Adventure, risk & enterprise
Thursday, 27 February 2014

An educational response Empowering young people & communities to accept personal responsibility for their lives, seek adventure, take calculated risks and be enterprising

1. While the likes of Dame Ellen MacArthur can provide inspiration and aspiration for others, most people's lives are cocooned by their life experiences and a risk averse environment to believe that 'that (or any lesser adventure) is not for me'. It is suggested that a main cause of this attitude is that their educational experiences are of being controlled rather than empowered. If society is to encourage enterprise, which entails risk taking, then all people need to be conditioned from an early age to build on rather than stifle the natural urge of young children to explore their surroundings, learn from experience protected from danger by parents and carers, and to seek adventure in all they do. Adventure needs to be seen as central to a fulfilled life, and risk as a stimulus to action which is accepted or rejected based on understanding it and whether it can be minimised to an acceptable level, emphasising personal responsibility.

2. Schools have much to answer for! Their primary purpose should be to empower young people to take control of their lives by encouraging them to take progressively increasing responsibility for their actions, their learning, themselves and each other, alongside developing the social skills necessary to successfully implement the decisions they take. However, the vast majority of schools impose a rigid control (justified as discipline) as the means of achieving high academic standards, rather than recognising that by forming a partnership with students and sharing with them the responsibility for developing and maintaining standards of behaviour and achievement even higher standards would result. Only then would the students be empowered to take responsibility in all aspects of their lives, including understanding risk taking and enterprise. Similarly, communities need to be empowered to take the decisions that affect their lives rather than have these imposed on them by a central bureaucracy. But unless adults have experienced empowerment while at school they tend to be conditioned to expect everything to be done for them, hence the importance of schools being managed to promote empowerment rather than dependency.

3. Young people do take risks, usually because they are not perceived as such. Adolescents are expected to avoid the risks involved in drugs misuse, unprotected sex, and crime, yet too many are involved and suffer the consequences. These situations usually arise because they have not been empowered to take responsibility for their actions, have not developed the self-control necessary to defer gratification, the self-esteem required to resist peer group pressure, communication skills such as assertiveness to say 'no' and mean it, and problem solving skills to identify and consider consequences and alternatives. These skills should be developed by schools, in theory, in a well developed Personal, Social and Health Education (PSHE) programme, linked to citizenship through which they take responsibility for community based activities. But the reality is that head teachers rarely give these areas of the curriculum the high priority they deserve and teachers do not usually have the skills necessary to develop these programmes.

4. There is considerable evidence that where schools do develop school councils based on representation from tutor group and year group councils, with shared identification of issues and possible actions and solutions, and are given real responsibility for taking decisions on significant issues, then they respond positively and do take responsibility for improving standards of behaviour and achievement. This usually involves promoting peer mentoring and peer befriending to address issues such as bullying, and even peer risk education in terms of health, sex and drugs education.

5. To be fully effective, these councils must involve all students, including those euphemistically labelled as 'challenging', those who have not been helped to develop a sense of belonging in the school, who are not motivated to learn, and disrupt the learning of other students. There is evidence from youth work that these students usually need help to develop a minimum level of the priority social skills necessary to integrate into and contribute to a learning environment in the classroom, including self-esteem, managing feelings, empathy with other students and teachers, and values development in relation to the school ethos. Once this has been achieved, for example, through the intervention of a learning mentor or youth worker, they can show considerable improvement in behaviour through peer mentoring younger students, responding to being trusted and given responsibility rather than being labelled and excluded. Later they can then progress through peer befriending to other responsibilities.

6. Outdoor and adventure activities can play an important part in these processes, but only if they are properly managed. Most young people respond positively to traditional adventure activities such as canoeing, sailing, hill walking, camping and expeditions. There is value in these activities through the team work usually necessary for success, and the environmental learning that should be included. But the important element for enterprise is that the risks involved should be understood, managed and minimised to below an acceptable level, with the active involvement of all the young people. Ideally, they would be sharing the responsibilities involved, leading eventually to undertaking activities within their competence on their own without direct adult supervision. For example, in terms of preparation for enterprise, it is better for them to take responsibility for low risk activities on their own than high risk activities necessitating all decisions being taken by an adult. Hence the value of Duke of Edinburgh Award expeditions.

7. The ideal model for this approach is a Community School where priority is given to four outcomes:

1) giving students' personal development a high priority as the foundation of learning, based on empowering them to take progressively more responsibility for their actions, their learning, themselves and each other, and developing the social skills necessary to successfully implement the decisions they take,

2) mobilising the students as a major resource in the school, sharing responsibility for maintaining standards of behaviour and achievement with them through the school council and involving peer mentoring and befriending,

3) developing partnerships with the parents, recognising the joint responsibility for their children's progress,

4) promoting active partnerships with relevant community groups.

Only in these ways will children and communities develop the habit of taking responsibility for their actions, seek adventure, assess and take risks, and develop an enterprise culture within a tradition of lifelong learning.

8. If schools are to empower all their students to accept personal responsibility for their lives, seek adventure, accept calculated risks, and be enterprising, then these Community School outcomes must be given a high priority in school policies and practices, at both primary and secondary levels. It is suggested that it is only in these ways will individuals and communities be empowered to take responsibility for their development and, in turn, this country develop the level of adventure and enterprise necessary for its future competitiveness in the world.

John Huskins 18 November 2004