‘We want to give every child in Doncaster a night away with their school’
It may not be quite Bear Grylls level.
But youngsters in Doncaster took their first steps towards learning survival skills in their Easter holidays.
The course was the latest activity to be rolled out at Austerfield Study Centre, and is part of a project that is being take up by lots of youngsters across Doncaster.
Backed by the Doncaster youth organisation Expect Youth, the centre is running the sessions under a scheme called Essential Life Skills which has funding from the Department for Education through the Doncaster Opportunity Area scheme.
During the sessions at Austerfield, youngsters get the chance to learn about looking after animals, and pick up survival techniques and shelter building skills.
The holiday scheme was the latest in a series of sessions, which are intended to make our youngsters more resilient and self confident.
Nigel Senior, general manager at the study centre, would love to see all the borough’s youngsters getting to come to the sessions, and indeed staying overnight. But that is likely to depend on funding.
He said: “We’ve been running essential life skills primary during term time. We’ve had after-after school clubs with small groups of children coming here for six week periods to help them develop skills like team building, confidence and problem solving.
“They’ve been building dens, making bird boxes, creating camp fires. They get picked up by a minibus at 3pm and come here until 5.30pm.”
The success of the after school clubs led to the creation of similar sessions, run over two days with an overnight stay at the centre.
“We’ve been running residential stays, with up to 40 children here for two days and one night, again through Expect Youth. There has been a fantastic take-up, and we’re often looking at children who don’t get holidays,” said Nigel.
"They started in February, and we’ve had to turn some away. Its led us to think that we’d like to try to be really bold and offer these to every child in Doncaster, but we’re not sure how we're going to fund it yet.
“It is open for all, but so far the scheme has tried to target children that don’t get the opportunities more affluent children get.”
Austerfield Study Centre was originally a village school. After it was closed, it was used by Doncaster Council as a field study centre, used for residential trips to generations of youngsters.
When the council looked to close it as part of moves to save money, a group of villagers stepped in to take it over, running it as a social enterprise.
The council still owns the site, but the trust has developed it. It used a grant from Wren, a not-for-profit business that awards grants for community projects from money that comes from landfill tax. That was used to create a new dormitory block to replace ageing facilities that had been there before, as well as a new toilet block.
It sleeps 41 children and five teachers.
The latest building to be added to the site is a shelter for its pond area. That was funded by a grant from the People’s Postcode Lottery.
The centre is next to a nature reserve, and uses that sites facilities as well as its own. Youngsters go there and take part in activities including making their own bows and arrows out of willow.
It has its own animal house, home to a number of unusual animals including snakes and giant insects. They are rescue animals
Nigel said being photographed with the snakes was always popular with the youngsters who visit.
But the centre depends on a legion of volunteers for its work.
They help supervise activities and look after the venue, and its animals. Some have even built parts of the site. One volunteer built a bird hide. Youngsters from the National Citizens’ Service built a rabbit run.
Volunteer Gill Rich travels from Barnby Dun to help out.
She decided to sign up at Austerfield because her grandchildren had enjoyed visiting it so much.
“They started coming here, and they loved it,” she said. “They still do.
“Bug hunting and pond dipping were their favourites. Laura, my daughter-in-law, started coming here last autumn, and that prompted me to start here too.
"It’s nice to be outside seeing the wildlife, and the nature reserve is lovely, The kids are lovely and I’ve loved it this week.”
“We could not run without our volunteers,” said Nigel.
Around 500 youngsters have come to the centre for the essential life skills so far. Around another 500 are expected before the schools finish in July.