Driving independence on the water - Powerability

A London SEN school for pupils with severe learning difficulties goes powerboating

Ask Pippa Viles the impact Powerability has had on young people attending Westminster Boating Base on the Thames and she instantly reels off name after name of pupils who are transformed when they’re on the water.

There’s Millie, whose “giggle and laugh is the most infectious, wonderful sound ever”; Stevie, a lad who is almost non-verbal that Pippa has had her first conversation with; Kadir, who now has the confidence to walk into the centre’s office and tell the team, they’re all fired Alan Sugar-style! The names keep coming.

Pippa is WBB’s Senior Sail and Powerboat Instructor, located in Pimlico just upstream from Vauxhall Bridge, and they run Powerability

Something for everyone

The school WBB runs Powerability for Queen Elizabeth II Jubilee School who work with pupils with profound and multiple learning difficulties. The pupils who go powerboating are aged 10-18. Groups of up to 14 attend every Tuesday in term time year round, and the importance of it being regular activity can’t be understated as the young people have gotten to know the same instructors.

Powerability compliments and dovetails into the RYA Powerboat Scheme at Level 1, with the syllabus covering everything from clothing and safety equipment, to getting started in a powerboat, developing crew skills and what it takes to be a helm. Some 30 tasks are set out with Bronze, Silver and Gold certificates available. For each level a number of tasks must be completed and a minimum number of sessions attended.

WBB has tailored the scheme for each QEII pupil and the school loves that each one can achieve five different tasks on the syllabus and get a certificate. The centre has also made the scheme more ‘child-friendly’. “As an instructor team, our ideas are constantly evolving and being inherently driven by the young people we teach," Pippa continues. "We've adapted Powerability to almost an 'RYA Stages' version of the syllabus.

“At Easter had we an ‘Easter Egg Hunt’, which was Man Overboard. The pupils had to collect a yellow ‘easter egg’ and mooring buoys became giant peanut M&Ms. And we love going under bridges and making all the noise we possibly can!

“They also love going up river at high water, to where the River Wandle meets the tidal Thames. We turn the engines off, paddle the boat around and there's lots of wildlife and sensory experiences, which is massive. We have competitions for turning in a confined space and how quickly one boat can turn the wheel compared to the other. They end up doing the Powerboat Level 2 syllabus to a degree without realising it.

Pippa explains: “Only last week one of our kids moored up the boat without me saying anything. I thought ‘I’m just going to see what she does' and she parked it with the perfect ferry glide in! We’ve always run powerboating for groups of all abilities, and we just used our skills as powerboat instructors to adapt sessions to the groups we had. Powerability has given us a more guided focus to work within a scheme.

“The syllabus has given us more ideas as to how we could adapt it for each student, while the logbook provides an obvious way for the school to provide the feedback Children in Need required for funding purposes."

No session the same

To deliver Powerability, WBB uses ex-Army assault craft; open deck boats with a 60hp engine on back that Pippa describes as the “perfect floating classroom.” Cushions are put in the bottom so the young people can lie down, while even just sitting they are in an enclosed safe and secure environment.

With a tidal range up to seven-and-a-half metres and often heavy traffic to contend with on their stretch of the Thames, there are waves. But whereas to start with the pupils were more timid in wavy conditions, now they want the waves!

If the weather is horrible, Powerability still powers on. On one such day, WBB mocked up the assault boat indoors with chairs, adding labels to learn about the kill cord and other boat parts. Even those with physical disabilities, who can’t put the kill cord on themselves, know which leg to put it on and it means the boat stops.

“We all know the importance of the kill cord and all the students can tell you what it does, even if that’s with pointing, a hand signal or a very loud ‘STOP!’ During our sessions we ‘double kill cord’ with the student. This gives each them an element of independence whilst under the direction and control of the instructor.”

Pippa insists if they can run Powerability successfully where they are, Powerability can run successfully anywhere. The young people prove it. She concludes: “There are so many individual stories of joy from these kids. When she first came, one of the kids wouldn’t even sit on the bench at the back of the boat. Now we've got her sitting on the bench and helping steer.

“The group come in screaming our names and they can't wait to get out on the boat. All of their personalities are coming through and seeing their confidence and independence bloom is why we do what we do. They're just a fantastic bunch.”


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