Review: BBC Broadcasting House Tour

The BBC is one of those organisations that is ingrained in the British culture along with tea-drinking to solve any emergency and driving on the left hand side of the road.  As soon as you walk through the door of the BBC, you feel as if you are walking into part of the national history, even though the building is new.

BBC Broadcasting House (Piazza) Photo credit © L Rowe 2014

BBC Broadcasting House (Piazza) Photo credit © L Rowe 2014

The BBC tour begins with a sweeping overview, literally, of the News floor.  The walls and waist-height barriers are glass and you look down on a large open plan office space.  You can clearly see people working at desks, including some well-known faces and also some of the studio broadcast areas.  The upbeat guide talks us through the organisation of the the News department and how it is physically arranged and points out who sits where.  The amount of information the guide imparts is imense.  For instance, the news anchors are normally at their desks for at least 4 hours before broadcast to prepare.  Huw Edwards wrote 80% of his own scripts.  The BBC share a helicopter with ITV and Channel 4 but not with Sky.  They are usually tipped off about breaking news.  There are 6,000 people working at the BBC postcode.

We watch the weather forecast being recorded and receive a wave (between takes) and the children also have a go at making a little news broadcast.

BBC Broadcasting House (Dalek) Photo credit © L Rowe 2014

BBC Broadcasting House (Dalek) Photo credit © L Rowe 2014


We see the One Show studio, (in the Peel wing), with the window/street view as a backdrop.  They barricade the around the immediate area so that people aren't pressing their noses against the glass during recording.  The coffee shop chain in the building across the piazza is the only unbranded one in the country, due to BBC's no advertising policy.  We hear a bit about wide angle lenses and the way TV makes things seem broader and some of the challenges in broadcasting, particularly live broadcasts, today.

We then go over to the Portland building, which has been refurbished.  Here, we hear a little more about the history about the BBC; how ladies had to wear stockings in the 1930s and Lord Rees' insistence that people dress for dinner before you address the nation.  George Orwell worked here in 1941-1943 for the then Empire Service, unfortunately there is no known recording of his voice anywhere in the world. During WW2, a 500lb bomb was dropped on the building.  Bruce Belfry was reading the news at the time and didn't react to the bomb drop at all, so as not to give away whether it was a hit.

BBC Broadcasting House (Portland Building) Photo credit © L Rowe 2014

BBC Broadcasting House (Portland Building) Photo credit © L Rowe 2014


We also hear about radio and the children take part in an interactive radio play.  There is a choice of speaking parts or sound effects.  The adults watch in chairs set up for a live audience.

Part of the tour's appeal is because the BBC is such a familiar institution, although possibly less so for children due to the variety of channels now available.  The tour guides were full of information and trivia and their delivery was upbeat and enthusiastic.  Although there are some practical elements to the tour, it is very much a talking and walking tour.

We had a block booking for 25 children and adults at a cost of £7.25 per child and £10.00 per adult.  Under 9s are not allowed due to the news room being part of the tour.  The tour is wheelchair friendly but they do limit the amount of wheelchair participants per tour.

Update: This tour is no longer available.  However, other BBC tours are available

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BBC Broadcasting House (Dalek) Photo credit © L Rowe 2014

