each other better and interact with the staff, rather than feeling like they’re 1 of 100.

Pupils in snow on mountain in Scotland
Will took pupils on the Winter Skills trip to Scotland in January

Where did your love of the outdoors come from?
I grew up in Devon, close to the sea and Dartmoor, so lots of my free time was either spent on boats or camping and climbing. I had the opportunity to try lots of activities at school and my first big trip was when I was 17 going to the Himalayas for six weeks to attempt unclimbed peaks. When I began teaching, I gained my qualifications and became a mountain leader when I was 23, and it’s kept on going from there.

What’s been your most memorable outdoor education trip?
Getting to Everest base camp with 24 pupils or summitting a 6,000-metre peak with 15 pupils have both been awesome. I’d also agree with the pupils who said summitting Ben Nevis in full Winter conditions but for me, the best ones are the small climbing trips when you can see the pupils pushing themselves, helping each other out and cheering each other on.

Staff and pupils rock climbing
Climbing trip to the Peak District in 2023

Where would be your dream location for an outdoor education trip?
I’d really love to take a trip to Norway to do snow-shoeing or cross-country skiing and also take a group to the Alps but there have been some recent changes to what qualifications are required in Europe so that would be more difficult to arrange.

What advice would you give to any pupil who is thinking about taking up Outdoor Education?
Firstly, you don’t have to be doing any particular thing at school to sign up to D of E or come on the trips. If you want to do something just do it for yourself; try something for your own reasons not just because your friends are doing it. You should expect to be challenged and to push yourself out of your comfort zone, but that’s a huge part of it and is immensely valuable to your personal development.

It’s interesting seeing who does sign up for trips and it’s often quite disparate with a mix of genders. They often become friends afterwards, the pupils who went on the Scotland trip last year organised their own re-unions independently in school because of their shared experience, which makes it all worthwhile.