Review: PGL

PGL Abseiling. Photo credit © L Rowe 2017

PGL Abseiling. Photo credit © L Rowe 2017

The trip kicks off (literally with a game for the youngsters, if they want to) with a briefing for the adults in a lounge area.  Timetables are distributed and the Groupie goes over what to expect and checks for any special circumstances and requests.

Each booking is assigned a PGL Group Leader (Groupie) that manages and coordinates every aspect of the stay.  Seriously - every aspect.  No detail is too small for their attention!

Pretty much everything is time-tabled in advance (this is good to know if you ever send your child on one of their unaccompanied trips - know that they will not have time to be homesick!), from mealtimes, to the exact times of the day's activities to "downtime"

PGL Climbing. Photo credit © L Rowe 2017

PGL Climbing. Photo credit © L Rowe 2017

Multi-Activity Trip

The physical activities (what people would think of as “traditional” outward bound activites) were very well managed and coordinated.  This is where PGL come into it's own.

The instructors were all brilliant at engaging and encouraging all of the children and adults.

There is an ethos of “Challenge by choice.” - basically self-challenge.

Additionally, their staff ratios were excellent (I'm not sure if this was because it was off-peak or they always have such high ratios)

While we were there, we had a go at (among others) abseiling, archery, aeroball, challenge course, climbing and the giant swing.  The quad-biking is only recommended for younger children and I would also include the challenge course as being mainly suitable for younger children, too.

GCSE Geography Field Trip

PGL Rivers and Fluvial Systems. Photo credit © L Rowe 2017

PGL Rivers and Fluvial Systems. Photo credit © L Rowe 2017

The geography fields studies staff were exceptionally well-qualified.  This is not just delivery-by-the-script.  All of the staff had bachelor's degrees and some had higher degrees.

This came through in their genuine enthusiasm during the two field studies we undertook: "Rivers and Fluvial Systems" and "Coastal Processes and Features"

Each of the field sessions took place off the PGL site.  They were preceded by a 45-50 minute introductory classroom session to recap the theory.

All of the staff were fully hands-on and showed endless patience with the children and the accompanying adults!  The staff spent most of the day wading in the river and very hands-on in showing the children how to take measurements.

The afternoon of the coastal studies session took place on the coldest day of the year.  Not one of the staff complained - even the one who was handling rocks with her bare hands.

They related the classroom theory to real-world observations, such as pointing out physical features or commenting on the measurements they had taken.

Everything is provided by PGL, that includes all the equipment to the worksheets/data collection sheets and even included the clipboards.

We also had a follow-up evening in their IT suite putting together some of the data into reports.

 

PGL Coastal Processes. Photo credit © L Rowe 2017

PGL Coastal Processes. Photo credit © L Rowe 2017

 

A PGL site can cater for several hundred visitors at a time, therefore, the entire site is organised quite regimentally.  For example, each group has it's own timeslot for eating and sits in it's own designated area for the duration of their stay.  A PGL Groupie escorts the group almost everywhere.

The food itself is basic and carbohydrate-heavy.  However, they do cater for special dietary requirements (including vegetarian and gluten-free and other requests).  The hot-counter is single-serving but there is a salad/soup bar that is "unlimited" and can be revisited.

Each evening, there was entertainment in the form of an evening activity.  Evening activities on offer range from a disco to robot wars and other team games.  These are also led by PGL staff/instructors.

All of the PGL staff that we encountered are extremely positive and outgoing people and all of the staff were attentive, even off-duty.
The bar room doubled as a staff relaxation room too.  Sunday night was board games night and we were invited to join in or borrow a board game.

We stayed in lodges (cabins).  There were typically six beds to a cabin (although room capacity varies with each site and accommodation type).  The children loved the opportunity to have their own lodge.

Although groups are asked for to rank their preferences in advance of the trip, the exact combination and timetabling of the final activities is set by PGL.

During our visit, staff were eager for feedback to ensure their delivery was meeting expectations.  There was opportunity for feedback at the activities and on a specific “meet and greet” evening (where, they also give out complimentary cheese and wine)

 

We stayed at PGL Little Canada on the Isle of Wight from Friday-Monday in February.  Older children took part in the Geography Fieldtrip (50% geography and 50% multi-activity) and younger children took part in the Multi-Activity Trip.

We paid £136.80 per person .  The cost of the ferry crossing was additional.  The age range was 7yrs - adult.

 

We enjoyed it so much, we are returning to another PGL site for a trip in October.

 

This is NOTa sponsored post.

 

PGL Little Canda Lodges. Photo credit © L Rowe 2017

PGL Little Canda Lodges. Photo credit © L Rowe 2017

Review: St Paul’s Cathedral

St Paul's Cathedral skyline. Photo credit © L Rowe 2016

St Paul's Cathedral skyline. Photo credit © L Rowe 2016

St Paul's Cathedral is a stunning building inside and out.  Perhaps because we were in awe or may be because we were cutting it a little fine for our self-imposed arrival time, we missed the signage for the Crypt Entrance.  There's also every possibility that such signage was non-existent.

The doorman on the Crypt was a jovial fellow who listened patiently to my attempts to direct people to the entrance by reference to the two horse-back mounted police officers right opposite.  The disadvantage with giving directions by reference to moveable objects is that those objects move!  So, somewhat inconsiderately, no sooner had I sent directions via text, than the police officers moved on.

I had brief chat with one of the education officers (who seemed slightly worried by the age span - it was booked as a GCSE level but with a mixed age group and as it turned out, half were teens and half were 7-11yrs)

We did get underway pretty promptly, as it happens.  The education officer took us to drop off our bags in their education room and then we started by looking at the OBE Chapel.

St Paul's Cathedral roofline. Photo credit © L Rowe 2016

St Paul's Cathedral roofline. Photo credit © L Rowe 2016

We then went into the main part of the Cathedral where we were joined by Stephen, another guide.  This is where the World War II talk started.  We were shown photographs and taken to see two bomb sites.

