Underwater School days
IF A SPORT IS TO GROW and prosper, its vital that the younger generation is always involved. But scuba-diving is not a bat-and-ball activity - youngsters cant just open a box and get on with it.
Cost, training, equipment and logistics are all thrown into the melting pot, and these factors can affect parents decision to buy into diving.
But recently secondary schools have been getting behind scuba-training for their pupils. I have been in touch with two at which diving is proving an extremely popular activity, and with dive centres in the UK and in the Red Sea that are whole-heartedly involved in the training of schoolkids.
The training agencies recognise the trend, and the young divers to whom I have been speaking are without exception keen to progress to higher levels.
CANFORD SCHOOL Wimborne, Dorset
This private school takes some 600 students, both day and boarders. Studying here costs around £8000 a term, which is enough to cover on-site swimming-pool facilities.
Biology is clearly a popular subject, with two new labs and more than 150 students taking the subject. Its the Head of Biology, Andrew Powell, who organises Canfords dive trips.
Andrew runs one overseas trip per year, and would normally do field study trips as well, though the recession put paid to this last year.
Students at private schools have longer holidays than at state schools, so Canford tries to save money by booking outside normal family-holiday periods.
Andrews preferred destination is the Red Sea, where he normally uses Emperor Divers. The trips are not subsidised by the school, and cost pupils (or rather, their parents) around £800. He tries to keep costs down by booking flights, accommodation and diving himself.
Last summer, he took a group to Malaysia for two weeks. Part rainforest visit, part diving holiday, this cost £1600 per head. Teachers dont go for free, either - they had to pay £700 each towards the cost.
Group sizes are normally 20-25 - six was the lowest number. For 20 or more students, four members of staff are required to supervise all aspects of the trip except the diving, which is the dive centres responsibility.
Price is not an issue with parents, says Andrew: Its the same as for a skiing holiday. The students are aged 15-18, with boys and girls in equal numbers. Boat-diving is usually preferred because some of the girls are quite small, and the kit is felt to be heavy to carry on a shore dive.
These days most of the kids have already been somewhere and experienced some form of diving, says Andrew. Most are PADI Open Water trained, with a few Advanced and Rescue Divers. Local centre Dorset Diving Services does most of their training, though some learn through the Combined Cadet Force (CCF).
We always ask, but no parents have ever come along, says Andrew. They prefer to pay someone else to look after their kids - but the kids dont really want their parents around anyway.
The school has a blanket travel insurance policy but pays an additional premium to cover diving. This has been used only once, when illness forced a student to cancel. There have been no major diving incidents, touch wood, says Andrew, ear problems and dehydration headaches being the only problems experienced to date.
A parental consent form must be signed, and school rules apply. If the kids dont behave, they know they will be repatriated at their parents expense. There has to be discipline, says Andrew. The biggest threat is binge-drinking, but Ive never come close to sending anyone home.
Parents rarely discuss the trips with Andrew in person, but he writes a newsletter recording the successes of previous holidays.
OLLIE THOMAS, 17, is a PADI OWD who has done 16 dives since learning in 2007, during school-time on Monday afternoons. I love snorkelling in the UK but havent dived here yet, he says.
What made Ollie start diving I was bored at school and interested in marine life, he says. He now describes being under water as my favourite environment. After visiting Malaysia, he is looking forward to another trip during his imminent gap year.
I ask him if the holidays are well-organised. Yes, theyre fastidious with safety. Maximum was always four students to one instructor.
We did three dives a day plus a thorough debrief, and had most evenings free to walk along the beach or go into town, so it was a good balance.
SARAH POWELL, 19, has done 24 dives since 2005, and is a PADI AOWD. Her first trip was to Sharm, in a party of 18. The teachers are all mad about diving. We were split into two groups, those already qualified and the trainees. I had problems with mask-clearing, but the instructor gave me extra help.
Sarah had been partly motivated by her father. Dads always diving.
Mum doesnt dive. I love marine life, especially sharks. I like the feeling of being under water.
READING BLUE COAT SCHOOL Sonning, Berkshire
This independent day school costs around £3850 a term to attend. Students are all boys up to the sixth form. There is a 2.5m-deep swimming pool on-site.
STUART SADLER, 35, organises the diving trips. He has been at Reading Blue Coat since graduating, and is now Director of Lower School. Since a uni try-dive in 1998, Stuart says he has logged around 2500 dives, and became a PADI Instructor in 2001. He dives regularly in the UK.
Since 2000, the school has run twice-yearly try-dive days for first- and third-year students, with an average of 90 turning up. Included are lectures on first aid, the environment, equipment and places to dive.
