School trips can help students meet their full potential by taking them out of their comfort zone. Crispin Andrews describes how Redbridge Community College in Southampton did exactly this

Greg Walters, coordinator of outdoor education at Redbridge Community College in Southampton, led the school’s expedition to Mexico. Crispin Andrews interviewed him to find out about it

What better way to challenge a group of gifted and talented Year 11 students than by swapping their familiar environment for a volcano in Mexico? La Malinche, dormant for more than 3,000 years, is 4,500 m high and the sixth highest peak in Mexico. For Greg Walters, it seemed to offer the ideal challenge for some of his most able pupils: ‘The idea was to get the youngsters to push themselves – both individually and as a group – in ways that would not be possible if surrounded by home comforts.’ By the end of the four-week trip, organised by schools’ expedition company World Challenge, the students had achieved much more than they had believed possible.

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The students
The students invited to go on the expedition were high performers in one or more areas of the curriculum, but also possessed exceptional leadership qualities. The school runs a comprehensive programme offering opportunities for youngsters to develop their leadership potential through a combination of sport, outdoor education, media and enterprise. Several years earlier, many of these youngsters had joined Greg in an expedition in the Brecon Beacons. But La Malinche is over five times higher than Pen y Fan, the highest peak in South Wales, and so provided a physical test on a scale they had not previously encountered. Being in a foreign country would also add an extra dimension to the challenge.

As well as being gifted and talented, students chosen for the trip had to be physically fit enough to cope with the rigorous schedule. ‘Making hard decisions during and after a long and tiring day requires an alertness and mental sharpness that you won’t have if you are not physically fit.’

Greg Walters

In over 30 years of mountaineering, Greg Walters has conquered some of the world’s most impressive mountains. Kilimanjaro and Meru in Tanzania, Elgon in Tanzania, Mont Blanc in the French Alps, not to mention of course all the major mountains in the British Isles – including all 284 Scottish Munros. While traversing Mount Elgon, Greg and colleagues set out a brand new route across a mountain never climbed before. Future plans include climbing Aconcagua in Andean Argentina and Mount Vinson in Antarctica (and Mount Everest should time and money ever allow!).

The expedition
The expedition was split into four stages.

  • Acclimatisation, where the young people got used to the conditions, in particular the altitude.
  • The climb of La Malinche itself.
  • Community work, where the students assisted local people with a reforestation/irrigation project.
  • Rest and relaxation on the Caribbean coast.

Throughout the expedition, students themselves had to allocate responsibilities, with each taking turns at different roles in different and unfamiliar situations. So, as the team leader gave out jobs and made key decisions, an accountant kept books and made sure that money was spent efficiently, and others bought and cooked food. Budgeting was important; money had to be used wisely during some very challenging times in the first three weeks, to ensure that there was enough left to pay for the snorkelling and white water rafting that was to feature in the R&R planned for the end of the expedition.

Acclimatisation A whole week was taken up acclimatising to conditions as the youngsters went trekking in unfamiliar terrain. A mixture of heathland and jungle, mountains and rivers make up what is a semi-tropical environment, and although there aren’t any really dangerous animals in the area, the young people had to make decisions about where to set up camp and deal with some pretty uncomfortable feelings during the very wet evenings and very hot mornings. They had to learn how to motivate each other so that morale stayed high and everyone could keep going: even when one student slid over whilst crossing a river, and ended up soaked to the skin, he just laughed and got on with it.

On another occasion the soaking wet party reached a village in total darkness. When a light suddenly came on in what looked like a restaurant, it was up to the team leader to converse with the owner about a place to sleep for the night. Despite speaking limited Spanish, the students’ negotiations were a success and before long an area had been cleared on one side of the restaurant and the group enjoyed a night out of the rain.

La Malinche
Greg who is a qualified mountaineering instructor, took more of a lead when the expedition to the top of La Malinche itself, actually began. The campsite from which they set off was at 3,000m and it took a further three hours to get to the summit: ‘The top was covered in snow and it provided a stunning 360 degree view of the entire region. It was a fantastic experience and the students were thrilled with what they achieved. Conditions were far from easy; it took a lot of courage.’
On the way down the students faced a different sort of challenge. With forty five degree slopes to be negotiated it was easy to lose your footing and once again the students had to pull for each other to make sure everyone got down in one piece.

