Challenge Academy branches out with £310k funding win

One of the UK’s leading outdoor learning specialists is planning to boost the Black Country’s mental health and physical wellbeing after it secured over £310,000 of funding from the National Lottery.

Mel Ellis and Greg Brookes-Clayton at Challenge Academy
Mel Ellis and Greg Brookes-Clayton at Challenge Academy

Challenge Academy, which offers ground-based activities, high ropes, nets, obstacle courses and bouldering at its site in Baggeridge Country Park, will use ‘Reaching Communities’ backing to deliver around 50 funded courses every year – all geared towards helping hard-to-reach individuals and groups learn to become stronger.

The one, three and six-day courses have been specifically designed to help people cope better with everyday stresses, gain employability skills and maintain healthy relationships, with the social enterprise now looking to engage with all types of organisations, including local churches, community groups and charities.

Set to be delivered over three years, it is anticipated that the ‘Branching Out’ courses will help more than 1,000 people bounce back from the impact of the pandemic and rising living costs.

“We have developed a way of connecting with individuals and, whether it is through our aerial adventure courses, our ground trails or just specialist coaching in our training centre, we know we are making a huge difference to lives,” explained Mel Ellis, who founded Challenge Academy in 2016 alongside business partner Greg Brookes-Clayton.

“It’s great news that the National Lottery’s Reaching Communities Fund agrees, and the £310,000 financial backing will mean we are able to roll this out to even more individuals and hopefully create a stronger and more resilient Black Country.”

He added: “The courses have been designed to be flexible and should appeal to individuals both young and old and with different levels of physical ability. We will hold most of them at our Outdoor Learning Centre, but there is the opportunity for us to deliver at organisations as well.”

Challenge Academy, which employs 15 people, kicked-off the ‘Branching Out’ programme on November 8.

The courses start with a one-day hit programme that gives participants a light-touch understanding of how to achieve outcomes through the delivery of several engaging, practical and fun outcome-focused activities.

This can then be followed by a three-day progressive programme focused on connecting people and realising potential by developing trust, building confidence and practical exercises.

The most intensive option is the six-day extended programme that aims to bring all the social enterprise’s expertise together. It starts with a contract of engagement to build trust and then moves through to tackle control, confidence, challenge, commitment and, importantly, build mental toughness and celebrate success.

Mel continued: “What really gets people learning is making the activities fun and practical, taking the conversation out of a room and into the outdoors where they can try new things, work as a team and, if they want, challenge what they think they can achieve.

“This is what makes Challenge Academy different to the rest and this is what delivers results…time and time again.”

Becky Pickin, senior development officer at Dudley Council for Voluntary Service, added her support: “Mel and the team have built a spectacular facility designed to educate, challenge and get the most out of people, from high ropes to climbing walls and outdoor classrooms.

“They also have a highly skilled and committed team, which makes it the ideal organisation to help the Black Country become stronger and more resilient through its exciting ‘Branching Out’ courses.”

Challenge Academy has grown from a fledgling idea by former RAF Squadron Leader and PE teacher Mel Ellis and former special educational needs teacher Greg Brookes-Clayton into one of the UK’s leading outdoor learning venues.

Every year, the social enterprise supports more than 3,000 young people to tackle mental and physical health issues, tailoring training and maximising their unique facilities to deliver exactly what is needed.

If any local community groups or organisations think they could benefit from these funded courses or would like more information, then email

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