Volunteering: ATE Training – What it is, and how it works

Active Training and Education, which runs Superweeks, has over 50 years experience (previously as ‘Colony Holidays’) in both running residential summer camps for children, and in training the young adults who will work directly with the children.

But why do we train these people, who come to work with us as enthusiastic volunteers? And what does this training consist of?

The people who work, as unpaid volunteers, directly with a small group of children on a Superweek, are called ‘Monitors’. They are mostly students, though we have had young teachers join us too. No-body, no matter how experienced in working with children, is permitted to work as a Monitor until they have completed the full seven-day residential Monitors Course, which takes place annually, usually at Easter.

On each Superweek, the Monitor’s performance is assessed by the Superweek Director, and they are given an appraisal with suggestions for improvement and development of their skills. When a Monitor has worked satisfactorily on at least three occasions (usually more) and has reached the age of at least 21, they can be invited to train as an Assistant Director. The Assistant Directors course is a five-day residential, and after they have then worked satisfactorily in the role of AD on at least three more Superweeks, they can be invited to train as a Superweek Director, another 5 day residential course. Nobody works, again, no matter how experienced in their other work with children, as a Superweek Director unless they have been through all these stages.

This sounds like an extremely challenging and rigorous programme for people who are, after all, only volunteers and are, for the most part only going to work on one Superweek each year. Why do we do it? Why do they do it?

It’s hard to answer that question, and many people who I’ve met have made it frankly obvious that they do not quite believe me when I describe the process to them. But young people do train and work as Monitors, they do keep coming back to us year after year, as well as attending staff training weekends at their own expense, getting involved in fund-raising and turning up to with huge skill and commitment on our occasional school residentials. A significant number stay with us long enough to be invited to train as Assistant Directors, and some of these stay on even longer in order to train as Directors, typically balancing this highly challenging role of being effectively in charge of and responsible for everything on a Superweek with a career and a home and family.

Do we get enough people? At the time of writing (2013), we are training thirty new Monitors, six new Assistant Directors and four new Directors; more than enough for our present needs.

What do we try to achieve on the Monitors Training Course?

We want our newly trained Monitors to know what it feels like to be a child arriving, by themselves, at a strange place, surrounded by lots of people they don’t know, most of whom look much more confident, clever, and just plain bigger than they are.

So, the trainees arrive at the residential centre, typically feeling a bit nervous and wondering what they’ve let themselves in for. They are immediately placed into a small group of other trainees, these groupings have been constructed in advance to give a mixture of ages and experience. This ‘team’ quickly realises that they are going to be doing pretty much everything together for the whole week, so, like it or not, they now have five or six new friends!

The week comprises a balanced mixture of lectures, discussion sessions, and workshops on a wide range of activities which the new Monitors will experience, and often lead with their own team on a Superweek. These will include indoor games, outdoor games, singing, handicrafts, storytelling, drama and lots more. By the time they leave the week each Monitor should have a resource book of activities which could be used with any number of children from 1 to 30, in any situation from the middle of a school playing field, to the back seat of a coach. And age range? Most newly trained Monitors can’t wait to get back to college to try out the games, puzzles and tricks intended for 8 year olds on their peers in the Student Bar.

There is a very serious side to the course as well of course. One of the first things said, on the first evening of the Monitors course, is that work, even when it is voluntary can involve very high levels of responsibility, and, off hand, I can’t think of anything that carries a greater degree of responsibility than being given the care of someone else’s child. That normally gets a moment of quiet contemplation. A lot of time, attention and careful thought is given to safety, physical and emotional well-being and the many things that a Monitor can do to make sure that each child in their team feels safe, well cared for and valued.

The Assistant Directors Course – what more can possibly be learned?

Assistant Directors have many roles. They support the Director, and they support the Monitors. They will be asked to design and lead activities for several groups or even the whole Superweek, and they will be asked to take responsibility for the safety of children in higher-risk situations such as going for a walk outside the centre. This course has two main objectives; to broaden the resource base of the trainees so that they have a good repertoire of activities which they can lead competently and well, and to consider not just what we do on a Superweek (which of course they already know from their experience as a Monitor) but also why we do those things.

By the time someone has been asked to train as an AD, they have already shown outstanding competence and commitment, and so they are also beginning to accept a wider responsibility for the organisation as a whole and will be asked to attend bi-annual meetings of Directors and Assistant Directors to make decisions on the development of the organisation.

The Directors Course – the ultimate challenge?

There is only one Director on each Superweek, and that person holds prime responsibility for everything. This includes care of the centre, communicating with the centre owner, managing the Superweek Caterer and Domestic Assistants, working closely alongside the Superweek Matron to make sure that everyone is healthy and the centre is kept clean and hygienic, being responsible for the health and well-being of both the children and the Monitors, and the standards of behaviour which are acceptable, and, of course, designing and implementing a programme of activities which send everyone home at the end of the week feeling happy, fulfilled, excited and invigorated by all that they have experienced during the week. Superhuman or what?

The Directors Course is designed as much as anything to persuade people that they can do this amazing task, and do it brilliantly well. People seldom believe it of themselves, and the people who do the best job are often the people who had the least self-belief in advance.

So what is the overall outcome – in what ways does it result in a better experience for the children?

We are sometimes approached by people who have huge amounts of experience in working with children, perhaps a Scout or Guide leaders, sometimes even as school teachers or other professionals. Why insist, at the risk of losing them, that they do the Monitors course, and work as a Monitor rather than being ‘fast-tracked’ on to at least Assistant Director status?

Superweeks are very short, and in order to provide a good experience for the children from the outset, everyone has to ‘hit the ground running’. Because of our training, two people can meet each other for the first time ever while collecting children from their parents at the beginning of a week, or whilst taking their teams up to the dormitories on the first afternoon, and they already have a lot in common. They know what to expect of each other and of the other people on the week, and they know what is expected of themselves, and how to get support if they feel they can’t always meet those expectations.

People, both Monitors and children, are nervous at the start of a Superweek, but the Monitor has to gain the trust of their team very quickly if they are going to be able to adopt the leadership role required of them, and this level of understanding and confidence in each other is what provides the security needed to tackle what is typically a very challenging task.

This is what is at the heart of ATE training courses, and is the reason that they have such a profound effect on the lives of very many of the people who experience them and continue to work on Superweeks for many years.

Long may they continue!

Barry Walmsley

Director of Training

Active Training and Education

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.