Jon Clarke, shadow headteacher of Walsall Academy, kept a diary of how they planned and overcame challenges for an incredible expedition to Borneo. He shares it with us. 

It is March 2020 and I am sat on a ridge in Snowdonia with a group of Year 8 students who are at Outward Bound for the weekend. The weather is a little damp and the storm clouds are not of rain, but the pandemic that was now taking hold. The conversation turns to expeditions and the one that we have just run to Kashmir. The students are full of enthusiasm and want to know when and where they could go.

Two members of staff in the jungle during Walsall Academy's Borneo expedition

Jon Clarke is Walsall Academy’s senior deputy head and has organised educational trips and expeditions all over the world.

Fast forward to July 2023 and I am sat on a hillside in the Kinabalu National Park in Borneo. A bright-eyed and slightly warm 16-year-old turns to me and says: “You promised us on the that mountain in Wales the week before the first lockdown that we would go on an expedition and here we are, we made it.”

We did make it but how you go about planning an expedition with a group, especially when they are from one of the poorest areas in the UK? I have kept a planning diary over the past year to hopefully encourage and support others in getting as many students on expeditions as possible. 

Watch the video of Walsall Academy’s expedition to see what they experienced and what the students thought of it

What is an expedition? To me, it involves a smaller group travelling to a more remote region and undertaking a significant challenging trek and community-based projects. The team should manage itself in terms of finances, transport, accommodation and liaise with local providers. It’s quite a challenge but has much more long-lasting impact on the learning and development of the participants. An expedition is normally much longer than a school visit and can be up to four weeks. One of the key parts for us is that the students have to fundraise themselves.

We use Outlook Expeditions, a specialist company which meets all of the above criteria and more. 

Expedition planning timeline

February 2022: Our student’s resilience is lower, communication skills are impacted and aspiration has dropped through the floor. I have an idea that we need a focus for the school and we need to travel and inspire. I call Outlook Expeditions which provides the support and voice of reason that I need to help with the planning and preparation for an expedition. We agree a reasonably easy location of Borneo, a possible set of dates and the price per student. My chair of governors agrees with a few caveats, one is that I have to go.

March 2022: Online launch to students. We have a TV programme in the school on a weekly basis, as well as assemblies, so I have used both of these plus the electronic notice boards and an email to parents to invite them to an online information evening. The target group size is 12.

April 2022: Demand is high, we now have 25 applications for the expedition and there is a buzz around the school. The decision is made to create two teams to enable all of the students to go and another member of the SMT agrees to manage the second team. 

Walsall Academy students camp in a field in the Peak District

Training weekend accommodation in the Peak District - a bit different to what they’ll use in Borneo!

May 2022: Staff selection begins. This is the hard part and due to this being the first expedition for four years and the size of the teams, one place is given to an experienced leader and the other to a first timer. They both join the first online training events about how to fundraise. Each of the students then submits a fundraising plan. Payments for the expedition go straight to the company not to the school, which saves on admin time, and they also provide support when needed for fundraising and the management of funds.

If my car gets washed another time then all the paintwork will come off!

June 2022: Team selection starts. It is vital that the teams are balanced so we all undertake a Belbin leadership perception profile. The students then assemble for a series of group activities looking at leadership and interaction. After several hours of discussion the groups are sorted but not informed.

July 2022: Fundraising at the summer events in school, outside of the school the students are working part time and completing sponsored events. Someone leaks the information to my wife that I am going on expedition again, it didn’t go down too badly.

Jon Clarke, Walsall Academy's shadow headteacher, gives one of the students their Borneo team hat

Time to find out who’s on which team for the expedition - presenting of the hats!

September 2022: The Sorting Hat. In the last four years I have built up some funds through talks and other work which I have kept in a school account. I use this to purchase two vital pieces of kit for all members of the expedition - an expedition shirt all badged up and a wide brimmed bush hat. The students are all invited to the conference room and take a seat facing a single chair. Each student comes out and sits on the chair where a light coloured bush hat is placed on their head. After a few moments and some silly jokes the appropriate team coloured hat is then placed on their head and they are awarded their shirt. It goes down really well with the students. The staff then put on their hats and meet their teams for the first time.

October 2022: If my car gets washed another time then all the paintwork will come off! Fundraising is going well and the students start the online personal development course, Leader in Me. This is vital if the students are to successfully manage their own team. 

Walsall Academy students and staff show their banner during a Borneo expedition

Before the expedition, two teams are created. Here, members of the Blue Team pose with their guides during the jungle trek in Borneo. 

November 2022: Itinerary development. The students complete a detailed survey about what they want to achieve and what sort of challenges they want out of their expedition. This then forms the basis for the draft itinerary with one team undertaking an environmental project in the jungle and the other on a marine project on the coral reefs. They will all undertake a trek in the jungle and go to the Orangutan reserve at Sepilok.

December 2022: Kit list time. Just before Christmas we put out the official kit list, then we do a ‘how to do it cheaply’ kit list for £150 all with hyperlinks.

January 2023: It is mock exam season so heads down for the students. We then have ’meet the leader’ where the staff then students and finally parents get to meet the expedition leader appointed by Outlook. 

Walsall Academy students playing volleyball with the locals during a forest project in Borneo.

The expedition allowed the students and staff to interact with the locals including playing volleyball during the forest project.

February 2023: We all must eat cake this month sold by the expedition teams. I am also attending a curry night and a ball held by the students as a part of their fundraising.

March 2023: Training weekend in the Peak District. The team spend two days with their expedition leader looking at how to manage themselves on expedition and try out the leadership roles.

April 2023: Two students withdraw for different reasons. It does shake the teams but we move forwards. The teams meet and discuss this but also start to develop their schedule of who will be leaders, finance managers, wellbeing etc. during the expedition.

May 2023: Exams season, we now go silent for the next six weeks.

July 2023: Excitement is growing, the screens in the school display a countdown clock to the expedition. Students around the school are talking about it and the first of the Year 7 students start to ask where they might go when they are older. As teachers we rush around trying to get everything completed a week before the end of term as we will be in Borneo. Not an easy job to do when you are the Senior Deputy.

July 2023: 23 students come into school with everything they will bring with them and we take over the sports hall. We have kit to check but also the schedule to go through. It takes a long time but excitement is real. We split into teams and discuss hopes and fears. 

July 14th 2023: Expedition time! Bacon butties all round and away we go. Three students have never flown before and two have never left the UK, they now have 30 hours of flights and transfers.

August 2023: I am sitting in my kitchen filling in post-expedition evaluations, phoning all of the parents and checking on the team members after their return. The stories of adventures, experiences and development of the young people flood out from very proud parents. One of the great things is that no one took a mobile phone, two students have not turned theirs on since they returned.

If you haven’t done an expedition go and do one. They are amazing no matter where you go!