BBC Broadcasting House (Dalek) Photo credit © L Rowe 2014

Review: UK Skills Show 2014 in Photos

UK Skills Show 2014 - pitching.  Photo credit © L Rowe 2014

UK Skills Show 2014 - pitching. Photo credit © L Rowe 2014

UK Skills Show 2014 - BBC radio presenting.  Photo credit © L Rowe 2014

UK Skills Show 2014 - BBC radio presenting. Photo credit © L Rowe 2014


UK Skills Show 2014 - programming 1.  Photo credit © L Rowe 2014

UK Skills Show 2014 - programming 1. Photo credit © L Rowe 2014

UK Skills Show 2014 - programming 2.  Photo credit © L Rowe 2014

UK Skills Show 2014 - programming 2. Photo credit © L Rowe 2014

UK Skills Show 2014 - Nail art.  Photo credit © L Rowe 2014

UK Skills Show 2014 - Nail art. Photo credit © L Rowe 2014

UK Skills Show 2014 - furniture design.  Photo credit © L Rowe 2014

UK Skills Show 2014 - furniture design. Photo credit © L Rowe 2014


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Review: Kew Gardens

Prince of Wales Conservatory, Kew Gardens

Prince of Wales Conservatory, Kew Gardens

With science GCSEs looming, I had been looking around for different ways to support biology learning hands-on and I remembered Kew Gardens as somewhere that we hadn't yet visited that might fit the bill.

I was particularly interested in Kew's educational offering, so I checked their website and they do several workshops and tours for each Key Stage, which was ideal, as I needed to cover several age-groups in one go.

Kew have recently updated their pricing structure.  They have an online booking system and prefer that queries are emailed.  Unfortunately doesn't accommodate booking three different workshops, so I ended up booking over the phone.

Katie was helpful and accommodating and booked us in quickly.  Kew's policy is that the trip is paid for within 1 month of booking.  For schools, this doesn't matter so much, but for home-education groups, where there is no budget buffer, this necessitates advertising, booking and collecting payment quite quickly.  However, Kew very kindly waived their alteration fee (they normally reserve the right to charge schools to alter a booking).  They also provide a lot of information via their website.

On the morning itself, we left at 7.15am (we live 65 miles away), which was just as well, as the M1 was closed between J4 and J1.  We arrived on the morning at just after 10am at Victoria Gate, having parked on the Kew Road that runs along the east wall of Kew Gardens (there are cones marking which parts of the road you can park on.  It's also quite busy with coaches dropping off).  This was the entrance that we were advised to use.  However, several of our group parked in the carpark at the Brentford Gate - and is the better entrance for disabled visitors and some of our group arrived at Elizabeth Gate.

There is a plaza just before the ticket barriers that we were able to congregate there to wait for everyone else and do the inevitable name-ticking (we also confirmed our arrival with a Kew staffer).  Our meeting time was 10.15am for a 10.30am entrance and we did indeed manage to go in just after 10.30am.

(We were told that we could not leave a list of names at the gate when we booked, but on the day itself, we discovered that they could cope with this quite well - and in fact, in their helpfulness, they probably let one or two others who were not part of the group booking in, too.  The facility to leave a list of names at the gate would be really helpful for home-education groups (and beneficial to Kew, too, I think in terms of not allowing extra people in), who do not travel together - although I appreciate that the vast majority of education bookings are from schools who do not have the issue of "separate arrivals")

Once inside Kew Gardens, we went towards Temperance House (unfortunately closed until 2018 for rennovation work) so we walked across to the Xstrata
Treetop walk.  This is an 18 metre high, 200 metre circular walk which enables visitors to literally see the tree canopy.   There are plaques all the way around to explain what you are looking at.  The floor of the walk way is metal and it's possible to see through the mesh-like design.  It also has a little "give" in it - apparently the entire stucture is designed to flex slightly in high winds - which is alarming if, like me, you aren't expecting it.  The Treetops walkway is fully wheelchair accessible (and there is a lift primarily for the mobility impaired - there are stairs for everyone else).  Pushchairs and buggys need to be left in the buggy park near the steps.  There are fabulous views across the tree tops.  The children enjoyed both the climb up the stairs and the walk around itself.

Underneath the Treetop Walkway is the Rhizotron, which is an underground installation - part art, part science - designed to explore tree roots and funghi.