This segment was upbeat and amusing, although slightly simplified for the younger children, his delivery made up for that.  He talked about the bombing during the WWII blitz, in relation to St Paul's.

I have to credit Stephen with one of the best lines I have ever heard in an educational workshop/tour.

Describing the situation immediately after one of the bombs, there was a big whole in the floor which was market by a row of chairs and a sign that said "big hole don't go here" or words to that effect, he said: "70 years ago, people understood 'big hole, don't go here'.  Nowadays we have would closed most of Northern Europe..."

After Stephen left us, Pat showed us the mosaics in the vaulted ceilings and talked a little about the fact that paintings would be fixed to the ceiling, and effectively "traced" onto the ceiling by punching holes through the painting, so that the design would be visible on the ceiling once the painting was removed.  The mosaic tiles were then fixed to the ceiling, according to the design.

She wisely gave up trying to arrange home-educators into neat rows.  To be fair, she could be clearly heard.  She spoke a little about Christian Creation and in another chapel, one of the children lit a candle.

Overall the tour was good but at an hour, it isn't long enough.  They admit it only scratches the surface, but even if you did all of the available tours, I think it would still only scratch the surface.

St Paul's Cathedral spire. Photo credit © L Rowe 2016

St Paul's Cathedral spire. Photo credit © L Rowe 2016

Also, I think there might have been concerns about keeping the younger children engaged.  However, all the families were aware that it was a GCSE level talk and despite a couple of requests to pitch it at that level, it did drift downwards, at times to KS1.

We saw all three domes.  528 steps in total, apparently.  At the lower levels, the stairs are wider and shallower. However as they near the upper dome, the steps are narrower and steeper.  They are mainly spiral stairs and a one-way system is in place which means that once you commence a stage, you are committed to ascending that stage.

The Whispering Gallery is the lowest dome and is most accessible.  With children, it's especially an charming experience to be able to see them whispering to eachother from opposite sides.  The Stone Gallery and Golden Gallery are both external.  The views from the Golden Gallery are stunning.

St Paul's were flexible, they readily agreed to swap the lunch and the dome timeslots over, in order to accommodate families that had to leave early.  There is a certain amount of Christian religious content, which is to be expected, given that it is a cathedral.  However, the tour and content is accessible to non-Christian participants.

(This is NOT a sponsored post)

St Paul's Cathedral clock. Photo credit © L Rowe 2016

St Paul's Cathedral clock. Photo credit © L Rowe 2016

Review: The National Museum of Computing

Our day at the National Museum of Computing started with an introductory talk setting the historical context of WW2, cryptology and the history of computing and introducing mathematical concepts.  It also including interesting facts such as why the layout of the huts are based on corridors with rooms off them (so that you just go directly to your room).  At various points, objects such as an early calculator were handed around for the students to hold and examine.

We then split into our two sub-groups (based on age).  These sub-groups had been arranged in advance to save time.

One guide took us to see the Harwell Dekatron Computer (also known as WITCH), the world's oldest original working computer.  We were able to appreciate just how far computing has progressed when we saw it in action.

The National Museum of Computing (Harwell Dekatron Computer aka WITCH) Photo credit © L Rowe 2016

The National Museum of Computing (Harwell Dekatron Computer aka WITCH) Photo credit © L Rowe 2016

 

We then swapped guides and our second guide showed us Colossus, which is the world's first programmable electronic computer.  It was this computer that helped to decipher the Lorenz-encrypted messages between Hitler and his generals in World War II.

The National Museum of Computing (The Colossus Gallery) Photo credit © L Rowe 2016

The National Museum of Computing (The Colossus Gallery) Photo credit © L Rowe 2016

 

After a half hour lunch, one group was shown some mainframe computers and taken on a journey of computing history from the post war period to the present day.

The National Museum of Computing (ICL2966 Mainframe) Photo credit © L Rowe 2016

The National Museum of Computing (ICL2966 Mainframe) Photo credit © L Rowe 2016

 

We then swapped guides again and spent the last part of the day in their classroom for a hands-on workshop.  This is equipped with 15 BBC micro computers, which will bring back memories for any adult who remembers spending hours typing lines of BASIC into a computer in the 1980s, have it fail and then spend nearly as long again trying to debug.

The National Museum of Computing (BBC Computer Session) Photo credit © L Rowe 2016

The National Museum of Computing (BBC Computer Session) Photo credit © L Rowe 2016

 

During this session, students had to input a 21 line code into a BBC microcomputer, to produce a "snake" game and then modify it afterwards.  The absence of "copy and paste" was disconcerting for some students, as was the method for correcting errors - which was just to re-type the line.

It may seem strange to use BBC computers from the 1980s but the advantages are that the students really do have to go back to "first principles."  Additionally, since they run slower, you can often actually see the computer processing the instructions.  There are also no distractions, due to the absence of the internet and other programs.

The day was a fabulous mix of modern world history (particularly WW2), computing and mathematics.  The two guides, Sheridan and Rob were extremely knowledgeable.  Their enthusiasm was infectious and it gave the tour its edge. It was evident from their talks that both were genuinely interested in the subject matter.  The teens were pleasantly surprised (even the ones who didn't much like coding)  and the younger ones also retained a surprising amount of information.  All four sections of the day were extremely well thought out and presented.

The National Museum of Computing (Tunny Gallery) Photo credit © L Rowe 2016

The National Museum of Computing (Tunny Gallery) Photo credit © L Rowe 2016

 

All sections of the day were nicely pitched at an intelligent level.   The delivery was at times humorous and always insightful.  The various practical demonstrations and physical objects to see and handle were varied and relevant to the content.  The content was original and smoothly tied several subjects together.  It also went beyond the national curriculum and was all the better for it.

Their website suggests age 10yrs+ and I would agree, even though younger children will be able to do the hands-on workshop, taking the day as a whole, older children would better appreciate the historical context and the mathematics as well as the computing aspects of the tour.

