‘Invisible’ pupils get rare chance in Greenland

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Ten teenagers have been chosen to go on a 10-day expedition to Greenland with a distinguished polar explorer who believes they will inspire thousands of peers on their return.

Craig Mathieson, the Royal Scottish Geographical Society’s explorer-in-residence, set up the Polar Academy for pupils he terms “invisible” – often shy and lacking in confidence rather than high-achievers, sports stars or disruptive ones. He was one of these “forgotten” pupils in the middle himself, he said.

The 10, who are from Coltness High and St Aidan’s High in Wishaw, North Lanarkshire, are likely to ski on sea ice, meet Inuit people in hunting villages, and see Arctic foxes as they camp out under the Northern Lights. They will also have to drag 35kg of gear across the ice.

They were picked from an initial 19 who attended two selection weekends at Glenmore Lodge outdoor centre near Aviemore. The remaining nine will still undergo training so that they can replace anyone who drops out, and they will remain active members of the Polar Academy.

John McGilp, headteacher at Coltness High, praised his predecessor Nancy Wilson for originally agreeing to Mr Mathieson’s idea and then collaborating on it.

“Our school fitted the profile of what Craig Mathieson was looking for as it’s in a socially deprived area,” Mr McGilp said. “It was going to be 10 pupils from here but St Aidan’s RC was then included as an anti-sectarian move. The response at Coltness was incredible. Out of about 750 pupils, we had something like 350 applicants.”

Mr Mathieson said some of the group, who will be between 15 and 17 when they go to Greenland next April, had no grasp of their potential. 

He will set each one a personal fitness plan to enable them to drag their equipment a total of 60 miles, set up camp and still have the energy to enjoy the evening. However, this would not require extreme fitness, he said.

“When I told the 10 who had been selected, I invited them in one by one and all 10 thought they were going to be told no. These kids have never been given a yes before.

“There’s an underlying toughness with these kids. Every day they see school as surviving.”

Mr Mathieson, 45, said it was “really difficult” to narrow the first group down but chose those he thought would benefit most from the experience.

A former tax accountant and Royal Navy seaman, he now works full time on the Polar Academy and is sponsored by Norwegian outdoor gear manufacturer Bergans, whose history goes back to expeditions more than 100 years ago. 

But the trip still needs £50,000 to cover its costs, he said, despite the support of Bergans, Tiso outdoor shops, and North Lanarkshire council.

He said: “This will be a true life-changing expedition for these kids. They will return to Scotland with new confidence, ready to achieve anything they put their minds to.”

Mr Mathieson said they would be “truly inspirational role models” who will tell their story to 24,000 other school children on their return via a series of events. “This is just the beginning. The Polar Academy will continue to expand, with the aim of inspiring the youth right across Scotland.”


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