Sending students out of the classroom for a month might seem an unusual step for a school usually known for its academic success but, at King's College, an outdoor education programme is considered just as important as hitting the books.
As part of the compulsory Adventure Challenge, all Year 10 students spend four weeks away from the school concentrating on outdoor education, with the aim of unlocking their potential through 'discovery in the wild'.
Principal Simon Lamb says adventure and environment are key dimensions of the King's educational philosophy and this special programme helps students challenge themselves and engage with the world around them.
"Through the Adventure Challenge, our students have the opportunity to develop an appreciation of the outdoors and the natural environment, develop greater outdoor skills, grow their self-awareness and gain confidence," he says.
The programme is run by outdoor education specialist Rod Pancoust, who has worked for the school for more than two decades. King's is one of the only schools in the country to have its own dedicated outdoor education facility, at Ahuroa, northwest of Puhoi.
The centre was established in the 1970s when the school bought land with the idea of planting trees that students would work to maintain. This morphed over time into the King's College Venture Camp, which includes bunkrooms for 30 students plus teachers and instructors, kitchen and dining facilities and two indoor training rooms.
Outside there is a rock-climbing wall, a native bush area and access to a range of other outdoor activities.
Pancoust describes the outdoor education programme as "a journey". Students start their outdoor education module with nine days at Ahuroa before spending six days on classic racing yacht Steinlager 2, then completing the course over 11 days on the Central Plateau, based at Raurimu.
During their time at Ahuroa, students learn basic outdoor skills, including survival techniques and navigation and map work, which are then put into action on the later stages of the course. As well as practical techniques, the time here begins team-building – such a critical part of the programme, Pancoust says.
The next part of the challenge sees students head out on the water, learning how not only to sail Steinlager 2 but also how to live in close quarters and work as a team.
"No one person could sail that boat by themselves but, by the end of their time, they can do it if they work together," Pancoust says. "They also get to explore and experience the Hauraki Gulf and do some environmental work as well."
The Tongariro phase of the adventure challenge is the culmination of the course. Students take part in a three- or four-day wilderness expedition, as well as going rock-climbing, canyoning and caving.
"Everything is a bit more of a challenge — it's bigger, colder, wetter and more difficult, but what we have done earlier in the course gives them the skills and knowledge to cope," Pancoust says.
As part of the programme, students work towards their bronze Duke of Edinburgh award which requires not only outdoor skills and experience but also community service. During their time at Ahuroa, they help a local community group return kiwi to the Kaipara area, clearing tracks and working on pest control.
Pancoust says Year 10 is a good time for students to have the outdoor education experience, when they are physically and emotionally mature enough to face its challenges – but before the serious business of senior examinations start in Year 11.
"King's is very committed to it — we have changed our school programme to be able to make it happen and enable students to be out of the classroom for such a period of time," Pancoust says. "We get kids with a wide range of physical abilities but that is partly what the course is about.
"They are given a team and they need to work out what are its strengths and weaknesses and work together to achieve their goals."
Pancoust says it's easy to recognise the physical benefits of some of the activities but the personal growth students experience is also significant.
"To get through it, they need qualities such as resilience and perseverance. They can't walk away — it's not a computer game which is over in five minutes," he says.
"Responsibility is the other thing they pick up. It's up to them to make it work and take responsibility for themselves."
An important aspect of the programme is the fact mobile phones and other electronic devices are banned for the duration. Students are encouraged to write letters home during their time away, "something which is a first for 95 per cent of them, but the parents love it," Pancoust says.
While separating a teenager from their device might seem like a physical impossibility, he says it is usually met with little resistance — and gains approval from parents.
"We discussed with parents when we first started doing it and they all thought it was a good idea. The kids soon discover that after a month, their thumbs still work," he laughs.
"The changes we see in the students through the month are just phenomenal. We get some outstanding feedback from parents who are pleasantly surprised by the personal growth in their child since being away from home for a month. They say, 'what have you done with my child?' — but in a good way."