The National Museum of Computing is housed in Block H, one of the original huts in Bletchley Park but is separate from the rest of the site.  It was built in the summer of 1944 originally to house Colossus computers.  More recently it has been renovated and updated to convert it to showcase computing history.

The National Museum of Computing (Elliott) Photo credit © L Rowe 2016

The National Museum of Computing (Elliott) Photo credit © L Rowe 2016

 

The National Museum of Computing is an independent charity and it houses the largest collection of functioning vintage computers in Europe.  However, despite its collection of computers, it is very much a museum of computing and is still evolving.  It has roughly 40 volunteers who do everything from restore computers to guide visitors.

We took a group of 30 people (including accompanying adults) divided into two age groups: 9-12 and 12-15yrs.  The Museum provided two guides (one per 15 people) At the time of our visit, the pricing structure was a fixed minimum fee plus a cost per person.  This equated to £10 per person.  However, since our visit, their prices have increased slightly.  Accompanying adults are encouraged to actively participate in the tour and workshops.

The National Museum of Computing is open to the general public and guided tours are available but need to be pre-booked.  Some galleries are not open at all times.  Check their website for exact opening times and tour times.

(This is NOT a sponsored post)

The National Museum of Computing (Programming Language Timeline) Photo credit © L Rowe 2016

The National Museum of Computing (Programming Language Timeline) Photo credit © L Rowe 2016

Review: Blenheim Palace

Blenheim lake. Photo credit © L Rowe 2016

Blenheim lake. Photo credit © L Rowe 2016

Blenheim Palace is the seat of the Duke of Marlborough, built as a gift to the 1st Duke of Marlborough who led the Allied Forces to victory at the Battle of Blenheim in 1704.

Our day started by assembling at Flagstaff, a convenient area to congregate before entrance to the Palace itself.  (Before we visited, I was concerned that over one hundred of us would all be crowded in a small area or that it would be in an obscure location - however both these concerns turned out to be completely unfounded)

We had several groups participating in two tours: The Children's Tour (for primary-aged children) and the Churchill Tour (for secondary-aged children).

A tour guide led each group of roughly 30 children and adults (the groups were allocated prior to the day, for speed and convenience).  We progressed through the rooms as each guide pointed out various items of interest or explained the history of the room.

The Children's Tour is a general introduction to Blenheim Palace and is especially good for primary-aged children, although it is also offered at secondary level.

The Churchill Tour is relatively new to Blenheim's educational offering.  It offers a slightly different perspective and focus to GCSE Modern World History.  It covers Winston Churchill's birth, childhood visits to Blenheim, social history of the time and some general history of Blenheim.

All the guides were knowledgeable and coped well with multi-age groups and varied questions from the children.

Blenheim Christmas. Photo credit © L Rowe 2015

Blenheim Christmas. Photo credit © L Rowe 2015

After lunch, the Education Officer (who is a former headteacher) gave a business studies talk (this would normally be conducted as a tour, but at her suggestion, she gave a talk in one of the rooms instead, since we had already had a tour that morning).  She gave practical examples of how Blenheim Palace operated as a business, drawing on examples in marketing, event management, tourism.

This being a home-education group, there were a higher ratio of adults and the guides took questions from the adults, too.

Blenheim Palace is open to the public and public tours take place alongside the education/school tours.  After the formal education tours are concluded, groups are able to see the palace (if your ticket permits) and grounds at the group's leisure.  On the first floor of the palace, there is an animatronics exhibit of the palace's history which is particularly good for children up to around 12 years of age.

Both the palace and the grounds are impressive and it is impossible to do them justice in one visit.  Charges are "per-head" We had low-season tickets for the palace, park and gardens, which we were able to convert to annual passes.  Prices are less for park and gardens access only.

Update - On 26 April 2016 we returned for a World War I (Primary) and Media Studies (Secondary) Tour.  The Media Studies tour was interesting, although slightly disjointed due to the change in guides.  We were told about the filming of scenes in the courtyard and the library for the Spectre (James Bond), the bridge for Cinderella (Disney), the flashback scene in Harry Potter, to name a few and included lots of interesting anecdotes.  The delivery was generally humorous and lively.

We were unfortunately unable to return for a third time in summer term, due to the unavailability of the bottling plant tour.

Blenheim bridge. Photo credit © L Rowe 2016

Blenheim bridge. Photo credit © L Rowe 2016

Review: Coca Cola Real Experience at Milton Keynes

We gathered together outside the gates of Coca Cola Enterprises UK to be met by Rachel, their Education Centre Manager for the Milton Keynes plant.

They take safety and security very seriously, so before we even went through the gates, we had an introductory health and safety talk.

As we walked across grounds to the main building, Rachel pointed out the silo (that receives the deliveries of sugar) and the smaller ones for the carbon dioxide and the nitrogen gases.

Right next door is Rexam, who manufacture the aluminium cans (Coca Cola takes 70% of their output).  The two factories are physically linked; a conveyor belt brings cans directly from Rexam to Coca Cola Enterprises, so visitors can see the "Just in Time" in a real life situation.

Coca-Cola Enterprises Education Centre, Milton Keynes © L Rowe 2015

Coca-Cola Enterprises Education Centre, Milton Keynes © L Rowe 2015

There is a presentation in their education room.  Rachel talks about pricing and promotional pricing; packaging; markets, marketing and market share; advertising and branding (for example, diet coke used to be targeted at women and that is why the packaging is silver, whereas coke zero was targeted at males and has dark packaging).  We learn a bit about global trading, such as the slight differences in recipes to cater for local tastes (South America's syrup is sweeter than the UK, for example).  The syrups are made in Ireland and arrive in two halves.  The syrup is made in two parts so that nobody knows the whole recipe.