Most of the students do their initial training in the UK, usually finishing off the open-water dives at Stoney Cove in drysuits. Stuart now runs all the courses, bringing in volunteer instructors when he needs help. This Easter, for example, he ran a Rescue Diver course at Wraysbury Lake.
Diving is extremely popular at the school. Of 660 students, 150 are qualified divers, 50 being PADI AOWD or higher. We do one dive trip per year, and it takes a year to plan, says Stuart.
In October 2005, he organised a trip to Honduras for 22 kids, and the following year took 40 to Lanzarote in the Canary Islands.
That same year, holidaying in Taba Heights in Egypt with his wife, he says he was impressed by Red Sea Waterworld and made a preliminary booking there and then.
For the next three years he returned there, taking more than 40 students at
a time. Three teachers look after outside-water responsibilities and three to four instructors look after the kids under water, says Stuart.
The most recent trip cost around £1300 per head. The school offers financial support to parents to the extent that October trips are advertised in January and it foots the bill, so parents get nine months to pay it back.
Sometimes the final cheque is just clearing as we step onto the plane! says Stuart.
Students aged 13-18 are eligible to go. With the parental consent form signed, I become their legal guardian, he says.
I get lots of personal satisfaction planning and running the trips. We adopt the highest of standards - no sloppy buddy checks. Parents arent allowed to go, but they are encouraged to train with their kids.
Weve only had one problem in 11 years, says Stuart, referring to when a bottle of vodka was found in a sixth-formers bag. There was no second chance. He was on a plane home that very day. His father had to pay the airfare.
There have been no major diving incidents, only the odd gippy tummy and ear-clearing difficulties. Weve also had a couple of unnecessary CESAs [controlled emergency swimming ascents], but thats it.
Stuart books the trips through agent Travel Counsellors: Ive used it before for non-diving-related trips and Im really happy with its level of service. Its used to dealing with kids.
This year hes taking 60 students to Red Sea College at Sharm. Well also be taking a GP with us to help educate the kids. You cant have too much safety.
TOM DAWSON, 13, is a PADI AOWD. I did a try-dive at Centre Parcs, then one at school in 2009. I then did an Open Water course through the school along with my mum and sister.
Tom qualified last year in Taba, has done 27 dives and plans to do his Rescue Diver this year. Of school diving trips, he says: The teachers were strict on the appropriate things, yet really good fun.
This made us feel safe and happy at all times, and we had a good laugh.
In the water there was always someone to help with any problems we had. They reminded us of the dos and donts. They complimented us on a good dive and gave us pointers for improving our dive and making it more enjoyable.
It was all very well organised and un-stressful. Safety issues are treated like a military exercise. If you make a mistake, you wont make it again.
What did Tom enjoy most Seeing new things, the experience of being able to breathe under water, getting to know new people, sharing my experiences and stories of previous dives and having lots and lots of fun. It was hectic, but I enjoyed it that way.
ROSS BRYMER, 14, is another AOWD, with 28 dives under his belt, though he learnt in Taba back in 2007. I did a try-dive at school and then an OW course at Mikes with my mum. I finished off the open-water dives with Sinai Divers in Sharm.
Ive learnt about the environment and I really look after my buoyancy.
I enjoy the amount of fish you see on each dive and seeing something new and exciting. We change buddies every day, so we get experience diving with different people.
At Taba, Ross had liked the dive guides: They were very nice and funny but also told you a lot about the coral and how to preserve and look after it.
The trip may have been harder to enjoy if my parents had been with me, as you may feel a lot of pressure. Its nice to do something and feel independent. The week was very action-packed.
The kids dont get it easy on these trips, concluded Stuart. Theyre on the go all day. We start at 6am with a 1.5-mile swim in the sea. Then we dive in the mornings and split into three groups for activities like rugby, cricket and life-saving classes in the afternoon. The day normally ends around 6pm. The whole week is very tiring.
Welbeck Defence College of Loughborough took 45 boys, mainly aged 17, to Red Sea Waterworld in Taba in February. It organised 30 PADI OWD and seven AOWD courses for them from scratch. Videos and pool-training were completed at the hotel. There were six students per instructor, and the teachers dived in a group apart from the lads.
Longwood Holidays organised the trip.
It chose Red Sea Waterworld because we were offering a two-for-one deal on training, says General Manager Andrew Day. Typically one in the group would have ear problems and miss a dive, otherwise the whole group were as good as gold.
The college has already booked a return visit this year. I like the resort because groups are easy to control there, says teacher Christian Carmichael.
BLUE OCEAN DIVING Maidstone, Kent
Private-school trips are more successful than those for state schools because of county council bureaucracy - so says Ryby Stonehouse, owner of Blue Ocean Diving.
