Dude alert: How to keep beach teens in the classroom

Young people who are mad about beach sports can follow their passion at an academy that gets them through A-levels and into university.
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The Independent Online

As they pour out into the sunshine at the end of a school day the bronzed sixth formers in Newquay have another thing to remember apart from their school bags – and that is their surf boards.

News has spread that the waves are good, an important factor at Treviglas Business and Enterprise College, the first state school to offer a sixth form course based on surfing. Seven years ago it set up a "surf academy" as an experiment to lure young people off the beach and into education. Now it is claiming a 100 per cent success rate in getting youngsters into university or careers.

Students on the two-year course surf twice a week and take modules in surf science accredited by Plymouth University. They can qualify as coaches and lifeguards and also take A-levels in sport and tourism with the content tailored to the surfing industry. From this year they will take an additional A-level in business studies.

Treviglas, one of two comprehensives in the west Cornwall town, says 90 students have graduated from its "surf academy" and only two have failed to complete the course: one to go into work after the first year and the other to compete for Great Britain. It is a model that could be replicated with a range of other activities, such as Formula One, cricket or golf, says Helen Mathieson, the head teacher.

But the surf boards are not the only things that mark out the students from the rest pouring out to a line of coaches waiting to take them home to their villages. Students at the surf academy range in age from 16 to 32 and come from many parts of the British Isles, including Ireland, Liverpool and East Anglia.

All are keen surfers and had dropped out of education or were just about to when they heard of the chance to combine studying with their passion for riding the waves. One was Philip Seasman, 22, who was brought up on an estate in Walton, Liverpool, and got good grades up to Year nine but was easily distracted and soon labelled a trouble maker. He moved down to the bottom groups despite my good marks, he says.

"After that I lost interest and sagged in lessons. There weren't many jobs when I left school and a lot of my friends started dealing to make extra money. There wasn't really much to do apart from smoke weed and get drunk."

But Seasman had tried surfing and loved it and, when he saw an advertisement for the course, decided to apply. He was able to move away from home thanks to a £65-a-week grant towards accommodation costs and a £30-a-week education allowance for his keep.

Now he plans to study marine biology at university. "But for the surf academy I wouldn't have anything to aim for and would probably be on the graft like the boys back home or in prison or worse," he says.

Is it fair to expect taxpayers to fund surfing classes? Why should students who have failed to work hard in the past and disrupted lessons for others be rewarded with training in a sport that most families cannot afford for their children?

They are not easy questions for this good-natured bunch of young men and they become quite indignant. "We help pay for the surfing," says Liam Lowry, 19. The students contribute around half the cost of the first session of the week and the second is taken after school by a teacher who is also a trained coach.

"Just because it's called surf science it doesn't make it easy," says Lowry. "It's very hard work. The surf science modules are at degree level standard and are overseen by Plymouth University and we're also taking A-levels in sport, travel and business studies."

Sam Coad, 16, says surfing has changed. "We're not 1960s Californian hippies all laid back and chilled out. I came here from Bristol because I didn't want to stay on at school and end up with a job I hated. I doubt I would have lasted in a college so far from the sea and now I have the chance to go to Plymouth University and work in the surfing industry."

Persuading young people to stay in education after the age of 16 is a challenge throughout Cornwall where youth unemployment has doubled in the last year. The lack of highly-paid employment in business, IT or manufacturing in this rural county that has yet to recover from the decline of mining and fishing helps to feed a lack of aspiration.

But many of the young people on Fistral beach have dropped out of education in other parts of the country, says Mathieson. "The surf academy was a ruse to attract young men, and some young women as well, to a course based on the surf industry. It was a big gamble. We developed a year zero academic course which accredits our students with university modules and gives them a guaranteed place to study surf science at Plymouth University, or they can use them alongside their A-levels to get on to other degree courses."

Surfing has developed into is the summer equivalent of winter skiing for middle class families, she says. "It's no longer a sport for "surfing bums". It's the biggest growing industry in western Europe and the opportunities for work in surfing and the allied industries are massive," she says.

Ben Ford, 36, left school at 16 and was working as a builder in East Anglia when he joined the course. He's now managing a large local adventure and leisure complex. Anthony O'Reilly, 21, who left last year with four A-grades is now studying marine biology and oceanography at Plymouth University.

As they run barefoot across Tolcarne beach for the pre-surfing fitness session, Liam Lowry says: "If I wasn't at this college my life would consist of going surfing, being on the computer, playing Call of Duty on the PlayStation and eating Super Noodles. Now I'm going to qualify as a coach and get a university degree."