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Rhona Brankin joins Adult Learning Group for Environmental Conservation Project

18th July 2006

People who have learning difficulties or have trouble accessing learning opportunities because they have been socially excluded for a variety of reasons have been sharing their experiences with the Deputy Minister for the Environment and Rural Development.

Rhona Brankin was at the Glen Tanar Estate in Aberdeenshire this morning (Tuesday 18 July) to meet a group of people who are aiming to improve their lives and re-engage in learning with help from the Workers Educational Association (WEA) Reach Out project in Aberdeen, in conjunction with the John Muir Award in the Cairngorms National Park.

The 10-strong group is taking part in some practical conservation work at Glen Tanar and is also involved in an environmental art project, creating sculptures and collages from natural materials. As a result, they are set to gain a John Muir Discovery Award.

Through the John Muir Award, this group – and others like it – are given the opportunity to take part in a range of activities in the countryside that are designed to help build confidence and promote learning. Access to learning opportunities like this, in a peaceful rural location like the National Park, is far removed from the groups’ daily lives but is increasingly recognised as an effective way of helping people who have had difficulties, fit back into society.

Rhona Brankin quote: “The National Park designation recognises the value of the Cairngorms to Scotland and its people. The Reach Out project clearly shows that the Park has a social and economic dimension.

“The project and the John Muir Award scheme demonstrates how we can use Parks to help the most vulnerable in society get their lives back on track, through learning new skills, meeting new people and building up confidence. This is a great example of how Parks can improve the quality of life of everyone who uses them.”

Annie McIntosh from WEA Reach Out said: “WEA Reach Out is an innovative education project for disadvantaged adults living in Aberdeen. On top of being unemployed most of our students usually have other stresses in life such as mental health problems, substance misuse and learning difficulties.

“Aberdeen is a great city to live in but we want to remove the barriers that prevent our students accessing the benefits of the countryside. These barriers could be financial, a lack of confidence or a lack of knowledge. Whatever the difficulties we are able to open up a whole new world to them.

“Using the John Muir Award in the National Park not only gives groups lots of fresh air and exercise – which in itself is inspiring – it helps them become more aware of the natural and cultural heritage that surrounds them and promotes learning. This gives people confidence and a real sense of achievement.”

And feedback from previous students with the WEA Reach Out programme agree, with comments such as: “When I go to Glen Tanar I feel a sense of peace and sometimes just stand and listen to the silence,” as well as “I often feel trapped in the greyness of Aberdeen but once you get off the bus here everything is different.”

Alan Smith, John Muir Award Manager in the Cairngorms National Park added: “Absolutely anyone can take part in the John Muir Award from school children to pensioners but we are increasingly seeing groups like WEA Reach Out using the Award as a way of helping peoples’ rehabilitation, whether they have fallen foul of the law, had substance misuse problems, suffered abuse or have learning difficulties.

“This approach may be seen as unconventional by some but the indications are – and this is seen in the feedback we get from participants – that it gives them a new perspective on life.”

The Glen Tanar Ranger Service, based on the edge of the Cairngorms National Park has been working with groups with special needs for a number of years, promoting access and inclusiveness.

The Estate’s Head Ranger is Eric Baird, who is also Deputy Convener of the Cairngorms National Park Authority. He said: “When the National Park was established in 2003, we said that this was to be a National Park for all of Scotland’s people and not just for the fit and the few.

“If this means targeting certain groups who are unable – for many different reasons – to access the Park and all its recreational, educational and motivating benefits, then Glen Tanar Estate and the CNPA are delighted to be involved with that.”