After that across the grass to the Cedar Vista and then up a path to the designated school lunch area near Climbers and Creepers and the White Peaks Cafe.  It was around about this time, I realised that it is impossible to see all 132 hectares of Kew Gardens and do it justice in one day.  (So much so that staff sometimes get around the gardens by bicycle)

They have a new lunch area for 2014.  It consists of an enclosed area with outside picnic tables and a kind of giant teepee for eating indoors.  It also turned out to be  handily right beside an outside play area and the indoor soft-play area.

After lunch we made our way across to Museum No 1 which is where the education activities are held or start from in the case of the tours.  It's about a 8 minute walk and I was slightly worried that we would end up having to run there, but we made it in time.  Although we didn't go wrong, the route could do with a couple more sign-posts for some of the more directionally-challenged (me!) among us and Museum No 1 could do with being labelled as such on the map.

We initially queued at the door that was signposted "Education", it turns out we needed to wait out in front of the museum.  We split into our three groups (suprisingly quickly for a home-education group - normally this part is agonising, home-educators are not used to queues and registers)

The KS2 group began with their Tropical Rainforests Workshop and followed that with a tour of Palm House.  The teacher who led this group probably had the greatest challenge in terms of a 5 year age-span (and the intellectual differences that brings, at that age) and one or two special needs, which she coped with admirably.  She kept everyone engaged throughout.  My 8 year old was pleased to be able to relay her knewly aquired knowledge.

The KS3 group went directly to the Prince of Wales Conservatory for their extended activity tour on "Plant adaptations to the environment."  This impressive conservatory has 10 different climactic zones, and is perfect for the topic in hand.  During the tour, they moved through the various zones looking at differences in the plants found in each one.  My middle daughter was thrilled to be able to later show us her plant leaf and water demonstration (where the water runs straight off the leaf) afterwards, as well as telling us about several different plants they talked about.

The KS4 group had a combined activity tour and workshop on plant reproduction.  They started off with the workshop, looking at plants under a microscope and doing some dissection work.  (Note to staff - you need more scalpels for the dissection and more microscopes, too) and finished with a tour of the Prince of Wales Conservatory.  The tour follows a similar format to the others, in that the teacher leads the students around, stopping to point out plants, explaining and pointing out significant features in this case relating to seed dispersal and reproduction (but also featured a smelly flower, my eldest recalled) and so on and generally leading discussion.  However, at times, it was difficult to hear everything that was being said, so 15 would definitely be the upper limit for a tour of this kind.

All three teachers, Sharon, Jane and Lorraine, were knowledgeable, held the students' attention and kept them focused throughout.  They also pointed out some incidental facts along the way.

All three workshops ran concurrently.  In fact, Kew fix the start/finish times of all their workshops to enable them to fit in several education bookings in one day.  However, the tours finish in different places (depending on which tour), which is something to bear in mind if you are booking different tours.

After the workshop/tours, we spent some time walking around the Prince of Wales Conservatory some more and then walking back through to the play area to let off some steam before the drive home.

Afterwards I received a couple of follow-up emails (one from the KS4 teacher, on behalf of all three teachers) and generally from Kew Education.

I would definitely recommend an education visit here.  The staff were all very welcoming and knowledgeable and there is lots to see and do.

Kew Gardens education sessions are open to schools and home educators.  Dates and timeslots need to be booked well ahead, preferably via their website.  2014/15 costs are £60 for up to 35 students, £95 for up to 70 students, £30 for a workshop, £30 for each tour £60 for an extended activity tour or combined workshop/tour (up to 15 students in each) and £250 for a bespoke session.  Kew give a certain number of free teacher spaces (dependent on age/numbers of the students) and additional adults are charged for.

(They also do individual and group rates and season tickets)

We took 50 children (45 in the workshops), 29 adults and 3 babies/toddlers.
We arrived at 10am and left at 4.45pm, having parked for free on Kew Road, about 15 metres from Victoria Gate.