We also participated in a group business studies exercise and handled some samples (such as a preform bottle)

We were given headphones and hairnets before being taken onto a viewing platform looking down at part of their factory floor/production line, where we can also appreciate the impressive speed and scale of  the operation.  Through the earphones, Rachel gave us lots of production information, such as it takes 5 seconds to get from a plastic preform to a full, labelled and capped bottle.

 

Coca-Cola Enterprises packaging © L Rowe 2015

Coca-Cola Enterprises packaging © L Rowe 2015

Coca Cola also use the opportunity to showcase their environmental credentials.  Overall the tour is insightful and they are generous with their information.

Due to health and safety, this tour is only available to students aged 12yrs+ on the day of the visit because the Education Centre is sited within a fully operational industrial building.  The Education Centre is wheelchair accessible, however the viewing platform is not.  However, it is possible to see the production line from the window of the Education Centre.

The Education Centre Manager, Rachel, leads the sessions and is a former business studies and economics teacher.  Her delivery was confident and pitched at an appropriate level.

 

 

We took 16 children aged between 12 and 15 and 5 adults on a general business overview tour, specifically to support GCSE Business Studies.  It is possible to request a specific focus (eg Marketing, Enterprise, ICT, Design & Technology, Manufacturing, or Science) and to tailor to a certain degree.  The tour would also be interesting in it's own right, as Coca Cola is such a recognised brand in modern culture.  The visit is provided free of charge and lasts 2hrs.  You are provided with a free drink (in our case, capri sun or sparkling water).  There is no photography allowed apart from inside the Education Centre.

(This is NOT a sponsored post.)

The Real Experience, Coca-Cola. Photo credit © Coca-Cola Enterprises Limited 2015

The Real Experience, Coca-Cola. Photo credit © Coca-Cola Enterprises Limited 2015

How to Organise a Home Education Trip

Organise a Home Educucation Trip

Photo credit © L Rowe 2015

 

Firstly, please let me make it very clear that there is definitely more than one way to organise a home education trip.  Just as there is no such thing as a home-education expert, there is no such thing as an expert on HE events.

This is just to give you ideas: What you end up doing will depend on what the trip is, the numbers and costs involved and, erm, how pedantic you are and whether you like lists.  I am very fond of lists!

One of the first home education trips I organised was a trip to Leicester Space Centre, who, at the time, offered various choices of shows, charging options, free adult spaces, free child spaces, use of vouchers, annual passes and so on..  I made several "rookie" errors, such as giving too much choice for dates and shows and crucially not asking for payment at the time of booking.  This last one was the most stressful as one family changed their mind three times in the 4 days running up to the trip and everyone else's costs were dependent on that family paying up.

Although it did all work out ok in the end, I did learn quite a few things (and Leicester Space Centre have since simplified their educational offering somewhat, too, so may be they've learnt too!)

Things to decide in advance:

  • Choose a date and time that suits yourself.  There are very few "perks" to organising a home-ed trip, this one and the next two are pretty much it!
  • Cater to the ages and needs of your own child/ren first.
  • Choose the workshop/show topics yourself, unless you really aren't bothered.
Kayaking Home Educucation Activity 2014

Kayaking Home Education Activity Photo credit © L Rowe 2014

 

Things to ask the Museum/Venue/Provider:

  • Date availability (and possibly check their term dates, if it's a different county from where you live)
  • Arrival and departure times
  • Times and durations of any workshops/activities
  • Costs/charging policy - including whether they charge per head or per group and whether they have a minimum or maximum charge for groups.
  • What are the minimum & maximum numbers require.
  • The age-ranges that they target and accomodate (which may be different - for instance, some places target a specific age-range but will allow non-participating siblings over a larger age-range)
  • Whether they count adults in their numbers (for both charging and capacity - which may be two separate things)
  • If there is a maximum adult number or adult ratio
  • Do they charge for carer spaces
  • If you’re allowed to bring babies/toddlers/pre-schoolers and whether it is "buggy-friendly"
  • Whether they count babies/toddlers/pre-schoolers and if they don’t, at what age they “count” a child
  • The date you have to finalise numbers for them
  • The date you have to pay by.
  • If there is a “no show”/minimum numbers charge (as in, do they charge if you show up with less that a minimum number of children/adults)
  • Ask whether they expect payment in advance, on the day or (very occasionally) afterwards
  • Do they have wheelchair access
  • Are there any health and safety restrictions

 

Other things I do:

  • I always get payment in advance.  Places are not confirmed until payment has been received.
  • For free events, I take a nominal deposit (which is returned to those who attend or donated to charity if people don't attend.  If the venue is a charity, it goes to them, otherwise, I'd donate to a charity with an ethical background)
  • I get the mobile phone and email address for everyone.
  • I try and make clear all minimum/maximum ages and other conditions clear at the outset and generally be as transparent as possible.
  • If needs be, I ask for names, ages and special requirements.
  • I will allocate spaces on a first-come-first-served basis.
  • I have an alphabetical list of families/children for the day itself.
  • If I have to subdivide the group into smaller subgroups, I'll do that in advance.
  • I send a final confirmation email to everyone in advance, which details the exact time/place to meet and any other information or reminders.
  • If it is a big group, I get someone else to help me tick off names on the day - because it's faster.

 

Kew Gardens Home Educucation Trip

Kew Gardens Home Education Trip 2014. Photo credit © L Rowe 2014

 

How I share the costs:

  • I share all costs and free spaces in a pedantic manner.  I don't make a profit, but I won't make a loss either.
  • Often, the savings from free spaces are not known in advance (because it is normally dependent on final numbers), so I will refund after the event.
  • Sometimes, the venue charges per group, not per head, which makes things slightly tricker.  For instance, at the time we went, Kew Gardens (and some other places) charge in "bands" (as in up to 35 children is £60, 35-70 children is £90) you will have no idea if you will fill that trip completely, or whether you'll only fill half of it.  For those trips, I very cautiously estimate how many people will go and then I refund afterwards, if more people came than was estimated (Yes, there is a small chance that you can be out of pocket if you get your estimate horribly wrong)
  • I've also written in way more detail about what I do personally in relation to money and other things related to any HE event I organise here.

