Learning Account

A week in the life of ... Mike Perry, Chippenham College
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Mike Perry takes students on wilderness training in the Black Mountains, south Wales, as part of the public services course he runs at Chippenham College, Wiltshire.

We break the students in gently before leaving them for three days in the wilderness. First of all, in the first term of the two-year course, there's an outward bound week, where they go canoeing, caving and climbing in the Brecon Beacons. Then we do lots of exercises around the college and on the Marlborough Downs, including orienteering to teach map-reading and compass skills. Only then are the students ready for three sets of three days in wild country - two in the winter and one last week.

The expedition training is only a part of the public services course, but it takes on a real significance because it really demonstrates to the students what they are capable of. They are taken in teams of five by minibus and left at wilderness sites to set up camp. Then they have three days to complete a 116km trek through the mountains using a route they have planned themselves to take in as many as possible of 62 grid references, from churches in the valleys to trig points on the hills.

The Monday was pretty hard, as there were strong winds gusting up to 50 or 60 knots, and rain and a bit of sleet. The second day was a lot better and the third was quite warm, so when we picked them up they were frolicking around a stream near the camp, washing their feet.

None of them managed the full distance, but one group completed everything they had planned beforehand, which is all part of the challenge.

The BTEC public services diploma course, which I set up at the college two years ago, aims to combine practical challenges with demanding academic work. We study law and criminology, public service and society, health and fitness and communication skills, but the students also learn by doing. They have just completed a survey for the Wiltshire Police on attitudes to drugs and crime, and their election poll for our local newspaper was more accurate than the official versions. The course is equivalent to two A-levels and is designed as a preparation for university - where four of our students are going next year - or for public service or management careers.

The expeditions are a very telling leadership exercise. You know what they say about flying the Atlantic single-handed - come back and tell me when you can get a committee to do it. Leading a team in the mountains is similar: three of your group may be ready and willing to follow but the fourth will always be struggling.

We came back to college on Thursday for a debriefing session, where students assess one another's performance. I tell them we have to be like the Mafia - it's not personal, it's just business, so they are allowed to be constructively critical.

While they are out on the mountains, I keep an eye on them to make sure they are roughly where they planned to be, but don't get too involved. It's hard sometimes but it's a bit like being a parent - you have to know when to leave them free to get on with it

Interview by Lucy Ward