His is one UK dive centre that is actively promoting training in both state and private schools and colleges. Its one of the UKs bigger PADI centres, certifying more than 500 divers a year.
Ryby, who at 42 has been in business for 13 years, tries to run an annual trip with each school, but has to compete with other interests such as ski-ing.
For state schools, it can take over a year to get approval from the council, he says.
He co-ordinates each trip personally, usually liaising with a designated teacher. Currently he is dealing with heads of physics, biology and PE. The teacher has to want to run the trips and be keen or it doesnt work, he says. Normally the teacher, as supervisor, travels free.
School trips might be hard work but theyre also good business, says Ryby, as long as the dive centre is not too small and a well-established set-up. All instructors must go through a Criminal Records Bureau (CRB) and enhanced or paedophile check. Ryby has also lifted his insurance cover to £5 million, specifically for working with juveniles.
There is no best time to go, he says. Cost can be an issue, however, especially if there is more than one child in a family, which is why he runs all his trips to the Red Sea: Its convenient, and the diving is consistently good.
Trips outside the EU are tax-exempt, says Ryby, which gives the Red Sea an advantage over, say, the Mediterranean.
Ryby recently took 25 youngsters to Marsa Alam, certifying 12 OWDs, 15 AOWDs, a Rescue Diver and 46 specialities. He has certified 60 students from one school alone in 18 months.
I always do kids in blocks of eight with at least five instructors on site, he says. If there are any anxious kids, I drop the ratio to 1:1.
Ryby has to present risk-assessments for the hotel, dive operator and each dive site to the schools, so he prefers to use operators and sites he already knows. He has so far used Emperor Divers and Ocean College, but always uses his own instructors abroad, because he has trained them all and knows their standard of teaching.
The dive operators dont appear bothered by this. Why would they mind asks Ryby. Im bringing them a lot of business! He offers only boat-diving, as he feels this gives him more security and control. The kids cant wander off very far, and this also gives me dive-site flexibility if the weather or wind conditions change.
Parents rarely go on the trips. The kids dont want them there, and neither do the teachers, as it undermines their supervision. There have never been any major problems, reports Ryby. Smoking, drinking and drug-taking are not allowed, and if any issues arise he wont let the student dive for a day.
How does Blue Ocean win the business Ryby approaches each school, and initial meetings are followed by presentations, promotions, parents evenings and Q&A sessions. Its a long-term process, and likely to take up to two years before a holiday is run.
We have to get the books and videos to the kids at least six weeks before the trip, says Ryby. We then do a full weekend of pool-work and theory. Blue Ocean Diving conducts all training from beginning to end. And though courses are currently run outside term-time, Ryby is negotiating with one school to make diving part of its curriculum.
Blue Ocean deals with students aged 14-18, though only 15% are girls. Group sizes range from 12-36, usually with one teacher per 10 kids, though this ratio varies. For mixed groups, for example, teachers of each sex must be present. Recently we had a group of 36, says Ryby. Thirty-three were boys, but we still had to take a female teacher for the three girls.
While Ryby is responsible for the pupils while diving is going on, the teachers are in charge the rest of the time, and have the final say in any situation. Whether from a state or private school, the kids are equally keen and receptive, he says: They want to do the course, so there are never any problems. They all carry on and do the PADI Advanced course.
Around 20% will do specialities, and some parents will also join in. Theyre offered the same deal on training, but go on different trips to the kids.
The British Sub-Aqua Clubs minimum age for scuba-divers is 12. Jim Watson, the training agencys Safety & Development Manager, says BSAC does not maintain records of numbers of certifications for divers between 12 and 18, but reckons the most popular age for entry is 16-18.
And he reports a growing trend for children from families where one or both parents are already divers to join the sport, most usually from September to November.
BSACs annual incident report does not identify trends relating specifically to younger divers. The agency has a safeguarding policy for the protection of younger people, and any instructors coming into contact with them have to fill in a self-declaration form and go through a Criminal Records Bureau check.
Deborah Sutton, PADI UKs Marketing, Media and Project Manager, says that the worlds biggest diver-certification agency has seen a growing trend towards learning to dive among males and females in the 10-14 and 15-19 categories in the past five years.
Around 3000 junior certifications were issued to UK residents in 2008, with roughly two-thirds of the divers male and a third female.
PADI is very active in encouraging children to dive, with a range of programmes from Bubblemaker and Seal Team for eight-year-olds to Junior Open Water Diver at the age of 10.
Neil Fishburne, Group Manager for Training, Quality and Memberships, says the agency has seen no evidence to suggest that accident rates for kids are anything other than lower than those for mature divers.
PADI offers its instructors and dive centres extensive information regarding child protection, and this is available on the PADI website.