So, that's it! Hopefully, you'll have noticed that you mainly just need common sense to organise a home education trip.  Remember to have fun, too!

Review: Guide Dogs National Breeding Centre

Twenty two children and adults arrived at 10am at the Guide Dogs National Breeding Centre in Bishops Tachbrook, in Warwickshire for their schools tour.

We assembled in their reception area to sign in, volunteer guides arrived, some with ex-guide dogs and they were happy to let the waiting children pat and stroke the dogs while waiting.

We started off in a big airy room, and after the usual formalities of signing in, fire-drill announcements and so on, one of the volunteers did a brief introduction.  We learned there are around 3 million blind and partially sighted people in the UK.  25,0000 children are blind or partially sighted, 15,000 of whom are totally blind.  She also talked a little about dog safety.

There was a brief examples of what the different kinds of partially sighted looks like, from cataracts (which produce blurry vision), diabetic retinopathy, macular degeneration, retinitis pigmentosa, glaucoma to total blindness - the latter being relatively rare.

We split into three smaller groups of about 7 or 8 people and two guides and a dog accompanied each group.  Each sub-group rotates around the different parts of the building in turn, during the course of the tour, so individual groups may complete the tour in a different sequence.

Guide Dogs post-whelping unit. Photo credit © L Rowe 2015

Guide Dogs post-whelping unit. Photo credit © L Rowe 2015

Our little group started off by looking down through the viewing windows at the puppies in the post-whelping area, which were all adorable (you cannot go into any of the rooms or touch the puppies).  During the course of the tour, the guide explained about how they are bred, what whelping and post-whelping are and how each dog and bitch are paired by considering their genetic history and so on.  Ideally the puppies are born (whelped) at home but some are born at the centre.  Regardless of where the puppy is born, when it is a few weeks old, it is brought into the centre for one week for medical checks, immunisations, chipping and profiling.

Puppies are profiled on a scale of 1-10 and they choose the puppies in the middle of the scale.  Some puppies are selected for their breeding programme and others withdrawn at the profiling stage.  The remaining puppies to go to puppy walkers and then onto training.

The puppy-walking stage lasts until they are around 12-14mths.  It is the puppy-walker's job to ensure that the puppy gets used to a variety of different situations.  They are guide-dogs-in-training, so they can (and indeed must) be brought into any place that a guide dog is allowed to go, so that they can get used to being in shops, on public transport, rural and urban areas.

Dogs that are withdrawn from the programme often become hearing dogs for the deaf, dogs for the disabled or sniffer dogs.
It will take around two years to fully train a Guide Dog and it costs about £50,000!

Whilst we were outside, the guide pointed out some of the environmentally-friendly features of their building design, like the V shaped roofs and the absence of grout between tiles, both to harvest the rainwater.  They also have a biomass boiler which powers the underfloor heating.

Guide Dogs building. Photo credit © L Rowe 2015

Guide Dogs building. Photo credit © L Rowe 2015

 

Downstairs, there is a sensory tunnel set up.  Although it is dark, you wear a special blindfold, so that you can experience total blindness.  If children are reluctant to participate, they are not pressurised.  Adults/teachers can also experience the sensory tunnel (and all the other "hands-on" aspects of the tour.  Afterward going through the tunnel, the child is asked for one word to describe their feelings.  At the end of the tour, they provide the list of these words to the group leader so it can be used as a "starting off" point for further work.

The guides explained about naming and marking: At birth, the dogs are marked with a dab of nail varnish: (For those who want to know: the first male and female are not marked; the second male and female are marked on the right shoulder, the third are marked on the left shoulder; the fourth on their right haunch, the fifth on the left haunch, the sixth male and female are marked on the base of the tail, the seventh on the back of the neck, the eighth on the head.  On the rare occasion there is a ninth puppy of the same sex, they have to be more creative!)

Each litter is assigned a letter and names are chosen to begin with that letter.  Normally, the family who look after the dogs in their own homes submit the list of names.  The names are checked to make sure they are special but not overly-complicated, fairly short and easy to pronounce.  Names are not assigned until after profiling, which is one of the reasons why the puppies are marked at birth.

Guide Dogs canes. Photo credit © L Rowe 2015

Guide Dogs canes. Photo credit © L Rowe 2015

We paired up and had a go at being a "sighted guide" and being blindfolded to be guided.  Our tour guide demonstrated the best way to guide someone and explained the importance of talking to the person being guided.  Volunteers can undergo training to be a sighted guide.  We also had a go at using canes whilst blindfolded.  Our guide pointed out the newer canes feature a roller at the bottom so they are no longer "tapped" and also explained the need to "sweep and step."

The functions of each building/area on the site were explained by reference to a contoured map.  The children were encouraged to feel the map with their hands and fingers to better appreciate how partially sighted and blind people must literally feel their way.  Other insightful tidbits of information were shared, such as pointing out the braille underneath the printed signage, the contrasting colour-scheme and blue borders to help partially sighted people.

There was a brief introduction to Louis Braille and how and why he developed Braille.  We had a go at reading and writing in braille and using a braille machine to write our names and we were able to take our braille names away with us.

Guide Dogs Braille machine. Photo credit © L Rowe 2015

Guide Dogs Braille machine. Photo credit © L Rowe 2015

 

Guide Dogs harness. Photo credit © L Rowe 2015

Guide Dogs harness. Photo credit © L Rowe 2015

We learned that each harness is made especially for the Guide Dog and it's owner.  Different variations and styles exist for different preferences of both dog and owner.  The guides pointed out some changes and advances in design, for example, the old-style buckles have been replaced with clips or velcro.

