How to get kids hooked on learn­ing

The Daily Telegraph - Saturday - - Front Page -

was ad­vo­cat­ing its whole­some­ness, and it has his­tor­i­cally been an ac­tiv­ity as­so­ci­ated with stealth, dex­ter­ity, lat­eral think­ing, alert­ness, per­sis­tence, self-suf­fi­ciency, and a spe­cial cast of mind to cope with fre­quent dis­ap­point­ment (al­though I ad­mit it has its fair share of crack­pots, too).

A po­ten­tially demo­cratic pur­suit, it of­ten spans dif­fer­ences in ge­og­ra­phy, back­ground and the gen­er­a­tion gap. Izaak Wal­ton’s men­tor, the diplo­mat Sir Henry Wot­ton, wrote that angling was ‘‘a calmer of unquiet thoughts, a mod­er­a­tor of pas­sions, a pro­curer of con­tent­ed­ness”. More re­cently, Roger Dal­trey pro­nounced it was ‘‘much bet­ter than a Mo­gadon”.

Down a chalky lane in the green depths of Hamp­shire, one par­tic­u­lar or­gan­i­sa­tion is try­ing to calm the unquiet thoughts of teenagers by in­tro­duc­ing them to an ex­pe­ri­ence that com­bines recre­ation with ed­u­ca­tion. Fish­ing For Schools (F4S) is a char­i­ta­ble trust run by the en­ter­pris­ing Coun­try­side Al­liance (CA), and is ef­fec­tively the brain­child of Charles Jar­dine (once known as ‘‘the David Beck­ham of the fish­ing world”.) It is aimed at stu­dents in sec­ondary ed­u­ca­tion, es­pe­cially those with learn­ing dif­fi­cul­ties, phys­i­cal dis­abil­i­ties and a spec­trum of spe­cial needs.

Work­ing along­side teach­ers in and out of the class­room, it ex­plores core cur­ric­u­lar sub­jects (maths, nat­u­ral science, English) through the medium of angling and its range of as­so­ci­ated skills – so­cial, prac­ti­cal and in­ter­ac­tive. It fills the gap be­tween fun and academia.

From the start, as Jar­dine and his col­league Rob Doyle greet stu­dents in­di­vid­u­ally, there’s a dis­tinc­tive at­mos­phere to this gath­er­ing – wel­com­ing, in­dus­tri­ous, en­thu­si­as­tic. Teach­ers, car­ers and chap­er­ones bus­tle about the lake­side as teenagers from five dif­fer­ent schools ar­rived, some of them in wheel­chairs. A cou­ple of likely lads are al­ready point­ing out trout cruis­ing the clear wa­ters nearby.

Jar­dine sets the tone by an­nounc­ing, ‘‘We have some of the best in­struc­tors in the UK, but they’re only as good as the ques­tions you ask them.’’ I have known him since 1980, when he was a young guide, and played with the rock band The Rats. Since then he has be­come our re­nais­sance man of angling – ac­claimed artist, author, jour­nal­ist (like me, a for­mer fish­ing colum­nist of this news­pa­per) and in­ter­na­tion­ally renowned cast­ing demon­stra­tor. This most mod­est of men is the lead­ing light of F4S and is hugely pop­u­lar, with a true tal­ent for get­ting peo­ple to do things for the cause. There is no short­age of vol­un­teers; what they need now is some more money.

What dis­tin­guishes F4S from cer­tain sim­i­lar ini­tia­tives is the de­gree of class­room in­volve­ment – its qual­i­fied in­struc­tors ef­fec­tively com­ple­ment for­mal ed­u­ca­tion. Jar­dine vis­ited 34 schools last year, and to date around 2,500 stu­dents (main­stream and oth­er­wise) have par­tic­i­pated in var­i­ous pro­grammes across Eng­land and Wales. ‘‘It’s about en­er­gis­ing young peo­ple,” he says, ‘‘rais­ing the as­pi­ra­tions of an au­di­ence who are of­ten dis­fran­chised, or at risk. Of­ten we are seen as the cat­a­lyst to learn­ing.”