Community work
This part of the challenge involved assisting the people of San Antonino in their task of planting over 60,000 new trees to shelter soil from the elements, thus allowing it to remain stable and retain water. Planting over two thousand trees in a week took its toll physically and was in many ways, the most challenging aspect of the entire venture. Now other people, a whole community in fact, were relying on the efforts of the group, and after being shown the ropes by local farmers, the students worked out their own systematic approach to the task that involved pairing off and dividing the tasks. ‘There was a language barrier to overcome, but the students soon discovered that it is remarkable how well people respond to a smile a hug and a thumbs up. Before too long the students were socialising as well as working with the locals.’

Some pointers for G&T coordinators and lead teachers

  • Have a broad-based gifted and talented programme in place across all subjects – so a wide spread of youngsters can show potential in their own particular area of interest
  • Get things happening out of school where students can get new experiences that they can’t get in school
  • Remember every child is different and don’t leave it solely down to the interests of staff to determine what is done and where
  • Use the expertise of the many organisations out there to help you put on a range of activities.
  • Make sure that the children have fun and that the staff are involved rather than merely sitting on the sidelines.

Rest and relaxation
Relaxing on the beach the group looked back on what for them was a life changing experience. Many of the youngsters, although very able had only ever really operated in an environment where if they made a mistake or got their timing wrong, there was always a bus or taxi to take them home; in a particularly difficult situation and as a last resort, a call to parents, family or friends had always been an option. In Mexico, they had to be self sufficient and take responsibility for themselves and the group. ‘Miss a bus and there might not be another until the next day; lose or spend too much money up front and there is no bank to go and draw more from, just as there is no chip shop or 24-hour Tesco.’

‘Over the course of the expedition the students learned many hard lessons and developed a mindset and attitude that will help them cope with the rigours of modern life. It’s crucial for gifted and talented youngsters to be given the opportunity to apply skills and knowledge to real situations that actually matter to people. Often in the past, high fliers have focused too closely on academia and missed out on experiential aspects of learning. When actually using their talents to make real decisions, they learn then how skills learned in one area are transferable to others.’
Greg Walters

About World Challenge

World Challenge provides educational expeditions in the developing world and closer to home, which teach life skills, stretch comfort zones and expand minds outside the classroom. Between 20,000 and 300,000 youngsters were involved in World Challenge expeditions all over the world, last summer. The bespoke one to six-week itineraries foster team and leadership skills and are the culmination of programmes which involve the students in planning and fundraising. During the expedition, young people:

  • face a series of mental and physical challenges requiring them to overcome adversity, cope with new environments and become more aware of both their strengths and weaknesses
  • work as a team, taking responsibility, setting and meeting objectives and learning to become confident decision makers
  • become more environmentally aware by exploring diverse landscapes, finding out about other cultures or discovering more about their own. They will gain a broader global perspective and a greater respect for the world
  • gain life skills that aid personal growth, help secure university places and impress future employers
  • build strong friendships and gain confidence.

Crispin Andrews is an independent writer

Note from the editor
Redbridge used World Challenge to organise their expedition but many schools achieve similar outcomes through Duke of Edinburgh Award schemes. The expedition can be as far away or as close to home as you want it to be, and there are hundreds of ideas for expeditions on foot; by bicycle; by boat, canoe or kayak; by wheelchair, or on horseback. Ideas include: planning a route around the places that inspired Wordsworth’s poems in the Lake District; creating a photographic guide to the Countryside Code round the Mourne Mountains; using the cycle system in the Netherlands to undertake a research project on the provisions and quality of cycle paths compared to Britain; planning a cross channel journey in a yacht: rowing along the Danube; carrying out a wilderness trip in Canada utilising the canoe trails used by the original settlers.

The Duke of Edinburgh’s Award expedition