The tour was very interesting, varied and well-paced.  Throughout the tour, the volunteer guides were helpful, friendly, knowledgeable and had a genuine enthusiasm for all the work the Guide Dogs and the Guide Dogs for the Blind Association do and this came through in the actual "delivery", so to speak.

School tours are by prior arrangement during weekdays and last approximately two hours.  The tone and content are just right for the age 8-11yr age-group that they aim it at.  They also do scheduled public tours and half-day "puppy-helper experience" (there is a charge for the latter.)  The site is wheelchair accessible.  You cannot bring pets but Guide Dog stock are made welcome.  Their website has a number of online educational resources in relation to Guide Dogs.

There are dogs (usually either breeding stock dogs or retired breeding stock) on the tour.  Children who are nervous of dogs are dealt with sensitively; they are gently supported to go at their own pace and not pressurised to approach the dogs.

We took 16 children aged between 8 and 14 years old and 5 adults.  The Guide Dogs for the Blind Association arranged for six volunteer guides to conduct the tour.  Teachers/adults are encouraged to participate in all aspects of the tour.

The Guide Dogs for the Blind Association is a registered charity and does not receive government funding, so whilst they provide this session for free, they appreciate donations and sponsorship.

It is also possible to volunteer for the Guide Dogs, as a puppy walker, custodian family for the breeding stock dogs, a tour guide and a sighted guide, to name a few.  They also hold waiting lists for re-homing retired or withdrawn guide dogs.

(This is NOT a sponsored post)

Review: Kidzania London

Around fifty of us set off for Kidzania, the brand new, child-centre, child-led, role-playing mini-city in West London, where everything is two thirds it's normal size.  We arrived at the Kidzania "International Arrivals" which is the entrance to new child-centred, role-playing mini-city, half an hour before our allotted entry time (Kidzania advise school visitors to allow half an hour for "booking in."  If you are a family, still do allow some extra time for booking in)

There was a member of staff stationed at the entrance who directed us up the escalators to "Arrivals".  This area is styled as an airport check-in.  In common with other areas/activities, this was sponsored by British Airways.

Kidzania Check In.  Photo credit © L Rowe 2015

Kidzania Check In. Photo credit © L Rowe 2015

There was a slight confusion as we were sent to queue with the general public bookings, as opposed to the school group entrance.  Therefore, we were re-issued with different identity bracelets (which are worn on the wrist like watches and can only be removed by staff.  These bracelets then had to be scanned (it's unclear why they can't scan them before issuing them!) and the children were issued with 50 Kidzos, which is the official currency of Kidzania.

After everyone was tagged and scanned we could go straight in.

The first thing that is noticeable is that the lighting is subdued - like dusk-light and it really is laid out like a mini city, with shops and buildings and streets.  It is also double-height, so the buildings are "two storey"

The children dispersed in different directions, some with the support of their parents/adults.  For parents taking children at the weekends or after school, it really is much more fun with a friend or two (both for children and adults)

Only the adults in our group received maps.  As long as the children know the basic concept of how Kidzania works, Over 8s will be able to figure out the details themselves given time.  However, for younger children, non-readers, and those who need an "orientation" for whatever reason, the tour bus gives an overview of how Kidzania works.

Kidzania Painting School.  Photo credit © L Rowe 2015

Kidzania Painting School. Photo credit © L Rowe 2015

Parents are not allowed to participate in the activities (Although, you could follow your child/ren around Kidzania) and are actively encouraged to go to the Parents Lounge.   However, it's not immediately obvious where it is (we ended up asking, to save time).  As it turns out, it is tucked away in the corner of the first floor.  The Parents' Lounge has a cafe, free wifi - in fact the wifi extends throughout most of Kidzania - a couple of computers and even a massage chair.  It also has power sockets.  It's possible to see a segment of the Kidzania City through the windows.  (There is no vantage point where the whole of Kidzania is visible - but even if there were, it's not possible to see inside the individual activity areas from the Parents' Lounge anyway).  However, adults accompanying special needs children can go into the activities to support the child, if appropriate.

There are over 60 activities to do.  The children "work" at some activities and get paid in Kidzos and other entertainment activities cost Kidzos.  It is possible to open a bank account (which requires 50 Kidzos) and receive a debit card for the ATMs dotted around.

Kidzania Central Bank.  Photo credit © L Rowe 2015

Kidzania Central Bank. Photo credit © L Rowe 2015

Each activity has it's own building or site within the city.  Many of the activities are sponsored, so the building is branded with the sponsoring company's corporate identity/signage.  This gives Kidzania a much more authentic feel, and doesn't do the sponsoring companies any harm, either.

For example, The Bank of England sponsors the Kidzania Bank, H&M sponsors the Fashion Studio and Eat Natural sponsor the Fruit and Nut Bar Makery.

Each activity aims to be a realistic-as-possible recreation of the real-life equivalent.  Many include a specific educational element, in addition to the general entertainment/educational value of Kidzania as a whole.  The authenticity is helped by the fact that some of the activites are devised with input from sponsoring companies (which could be anything from the ingredients, to the training).  (Yes, I know, some people are not going to be as impressed as others at the marketing aspect, but the real world is full of brands)

The acting academy takes the participants through a rehearsal and they then go on to perform the play in the Kidzania theatre, to an audience of other children plus any adults (it is one of the few areas that parents/adults can enter).  The Renault-sponsored Engineering Centre and Pit Lane Experience takes children through some automotive engineering and a pit stop.  The police officers chase a criminal through the streets and the Fire and Rescue Unit rush through the streets in a mini fire engine and then hose down the burning hotel.

Kidzania Music Academy.  Photo credit © L Rowe 2015

Kidzania Music Academy. Photo credit © L Rowe 2015

There is limited capacity for each activity at any given slot, which varies according to the activity.

Each activity takes roughly 20-30 minutes.  The more popular ones have queues and some of the queues are not well-managed.  For example, the one for the burger-making (which, incidentally, seems to be one of the longer queues) ended up being a mini-crush when the door opened.  This is a shame because the burger-making itself, is very good: participants make their choice of burger (meat or veggie) and after it's been cooked, they get to eat it!  This is one of the few opportunities to buy real food with Kidzos.

