The Year 8 Oxenwood Challenge

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The Year 8 Oxenwood Challenge – personal development beyond the classroom

A first report as the last of this year’s trips come to an end………

To enhance their wider personal development, we encourage all Year 8 students to join the Oxenwood Challenge in the latter part of the Autumn Term. Although it is not a compulsory school trip, we do subsidise the cost and make every effort to encourage everyone to take part. It is planned as a development of the fantastic ‘Challenge Days’ which were held for Year 7 at the start of this year.

Oxenwood is a special place. A tiny village set in the depths of the Wiltshire countryside in the shadow of the ancient Iron Age hill fort at Fosbury where our students can feel they are truly away from the usual routines of home and school. Here they take on a series of challenges with their tutor and fellow students to find out more about themselves and each other.

The Oxenwood Outdoor Education Centre is based in the old village school, although it has been developed considerably over the years to provide a cosy and flexible learning space with provision for a host of challenging activities.

Our aim is to help each student develop their personal strengths under our school themes of ‘citizenship’, ‘teamship’ and ‘audienceship’ along with a chance to show independence and creativity in all that they do.

Here is one teacher’s perspective of what we did this year – reports and reflections from our students will follow next term – watch this space!

Our first task on arrival is a map-reading challenge where groups have to decipher a code and then get themselves up to Fosbury hill fort by one of four routes. Students are on their own, expected to get there with no adult help and their ‘teamship’ and ‘audienceship’ skills are immediately evident as they throw around ideas, take the lead , listen and negotiate with each other and (some more successfully than others) arrive at their goal.

At the top of the hill (whatever the weather), they are set further challenges: making stretchers, putting up tents and even lighting a fire – teams working together again.

Back at the Centre, there is time to spend on ideas for the final presentation where students have to come up with an idea to research, prepare and present to the group on the last day. Some are already thinking of something to do with Anglo-Saxon life, others have spotted a red kite soaring in the wind and want to find out more – others are ready for further inspiration as they look forward to the rest of the trip.

After a hearty meal, it is time to prepare for the infamous night walk. This is an Oxenwood tradition which includes the challenge of ‘spooky alley’. On some nights we are lucky as a cloudless sky and little light pollution enables the group to see a spectacular starry sky – our leader points out Orion’s belt, The Plough and the tell-tale streaks of the Milky Way, although one girl, it turns out, is a bit of an expert herself and adds further fascinating facts to the amazement of her friends. ‘She is usually so quiet…’ someone remarks!

The independence skills at bedtime speak for themselves, some students explaining that they have never slept a night away from home. ‘Citizenship’ is seen in abundance as duty groups help to run things – including ‘washing-up’ which for some seems a dark and mysterious art that they have never before experienced.

On the second day we are set three challenging activities, with students mountain-biking in the morning and canoeing in the afternoon swapping over at lunchtime to make sure everyone tries everything. The last activity is the climbing wall, tackled in the dark under floodlights with one group even attempting it in the driving rain – it felt like climbing Everest.

The mountain biking is a revelation as one of the centre leaders explains the proper way to ride a bike ( particularly in these wintry conditions) and then we’re off through the mud and puddles, rocketing down muddy paths, dodging tree branches ( and each other). Will we meet the challenge of the ‘big hill’, gasping for breath as we rattle down the gears for more traction? Some of the group fall back, almost in tears, but others encourage them and support – whoever they are. We all get completely soaked and muddy ….and we love it!

At the Kennet and Avon Canal, the muddy bank is the launching spot of three man American canoes. After the safety talk, the boats wobble out mid-stream and the teams sort themselves into a working system. This is where teamship finds true realisation – this canoe just won’t go in the right direction unless we are all paddling the same way and cooperating with each other – what a great message to take back to school!

At the climbing wall later, the shouts of encouragement ring through the chilly night air as personal fears are overcome and, even in driving rain, the wall is conquered.

That evening, a karaoke session with even the shyest of the group drawn in to perform in front of everyone, their inhibitions truly dropping away now as they feel comfortable to look silly in this supportive atmosphere. Even the teachers are persuaded to sing – to the great amusement of all.

The last day is a mixture of shelter building up in the woods (with groups showing tremendous inventiveness and creativity) and a session finishing off and ‘performing’ our presentations. These show an amazing range of subjects from history to nature, geology to poetry and are really appreciated by everyone as they show great audienceship skills.

After three exhausting days, we have all been through something rather special together – hard to sum up in a few sentences. Staying away from home (a ‘ressy’ one of the leaders calls it) really throws us all on our own resources and it is simply inspiring to see students show so many different aspects of their characters which are not seen at school.It is often the loud and confident ones that find it hard out in the wilds and the quiet ones who come to the fore to show us remarkable abilities and knowledge.

We will be posting further pictures, comments and reports over the coming weeks and are already looking forward to repeating this experience with Year 8 next year.

Oxenwood is back!