“Children are finding they have a skill they never would have known they had.”

Sandra Hartley is reflecting on what sailing has brought to the primary school where she's been Head for 10 years. On its own, that comment will resonate with most OnBoard clubs and schools. But when you learn Sandra’s school, Greenbank Primary, is in one of the most disadvantaged areas of Rochdale, with 88% of it 470 children coming from BAME communities and speaking 37 languages, everything changes.

Here’s the thing. Greenbank are big on the value of outdoor learning. Big. And in the past three years sailing has become a core part of the school’s outdoor curriculum.

Sandra has one major aspiration for every Greenbank child – they see past traditional barriers to achievement to embrace possibility. That comes from being exposed to different experiences, overcoming challenge and building confidence and sailing is ticking all those boxes.

Sandra continues: “Our children are from complex communities, where access to education has been poor, there is very low self-esteem and children have a limited set of life skills. There’s a reasonable expectation as to the traditional path their lives would take if they didn’t come to this school.

“They would never go to the seaside or walk up a mountain, for example, so would never get the chance to develop resilience, work in teams, take on leadership roles, make choices and be confident in the way that being outdoors promotes.

“With their new belief and different skills they can go into a whole range of careers they never could have imagined, breaking the cycle and making a different life for themselves. Sailing could become a career for some of our pupils. When you consider their background it’s incredible, but that’s the possibility we can ignite.”

Getting afloat

So how do Greenbank actually get 36 8-11 year olds sailing every year? That’s down to an innovative partnership with Hollingworth Lake SC. When Sandra first wanted to add sailing to the curriculum, RYA North West RDO, Adam McGovern, set about making it happen.

A three-year grant was secured from Andrew Simpson Sailing Foundation to launch a programme at Hollingworth Lake Water Activity Centre. The first two years proved successful, but without the funding it wouldn’t be able to run past year three.

So to make the programme sustainable, last year an agreement was struck with the sailing club for Greenbank to become Group members, paying a £500 annual fee, which enables 12 children to sail every Wednesday afternoon. In return, the club can use six SailQubes the school purchased thanks to an RYA Foundation grant.

Greenbank has four outdoor learning teachers, with two now Powerboat Level 2 qualified and two trained to RYA Level 1 instructor level. In addition, another class teacher, Eleanor Davies, is a Senior Instructor at Hollingworth Lake SC, and she is released from the classroom every Wednesday to teach sailing. Supported by Adam and the club volunteers, who are already there for club racing, there is plenty of help and advice to hand.

Step by step

In Year 4 pupils tackle RYA Stage 1, Year 5 Stage 2 and Year 6 Stage 3, with children required to attend the Year 6 residential at Tower Wood in Windermere to sail on a different lake and work towards Stage 3 skills.

Up to now, children who want to sail beyond Wednesday afternoons can attend a Tuesday evening activity club at the Water Activity Centre for £10 a session with the centre kindly waiving the membership fee. Long-term, the possibility of an affordable monthly membership option is being explored for families at the club.

Outdoor Team instructor, Becky Jones, has been involved from the start and believes sailing has been transformational for some children.

She said: “Sailing is a totally new experience for them all, so the first session can be quite a shock physically, emotionally and mentally. But how they progress is absolutely amazing and, along with all the knowledge and practical skills they learn, we see the multitude of other transferable life skills they gain.

“Their commitment to learn and endure and their sense of resilience and determination not to give up have shone through. They have become teachers to each other, developing some sense of mutual respect, and they have learnt many practical and problem solving skills and how to adapt in changing conditions.

“Most of all it is brilliant to see how they grow in confidence. They start out utterly dependent on the instructors, excited and frightened, unsure of changing conditions and how to manoeuvre, with an equally worried partner! But they become competent, calm independent sailors enjoying it and having so much fun.”

Bigger picture

Sandra admits while it is difficult to isolate sailing’s role in overall school attainment she insists enabling pupils to become experts in a different type of outdoor skill contributes to them feeling much more able and confident in doing other things. She cites the example that pupils’ progress in writing is amongst the highest in Rochdale as the outdoor environment opens up a new whole vocabulary and creative stimuli.

She also believes Greenbank’s approach has helped to build a cohesive school community, where cultural and religious differences play second fiddle to friendships and working together not just amongst the children but parents too.

Becky has seen first-hand how sailing brings groups together and they develop a sense of teamwork carrying equipment, manoeuvring boats and rigging and de-rigging the boats, while pupils develop positive relationships sailing in different pairs by taking turns, supporting, encouraging and putting trust in each other.

Sandra is serious as she says, “Sailing sounds posh but it isn’t”, as if perceptions were ever going to stop Greenbank breaking down another barrier, and admits while changing the culture was a challenge, outdoor learning is now so embedded at Greenbank families know the environment their children are coming in to.

Sailing, she hopes will continue, to play a key role in this.

Sandra concludes: “We had one little girl, who academically had no confidence but in our last session of 2018 managed to sail across the lake so skilfully. That child would never have been able to do that if she hadn’t done it in school and she will take that achievement into everything else she now does. That’s priceless.”

That’s sailing.