Bizarrely, the smoothies the children make cannot be consumed and neither can the fruit and nut bars.  With the latter, children get "one they made earlier"  The fashion models have to wear the clothes over their own, which is somewhat surreal but presumably to do with some health & safety reason and they need to have socks on before they can wear the shoes (so be warned, wear socks if your child/ren are likely to want to do this).

Incidentally, children need to be wear closed-toe shoes (not sandals) to go on the climbing wall.

The main activity area is for children aged 4-14 years.  There are minimum age restrictions on some of the activities.  Toddlers and preschoolers aged 1 to 3 years old have their own special area on the first floor.

A lot of the activities have uniforms or costumes - such as the flight crew uniforms, which are very cute and based on British Airways uniforms. Children are encouraged to wear them, but if the child has strong feelings, the staff do not insist unless it is a matter of health and safety (such as aprons for the cooking activities).

We found all of the staff to be generally helpful, friendly and polite.  A couple showed their inexperience, but that was probably mainly due to Kidzania only being open for 3 weeks at the time of our visit.  (This had improved with our second visit)

Kidzania is a large immersive environment.  It is loud and full-on, your senses are assaulted pretty much continuously for four hours.

Although some schools did escort their pupils round in one group, this isn't strictly necessary, as the children can't leave without an adult and they are all tagged.  This is a venue where the children really can go off on their own (and that is the point!).

If you are going as a family, you can see where your child/ren were last scanned and also leave a message for your child/ren and they will receive it on their next scanned activity.

As it is newly opened, naturally, there is still some room for improvement in some areas, but on the whole the experience was thoroughly enjoyable.
Queue management needs to be better, perhaps with a member of staff to manage each queue and also explain a bit more about what to expect.  If the Identity Bracelets were scanned before being put on, on check-in, this would cut down a step in the process.  I imagine that as time goes on these would be ironed out (or the staff would become quicker!)

Kidzania Main Square.  Photo credit © L Rowe 2015

Kidzania Main Square. Photo credit © L Rowe 2015

Things to note
Although Kidzania has it's own "economy", you will need real money both for the better quality merchandise and because only limited food can be obtained with Kidzos.  The rest of the food and drink has to be purchased with real money (to give an idea - a burger, on it's own, costs over £5 and around £3 for chips).  There is a shop where Kidzos can be spent, but it requires a lot of Kidzos - a way of guaranteeing a return visit (Kidzos can be taken home and saved for another visit).  Jobs pay around 8-12 Kidzos.  A small hair clip in the "department store" will cost 50 Kidzos.  For some reason, there seems far less for boys to buy than for girs.

As mentioned earlier, the Tour Bus might help to explain how Kidzania works to younger children.  You will not be able to get round every activity in one visit.  The most popular activites will have a queue.  If you have to accompany children, wear comfortable shoes.  You are allowed to bring your own packed lunch.  Attending Kidzania University may result in higher pay for some activities.

The child's identity bracelet is scanned at the start of each activity.  After 4 hours, the staff are alerted that the four hours have elapsed and no further participation in any of the activites is allowed.  If you are late for your pre-booked slot, you may lose the time.  You do not have to leave immediately, so it might be better to leave the visit to the shop until after the 4 hours have elapsed.

The age group that would get the most out of a visit is the 4-11 year old range.  The atmosphere is quite "busy", as you can imagine.  For children (and adults) who experience sensory overload, quite corners in the first floor are a good place to hide out.  Children aren't normally allowed in the Parents Lounge.

Other Information

Kidzania is located in Westfields Shopping Centre (the entrance is next to Marks and Spencers).  It is open seven days a week.  Visits last strictly 4 hours.

General opening times at the time of writing are:

During school terms Monday - Friday: 10.00am - 18.30pm last admission is 14.30pm.
Weekends: 10.00am - 19.30pm last admission 15.30pm.
School holidays: 10.00am - 20.00pm last admission 16.00pm.

Prices for schools are here.

Prices for families are here.

Dates and times for school visits need to be booked in advance.  There is an overall capacity limit for Kidzania, so families are also advised to book ahead.  When ringing to book (particularly for school visits), your call is not always taken at the time, in which case, staff will take your number and call you back - occasionally on the following day.  It is fully wheelchair accessible.

When you book Kidzania, you will have to guess a provisional number of children and adults to start with.

They won't hold a slot without an initial estimate of numbers.
You can go back to them and ask for additional spaces, though, as long as they still have capacity for the slot you want.

Once you finalise numbers, they will invoice and you have to pay it in advance of the trip. They won't do refunds or changes after that.

They have a free adult ratio, which means that the final adult price comes out even lower. (I always pedantically refund the difference after the event,)

It only requires 15 children to get school rates,(and the free adult ratio); so, for home-educators who can't face organising a big trip, it's really good one to do with a small group of HE friends, too.

We took 32 children aged between 1 and 14, and of mixed ability, some children had special needs such as ADHD, ADD, Aspergers or had sensory issues and 19 adults.  We visited in the midweek between 11am - 3pm.  We parked in the Westfields Shopping Centre carpark but others in the group came via train/tube.  We paid special introductory offer prices of £5 for toddlers/preschoolers, £9.90 for Primary aged children and £12.50 for Secondary school children.  Adults were £8.25.

(This is NOT a sponsored post)

Review: Shakespeare Birthplace Trust

Shakespeare's Birthplace Trust looks after various Shakespeare properties in Stratford-upon-Avon and has a varied education programme supporting Shakespeare's works and history.

We had two talks booked - the Key Stage 2 talk, All About Shakespeare, began at 10.30am, while the older students went on a self-led tour of Shakespeare's birthplace.

