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7 March 2019, 17:10 | Updated: 7 March 2019, 17:15
Dartmoor Zoo may seem an unlikely setting for a ground breaking educational project aimed at building the confidence, self esteem and motivation of a group of Cornish pupils excluded from mainstream schools.
However the success of the project comes as little surprise to its creator North Cornwall APA teacher Andy Wilson who says the unique mix of academic, social and practical activities, coupled with the enthusiasm and support of zoo staff and, of course, access to the animals, is transforming the lives of the young people taking part.
Andy, who was himself excluded from school as a child, believes passionately in helping young people who feel abandoned by mainstream education.
After building a positive relationship with the Zoo’s educational department Andy used his teaching experience and newly developed knowledge of the animals to create a specialist programme for a child from Pencalenick Special School.
The success of the programme, described as 'exemplar' by Ofsted, led to his appointment at North Cornwall Alternative Provision Academy, recently judged to be good by Ofsted and part of the Wave Multi Academy Trust, and the development of the Dartmoor Zoo project.
Introduced 18 months ago, the project initially involved a group of Year 10 students spending every Thursday at the Zoo where they worked alongside the maintenance team to carry out a range of practical tasks ranging from digging drains, laying underground pipes and making manholes, to edging and filling in holes in paths, mixing concrete and mortar and building fences.
This year the six strong group have cleared a pond, built a massive bug house from a cut down tree and excavated an 80 foot well which was used by Prince Albert to drink from when he stayed at Goodamoor House in the mid 19th century.
This work led to the discovery of a long forgotten stone staircase which led down to the well which the group have also restored.
They are currently designing and building a decking area around one of the ponds for the public to enjoy with the help of a £2,500 grant to help cover the costs of Zoo staff time, materials and tools for the project from the Office of the Police and Crime Commissioner for Devon and Cornwall - a massive project which has involved the youngsters planning, designing and now building the structure.
Following the success of the first year of the Thursday group, with all the older members of the group now either in college or working, Andy decided to set up a second group which focuses on academic study rather than practical skills.
This group, which meets on Tuesdays, is led by members of the Zoo's Education Department and follows AQA Unit Awards , including modules on animal husbandry and studying zoo animals, as well as Maths and English qualifications.
Andy is also writing a new scheme to fit with the BTEC Vocational course on caring for and feeding and accommodating animals which is being piloted by the group.
The group spend the mornings working with the zoo keepers helping to feed and care for the animals, including popular favourites such as the meerkats, as well as the Zoo's big cats. The practical zoo study lesson is followed by a classroom based lesson where they do lots of writing.
As well as the undoubted benefits for the young people and North Cornwall APA, with more motivated students, improved behaviour, attendance and qualifications, Andy and Dartmoor Zoo, which operates as a charity, are keen to share the project with other schools and zoos and wildlife parks.