Isca Academy

Isca is very much a genuine comprehensive school. A place where proper academic high fliers rub shoulders with others of very low ability; where pupils from 25 nationalities co-exist happily every day, and where there is a huge mix of social backgrounds, including a massive 34% on the “pupil premium” (PP) register.

­­Money is generally tight for the majority of our school population, so encouraging them to be involved in extra-curricular outdoor activities can be a real challenge. Currently we offer pupils the chance to be involved with Ten Tors, the Duke of Edinburgh’s Award Scheme, Exmoor Youth Challenge, Exe Valley Challenge and Exe Valley Extreme (these latter two being our own inventions).

In 2019 we will be mounting a new event – the Jurassic Coast Challenge. Numbers participating are high and rising, so a constant and significant challenge for us is the cost of kit and ensuring that money is not the reason that pupils do not choose to take part. This is where Gift Your Gear has come into its own for us.

Here are just a few of many Isca success stories from 2014-2016 (names have been reduced to initials).

22015 DM – was a PP pupil who was finally persuaded to sign up for D of E Bronze. He turned up at school for his Practise Expedition with a laptop bag and a pop-up tent, had a complete meltdown when a puddle barred the way on Woodbury Common, and generally lurched from one crisis to the next. But he persevered, and completed his Qualifying Expedition in the South Hams with a very unlikely group of Year 9s. DM then prepared for GCSE exams and generally managed well - an outcome which was far from guaranteed. He definitely gained in confidence and resilience as a result of his outdoor experiences. Seeing him take a selfie with Jack Yeandle (then Exeter Chiefs captain) when he received his Bronze Award was gold dust.

2015 KJ and LA – KJ, like DM, signed up for D of E Bronze, is adopted and PP, and showed real grit and a flair for leadership as her group completed their expeditions. But she also encouraged LA to get involved. LA, in the early part of Year 10, looked likely to be permanently excluded and was in constant conflict with staff. Now, she has managed a respectable crop of GCSEs, is part way through achieving her Silver Award, and is planning on a career in the police – she is telling her younger sister that her outdoor experiences were some of the most important things she achieved at school. I could never have predicted this outcome but it is great to see.

2015 TB – is PP, and came to the inaugural Exe Valley Extreme event in 2015 as a non-swimmer. She approached the slacklining over the canal at Haven Banks absolutely terrified as she knew she would fall in the water, but showed total guts as she stepped up anyway (and duly fell in!). TB earned her team just sufficient points at this moment to tip the balance as her team (3 of the 4 were PP) beat off opposition from 24 other teams to win the event overall. Our then deputy head was gutted – the staff team were second. TB went on to show all that grit by preparing hard for exams and gaining a hatful of good GCSEs.

2015 KM – KM is a complete non-athlete. He was in Year 8 and I saw him in the library while I was trying to make up numbers in one or two Exe Valley Extreme teams for the first event. I said “Why shouldn’t you do it?” – so after a bit of deliberating he did. The sight of KM running along the Quayside to keep up with his group was amazing. The next days and weeks, staff told me he was full of it as he had actually achieved something.

2015 JB – the year 7 JB struggled to complete Exe Valley Challenge, being very overweight. The 10-mile route proved an enormous challenge for him, but it was a joy to watch him come in (last) to the finish tent as his family cheered him in. His first words: “I heard there were cakes”. JB then went on to complete “Challenge Devon” in Enrichment Week as he walked the tough coastal hills from Charmouth to Exmouth.

2014 and 2016 BF and TM and AZ – an interesting tale of resilience here as the 2014 Ten Tors event saw these three tackling the 55-mile route. When they reached Watern Tor they were told they had not checked in at Tor 2 and would have to go back, adding 6 miles to an already incredibly tough event. Another team laughed at their misfortune, and they then spent the whole of Saturday and Sunday determined to catch them. They managed to find time to change into their hilarious cops and robbers outfits as they ran in to the finish having walked 61 miles at 1530 on Sunday – they had caught the scoffing team at Tor 10. Progress? All three were offered (and took up) Oxbridge places in 2016.

Stories of this nature are legion at Isca. The school has been involved with Ten Tors since the late 1960s, D of E for the last 28 years, Exmoor Challenge for 14 years. We invented Exe Valley Challenge in 2009 and extended it straight away to all comers (160+ teams of four in 2018). The key difference in the last four years is the persistent drive to include more PP pupils, and ultimately the whole year group for D of E. With perseverance, in another 5 years Bronze for All will become a rite of passage, just “what you do” if you come to Isca.

So, how has Gift Your Gear come into all this? Well, recently in a big way as we were able to visit the Exeter Barracks to select many items of kit which we simply would not otherwise have, namely lots of spare waterproof jackets, spare boots, the odd tent, lots of really useful rucksacks, stoves and various other items.

What this means in plain English is that we can extend opportunities to even more pupils, we can keep battering down the playing field in our efforts to completely level it. We have been able to kit many pupils out from head to foot for things like D of E Bronze expeditions, when before they just wouldn’t have taken part. We can usually cope when out on expeditions because we have a few spares when boots are found to be too tight, or a waterproof turns out to be less than waterproof, or a rucksack strap breaks, or tent poles snap… Such misadventures happen all the time with group use, and the fantastic contributions from Gift Your Gear have made a real difference to what we are able to achieve.

Gift Your Gear – we say a heartfelt “thank you”, and hope that you can continue your excellent work!

Words by John Miller

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