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One of our third year girls, AbbieJo, knows exactly what she got out of a visit to the Columba 1400 centre at Staffin. “The best thing in Skye was knowing that you earned other people’s trust and we all grew together.”
Thirteen of our S2 and S3 students and three members of staff, two teachers and our librarian, spent a week at Columba 1400’s centre at Staffin.  It was a venue I knew.  We had twice previously had staff and student groups there.  I had also been as part of a staff leadership week.
Norman Drummond, Church of Scotland minister, former army and school chaplain and headteacher and founder of Columba 1400 holds an unorthodox view of priorities and values for education.  “At a time when the rather depressing emphasis throughout education has been on ‘valuing targets’, Columba 1400 seeks to encourage Heads, Staff and Pupils to ‘target values’.  A simple daily code of responsible leadership and personal behaviour gives each child and teacher a frame of reference within which to approach each other and every task however challenging, both within and outwith the classroom.
The Columba 1400 philosophy is based on the early Celtic values of warmth of welcome, of hospitality and of the sense of being on a shared journey.  “Columba 1400 believes that our task in education is to elicit the inner greatness of each and every child,” says Mr Drummond.
His approach recognises the tough realities and depressed environments, in which many young people operate, and the limited employment opportunities they face.  It aims to release their potential with intensive “leadership academy” programmes, followed by ongoing support.  Fundamentally, it seeks to make young people aware of their own skills and potential – their “inner greatness”.
The Centre makes use of the outdoors, but this is no adventure course.  It is about team-work, co-operation and skills.  It also has an ethical core: a reflection on values.  The core values are awareness, focus, creativity, integrity, perseverance, and service and the participants’ unlocking of these – and the dawning recognition of the extent to which they possess them – is the purpose of the experience.  The aim is that they will realise their potential as leaders and contributors within their communities.
Anne Brownlee, our librarian, saw the care with which everyone is treated as crucial to the quality of the experience.  “The benefits of the remote Skye location relieved me of every day concerns and obligations,” she explains.  “That enabled me to focus on our students, colleagues and my personal aims. The high standard of comfort, care and hospitality provided a motivating environment for us all to work together along with experienced and committed Columba staff.”
Students and staff shared a rich menu of activities.  They simulated a mountain rescue team, finding their way to the ‘accident’ and brought ‘the body’ back.  They canoed, they walked to the Old Man of Storr.  They prepared a rescue plan for an island facing economic, environmental and social problems and presented their findings.
They also explored the Columban values through activities and discussion.  Each evening they reflected on the day’s activities and attempted to learn lessons.  There was no comfort zone and there were tears of frustration as well choruses of pride.
The challenges were in working cooperatively.  As well as the usual teenage sprats, there were occasions when one or more did not want to participate or cooperate.  Every disagreement was hammered out and the staff and young people came back stronger than they went.
Janet Walker, one of our Guidance teachers, says: “Columba 1400 was a superb experience; the students gained skills to use their knowledge to bring out leadership qualities. They worked amazingly as a team as well as building up their own confidence.”
And for at least one of our students, that reflection has continued since returning to school.  “Columba 1400 changed me in a lot of ways.  Since I came back lots of people have noticed and mentioned that I am a better person.  My attitude has changed.  At Skye I made lots of friends and got the friendships I already had a lot stronger.”
Leadership is an almost intangible phenomenon but it’s one we urgently need.  More than any other experience, Columba 1400 has helped our young people to develop it.  It went so well that we decided that we had to branch out.
And it went so well that we’ve decided to branch out.  We’ve booked a further Columba experience for October but this time it will be a joint venture: six of our girls and six girls from St George’s School.  Columba will strengthen and challenge both cohorts of girls but they’ll also challenge each other.  Two very different schools should be deeply enriched by the skills and attitudes with which the girls will return.
This article first appeared in The Herald on 23 February 2010

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