‘‘And,’’ adds Bar­ney WhiteSpun­ner, ex­ec­u­tive chair­man of the CA, ‘‘it gives them the chance to un­der­stand their ru­ral her­itage, to see how na­ture works, and in­tro­duces them to the won­der­ful va­ri­ety of our ecosys­tem.’’

They fish for ev­ery­thing – ‘‘Dabs and floun­ders in the Med­way docks, golden mul­let on Rosily beach. Be­lieve me,” says Jar­dine, ‘‘there are few trout to be found in Moss Side.’’

At Meon Springs, I at­tach my­self to a group of nine boys and girls from Mid­hurst Rother Col­lege, a lo­cal acad­emy. Only one has ever tried fish­ing be­fore, though their teacher Paul Thomp­son is keen: ‘‘It’s ther­a­peu­tic, isn’t it? And there isn’t re­ally an age di­vide.’’

First stop is bug hunt­ing with en­to­mol­o­gist Dr Cyril Ben­nett; he has them chas­ing lit­tle swim­ming in­sects with a pipette, then ex­am­in­ing them un­der his mi­cro­scope. ‘‘That’s so cool,’’ comes one early re­sponse. ‘‘You can’t force them to learn,’’ says Ben­nett, ‘‘You can just open doors.” I wish I’d been able to hold stu­dents that spellbound when I was a teacher.

Next comes a les­son in how to con­struct ar­ti­fi­cial flies – in this case a damsel nymph, com­bin­ing marabou stork feath­ers, tiny beads and half-hitched thread. Lev­els of con­cen­tra­tion be­come in­tense, with all nine pro­duc­ing cred­itable re­sults. While oth­ers try pole-fish­ing or float-mak­ing, our group heads down to the lake for a fly-cast­ing ses­sion, ini­tially us­ing a scrap of wool for safety. But some young­sters opt to ‘‘go live” with a hook, and 11-year-old Liam Grif­fiths is soon at­tached to a 2lb rain­bow, which he de­cides to kill and keep. It is car­ried up to the kitchen area in col­lec­tive tri­umph.

Restau­ra­teur Richard Ab­son quickly has the at­ten­tion of his au­di­ence. To cries of ‘‘Ugh”, he slices out the guts and stylishly dishes up some fried fil­lets with oat­meal and pesto, thus com­plet­ing the es­sen­tial idea of the fish­ing cir­cuit. ‘‘More in­ter­est­ing than what we do in bi­ol­ogy,” reck­ons one con­vert, ap­pre­cia­tively tuck­ing into a gou­jon.

De­spite sev­eral mil­lion Bri­tish devotees, angling has some de­trac­tors on eth­i­cal grounds; but – notably – the F4S projects have met with no po­lit­i­cal or ed­u­ca­tional op­po­si­tion. Rather, the re­sponse has been so pos­i­tive that now they are hav­ing to turn away new schools.

Al­though de­liv­ered free, each course of four ses­sions costs the char­ity £1,419 (cov­er­ing equip­ment, venues, and ad­min­is­tra­tion), and in or­der to guar­an­tee 30 such cour­ses an­nu­ally for the next three years a cam­paign is be­ing launched this month to raise a to­tal of £138,960. Hav­ing seen the ded­i­ca­tion and ex­cel­lence of their op­er­a­tion at first hand, I feel con­vinced they de­serve our sup­port.

As we pack up our things and pre­pare to set off from the river­bank, I ask Thomp­son if he feels the day has been a suc­cess. ‘‘That is an un­der­state­ment,” he says, as his group re­ceive their per­sonal cer­tifi­cates. I for one am go­ing to send Fish­ing For Schools a do­na­tion, to help open a few more of those doors of op­por­tu­nity, and per­haps to pro­cure a lit­tle ex­tra con­tent­ed­ness. I hope you will con­sider do­ing so too.

David Pro­fumo is fish­ing cor­re­spon­dent for Coun­try Life mag­a­zine.

Fur­ther in­for­ma­tion about Fish­ing For Schools from Char­lotte Cooper (char­lot­te­cooper@coun­try­side-al­liance.org); or for do­na­tions or spon­sor­ship con­tact Lucy Gibbs (020 7840 9298; lucy-gibbs@ coun­try­side-al­liance.org) or write to F4S, Old Town Hall, 367 Ken­ning­ton Road, Lon­don SE11 4PT.

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