Leap of faith as Ardroy adventure centre is brought back to life

By Richard Baynes
BBC Radio Scotland

Image caption,
Ardroy outdoor educational centre re-opened as a charitable trust, after previous operator Fife Council pulled its funding

In a youth hostel in the Cairngorms, I chat to a teacher from a private school who is there with a group of teenage pupils on an outdoor education week.

I mention I am making a programme for BBC Radio Scotland about an outdoor education centre that has been re-opened, and he pricks up his ears. "Which one?" he asks.

"A place called Ardroy," I say.

"That's brilliant," he responds. "I was at Ardroy as a kid. It helped introduce me to the outdoors, and now here I am nearly 40 years later, still taking kids out. Places like that have to be kept."

It is just one example of the huge affection with which people from Fife regard Ardroy.

The centre, in Lochgoilhead, in Argyll and Bute, was owned and operated by Fife Council, and most of the youngsters who go there are from Fife schools.

Image caption,
Activities help develop social and communications skills

But it was closed last July on cost grounds because it needed a £290,000-a-year subsidy, and the local authority did not have the cash.

Since last November, Radio Scotland presenter Bill Whiteford and I have been following the story of how Dunoon businessman George Bruce, backed by his wife, Isla, and the head of the centre, Phil Thompson, re-opened Ardroy as a charitable trust.

Mr Bruce said they opened on a wing and a prayer with just £100 in the bank, but if they had left it any longer they could have lost the schools which they had booked in for the year.

However, the place has gone from strength to strength, and Fife schools have been booking in droves since they found out it would reopen.

The centre has also won an important contract with the UK government's Challenge Network scheme for 16-year-olds, which has allowed it to stay open over the summer and has made up some of the financial gulf which the loss of council subsidy created.

The challenge has not just been to stay open but to maintain the core educational element in which the centre has specialised.

It does not just provide adventure trips, it consults with teachers to see what educational outcomes they want from them.

Activities are geared to developing social and communications skills, as well as being great fun.

Edinburgh University's Prof Peter Higgins, an outdoor education expert, said he was concerned that centres which slipped out of local authority control eventually lost their educational emphasis, in part at least because of the financial pressures to stay open, keep staff and pay the bills.

'Huge benefit'

We also looked at at the Arran Outdoor Education Centre, a £5m purpose-built facility completed five years ago.

It is run by North Ayrshire Council and, as one of the few left in Scotland where children get subsidised outdoor education trips, represents a big investment by the local authority.

In contrast, at Ardroy, schools themselves have been staging fund-raising events to refurbish the Victorian house which makes up much of its accommodation.

Image caption,
George Bruce said they opened the centre on a wing and a prayer

And income comes mainly from parents who pay about £220 for trips.

But both the Ardroy and Arran centres share the same philosophy that taking children out of their day-to-day environment for several days at a time, giving them the attention in small groups of a trained outdoor educator, and showing them what the outdoors has to offer, is of huge benefit.

Having seen for ourselves the effects of Ardroy trips on the youngsters, it is fair to say Bill and I are fairly impressed that, so far at least, the centre has been maintaining those standards.

We have spoken to centre staff, teachers visiting, parents, and the children themselves, and they all said: "It's the same old Ardroy."

In fact, Mr Thompson said staff had been working harder to retain the educational focus, adding: "Without the council safety net, we are aware that, if we want the repeat business, it has to be just right."

The question over the coming years will be whether Ardroy can keep its highly-skilled staff, and their knack of teaching children stuff that helps their schoolwork while abseiling down cliffs or jumping into ice-cold rivers, while balancing the books.

Saving Ardroy will be broadcast at 14:05 on 15 August on BBC Radio Scotland.

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