The Key Stage 2 talk was lively, interactive and featured some artefacts that were passed around for the children to handle.  I was only present for part of this talk.  On the whole, it was well received, although some people had commented that some historical points had been modernised for the audience (notably on the education of girls).

The Key Stage 3 talk, Brush up your Shakespeare, followed directly after at 11.30am.  This talk really did bring Shakespeare's works to life.  He talked about the language of Shakespeare, his plays and various productions.  The delivery was humorous and managed to enthuse even the most reluctant participants.

Shakespeare's Insults, part of a talk at Shakespeare's Birthplace. Photo credit © L Rowe 2015

Shakespeare's Insults, part of a talk at Shakespeare's Birthplace. Photo credit © L Rowe 2015

 

Both presenters were enthusiastic and knowledgeable about Shakespeare's works.

Room at Shakespeare's Birthplace. Photo credit © L Rowe 2015

Room at Shakespeare's Birthplace. Photo credit © L Rowe 2015

Elsewhere in the house, the guides were helpful and some were in Tudor costume/character.  In the garden outside, there were two actors, in Tudor dress, performing extracts of Shakespeare's plays, on request.  We ate lunch while watching them perform.

Some of our group had also visited Hall's Croft (home of Shakespeare's daughter, Susanna, and her husband Dr John Hall) in the afternoon.  When we arrived, we received an impromptu complimentary talk which was very helpful in explaining the history of the house.

Our visit was not in connection to any specific exam or topic but there are various talks which are linked to the national curriculum and GCSE syllabus.

 

 

We took two groups, aged 6yrs-11yrs and aged 11-14yrs, plus accompanying adults to the Birthplace, at a cost of £6.95 per child (because it was a home-education group SBT very generously did not charge for any of the accompanying adults going to the Birthplace) and onwards to Hall's Croft at an additional cost of £2.25 per child and £5.30 per adult.  Many of Shakespeare's Birthplace Trust properties are within a short walking distance of each other.

Tools at Shakespeare's Birthplace. Photo credit © L Rowe 2015

Tools at Shakespeare's Birthplace. Photo credit © L Rowe 2015

Review: Whipsnade Zoo

Whipsnade Zoo is the largest zoo (as distinct from safari parks) in the UK and is part of the Zoological Society of London.  We were offered a free KS1 workshop at Whipsnade Zoo on the topic of Lifecycles.  To augment this, we also booked a KS2/3 workshop on Enclosure Design.

After going through the main entrance gate, we gathered on the very handy grass area outside their education building, and then split ourselves into the two groups, ready for our workshops.

The younger group went into their classroom for their lifecycles talk.  This was engaging and hands-on and pitched at the right level for KS1 students.  There was plenty of "handling" opportunities, which is probably what the 5-7yr olds prefer.  The workshop leader (who happened to be Whipsnade's learning manager) was very good at interacting with the children.  This workshop is only offered to KS1 and they do differentiate between Y1 and Y2, we had a mixed age-group (of 4-7yr olds) and it was pitched to the younger end.

Whipsnade Zoo. Photo credit © L Rowe 2015

Whipsnade Zoo. Photo credit © L Rowe 2015

The KS2/3 group went to the monkey enclosure for their Enclosure Design talk.  The workshop leader was personable and approachable.  The talk started with some interesting considerations to think about.  Unfortunately, about two thirds of the way, the speaker seemed to run out of things to say about enclosure design.  There followed a few minutes of general talk about monkeys, while this was interesting, it was somewhat disappointing for those who were expecting a more in-depth session about enclosure design.  The talk was pitched at the lower range of the age-group.  Being outside, it was difficult to hear everything that was being said, although the speaker did the best she could.  This was made harder, when about half-way through, another school group talk commenced right next to our group.

After the talks we were able to walk around Whipsnade zoo at our leisure.  We did this on foot, however, it is possible to pay extra to park/drive within the zoo grounds (there is free parking just outside the entrance, though).  Those visiting in cooler seasons ought to dress appropriately for the weather as there is no shelter at many of the enclosures.  Those with younger children should allow extra time for rest stops.

Whipsnade Zoo - giraffes. Photo credit © L Rowe 2015

Whipsnade Zoo - giraffes. Photo credit © L Rowe 2015

There is a "Hullabaloo" area which comprises an indoor play area (age restrictions and timed sessions apply), an outdoor adventure play area and the Hullabaloo Farm.  Part of the farm is "walk through" where children can get even closer to the animals there.

At various points throughout the day at some of the enclosures, there are also free talks, often timed to coincide with feeding time.

We brought packed lunches with us.  Although there is a school lunch area, we did not book this as there are plenty of places around the zoo to sit and eat.  There are also cafes to buy food.

The workshops are factual and functional and they tick a number of national curriculum areas.  However, while the workshop leaders were happy to answer any questions at all, there is scope to expand the core content, particularly for the older age-groups.  In addition, improved timetabling to ensure that two school groups are not having a talk at the same enclosure at the same time would greatly help with being able to hear the outdoor workshops.  However, overall we had an enjoyable day at Whipsnade Zoo, there is lots to see and do there for all age-groups.

One of the highlights was seeing the elephants walk between enclosures.  Another was getting really close to the giraffes - Whipsnade have handily designed the enclosure so that you are at head-height with the giraffes.

We had booking for 87 children aged 0-16 (of which, about 30-35 in each workshop) and 44 adults.  The children in the Lifecycles workshop received completely free admission and workshop entry, in return for completion of a feedback questionnaire after the event.  Under 3s are free at Whipsnade Zoo.  The other children were £7.50 each, students were £8.50 and the adults were £12.75 (we received free teacher spaces, which depended on the number and ages of children, which was shared out, which lowered the final adult price).

Whipsnade Zoo is part of ZSL, a registered charity.

(This is NOT a sponsored post)

 

Whipsnade Zoo - elephant walk. Photo credit © L Rowe 2015

Whipsnade Zoo - elephant walk. Photo credit © L Rowe 2015