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Lees Brook Academy becomes one of county’s biggest Duke of Edinburgh award providers with tireless work to improve accessibility

Lees Brook Academy has become one of the biggest providers of the Duke of Edinburgh (DofE) Awards in the county, going above and beyond to make sure all pupils can access the scheme.

The awards aim to empower young people, supporting them to overcome obstacles, build confidence and resilience through physical challenges, skills building and community volunteering.

Lees Brook Academy currently has 122 students doing the Bronze level award and 56 doing the silver and over half of all students leave the academy having achieved a DofE award.

While several schools offer the programme, few do so at the scale of Lees Brook Academy which works to remove barriers that prevent children from taking part. The school provides camping and hiking equipment for them to borrow, free of charge, and helps establish links students need to complete the volunteering and skills aspects of their award. The result is huge numbers of students signing up to the challenging programme.

Alex Waterhouse, Duke of Edinburgh Award manager at Lees Brook Academy, said: “We want to empower as many young people as possible to take on the challenge and to do that we work to make the award as accessible as possible.”

During the national lockdown caused by the Covid 19 pandemic, the school went a step further, designing its own programme to allow all students in Year 9 – more than 200 – to complete the skills, volunteering and physical aspects needed for the bronze award, even when the country closed down and students were stuck in classrooms or at home.

“We created a volunteering programme with activities students could do from home and we also built weekly challenges, such as collecting crisp packets which could then be turned into survival blankets, and making decorations for care homes,” said Alex.

“Our young people needed something positive in their lives to work towards and focus on. We believe DofE has a positive impact on their mental health and wellbeing, as well as helping with their academic, social and emotional development.”

“It gave the chance for those who were disengaged from school, many of whom were from disadvantaged backgrounds, the chance to excel – improving self-belief, raising aspirations, attainment and narrowing the gap for these young people.”

At the end of the year, the school hired field in the Peak District so they could set up their own camp, ensuring a covid safe expedition. Students who wanted to were able complete the two-day expedition, required for their award with 138 students completing the assessed expedition.

The opportunity was made possible because of £9,000 of Diamond Fund money from the DofE charity which Alex applied for.

“It was a great opportunity to give the students something positive and some funding was available to apply for so I put in the application and was successful,” said Alex.

For Alex the award is a true passion. “I love the outdoors and inspiring others,” he said. “When I started running the DofE in school it was great taking students out who had never been to the Peak District before, it was brilliant to be able to give that new experience.”

Students currently completing their silver awards say they have experienced things they would not have had the chance to without DofE.

Sophie Cave, 15, said she had never camped before doing her first Duke of Edinburgh expedition. Now she really enjoys it.

“I really enjoy the social aspect,” said Sophie. “Everyone is working together and it makes it really enjoyable. I’d never camped before but it was really good.”

Fellow Year 10 pupil, Kieran Newsome, got to visit parts of the county he hadn’t been to before.

“We went to the Dark Peaks for our expedition and I loved the views from Mam Tor,” he said. “I really enjoyed spending time with friends doing something really good. I really think it teaches you resilience; with the walking you can’t keep stopping you have to push on.”

Many other pupils, such as Alyah Mohamed and Charlotte Rooney, both in Year 10 doing their silver award, said the physical aspects of hiking up hills were tough, but gave them a huge sense of achievement when they completed them. They also enjoyed learning new skills as part of the award.

Charlotte said: “For the skill I took up drumming. This was really entertaining, my favourite part listening to a song and playing it.”

Others enjoyed helping out in the community, such as Peter Mahaso who volunteered with the Salvation Army. And all agreed they wanted to take part so it would help them in the future.

Toby White, also doing his silver award, said: “I think the reason I mainly wanted to do it was to help me in the future, make you stand out against everyone else show you have commitment.”

The school’s desire to enable as many students as possible to take part also led it to apply for £3,000 of funding to create a school garden.

Alex said: “Some students were struggling to access volunteering opportunities which are needed to complete the award.”

I got some funding for tools and equipment so they could create a school garden. For two hours a week they would volunteer in the school garden, learning to create raised beds, polytunnels, and then planting and growing things. As well as being part of the DofE, for some students we were able to build an alternative curriculum around these practical skills.”

It is no surprise that Alex’s work has been recognised by the Duke of Edinburgh charity. In 2019, he was invited to Buckingham Palace as part of the gold award celebrations to recognise the schools work in growing the awards at Lees Brook Academy and making them accessible. He was also invited to a national conference by Duke of Edinburgh chief executive, Ruth Marvel, where he shared the school’s work on removing barriers to the programme.

Clare Watson, who became principal of Lees Brook Academy in July, said she was impressed by what the school had achieved with the Duke of Edinburgh scheme and that it was hugely important to developing students’ cultural capital going forward.

“I’m passionate about providing opportunities for students to challenge themselves and learn more about their own strengths and resilience outside the classroom so I’m delighted that we have such a fantastic and large number of students taking part in the Duke of Edinburgh scheme. I am hugely proud of the hard work of our staff, particularly Alex, and thank all the DofE staff team for giving up their time to provide students with this opportunity.”

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