Temperance House, Kew Gardens

Temperance House, Kew Gardens

Review: UK Skills Show 2013

We arrived slightly later than planned (owing to another event being held at the NEC, the tailback was quite considerable).  So, we gained an additional 15 minutes viewing pleasure of the NEC approach roads and the children benefited from 15 minutes additional ranting on just why people feel the need to queue jump - it's clearly a queue if there are 150 other stationary cars in a line with their engines running.

However, although we missed our specified arrival time slightly, this wasn't an issue.  (I'm not sure if that would have been the case had we been a large party).   We booked in and were given a wristband that can be swiped at various "interest points" throughout the day.  You can synchronise your wristband with your online profile and also login to find out more about what you have swiped.  (In practice, this also meant that my three entered the same competition repeatedly - yes, I know only one entry will be counted - apparently it's a very satisfying beepy sound)

Partly because we were late, and partly because of the location of where we booked in, we started at Hall 4 and went around the Show backwards.  Fortunately, for the "directionally challenged", it doesn't actually matter what direction you go round in. (Unless there was something specific you wanted to see - if so, go there first because by the end of the day, they will probably be low on leaflets/freebies/demo materials and understandably, the poor exhibitors will be shattered from a day talking to hundreds of students)

As we walked around, it was possible to view live competitions in each area.  Understandably, some competitions were more visual to watch than others.  We were particularly drawn to watching the skill of some of the sculptors, makeup artists and welders.  We're still mystified as to what the CNC operators do, but it does feature impressively large machinery and some of the "office based" skills really do not lend themselves well to spectating (even though the organisers had gamely, and possibly optimistically, put up large monitors which duplicated what was on the competitors' own screens)

In each area there were hands-on areas where all the children (and adults/teachers!) could have a go at some of the skills.  In addition, there are "Spotlight" areas where there are live shows and demonstrations.  There is an opportunity to talk to employers, colleges and careers advisors in each section.  On the whole, this year's show was better laid on than in previous years.  All the exhibitors on the stands we visited were all very welcoming, positive and patient with children of all ages.

My 11 year old son was able to appreciate why I'm always in awe of F1 pit stops, because his go at changing a wheel took considerably longer than 2 seconds.  On the other hand, he was rather faster at the lego construction challenge.  My two younger daughters loved making a plaster cast, nail art and watching the welding.  All three enjoyed bricklaying, making keyrings and having a go at beating the sheet lead.  They also had a go at making a Da Vinci bridge and the girls were very pleased with their pink and purple hair extensions.

The Skills Show focuses on vocational careers, practical skills and apprenticeships.  It's especially ideal for 14-16 year olds.  However, there is a lot to see and do for younger children, too, and we didn't do it justice in the 5+ hours we were there.  It does get extremely busy and younger ones may get buffeted to some extent, particularly around the middle of the day as there were streams of people all walking with a brisk sense of purpose - presumably towards their lunch.

It was around about midday that we attempted to meet up with friends (who had started, more logically at Hall 1).  Within hindsight, it might have been better to plan this detail in advance because the mobile signal at the NEC can be patchy.  As it was, we ended up battling our way across Hall 3 twice, as we reacted to text messages that had been sent 10 minutes earlier but had only just been received.

This is the third year we have been to the Skills Show (We went to World Skills in 2011, and UK Skills in 2012).  Over that time it has developed from a competition stage with a small amount of demonstration stands, to a full scale careers fair and show for the vocations.
It is spread across 4 large halls at the NEC in Birmingham.  The halls are interlinked, in that you could move between them without having to go out to the lobby area.

There are 5 main skills areas:

  • Social & Professional Services
  • Engineering
  • Built Environment
  • Cultural & Creative Arts
  • IT & Business Administration.

At the heart of the Skills Show are the actual competitions.  There are over 60 competitions across the 5 main skills.  Some of the competitions have industry sponsors.  Young people compete in regional heats, and then national finals.  Outstanding competitors can be selected for Squad UK and Team UK with the chance of competing in the international World Skills competition.

New for this year is an expanded careers section with more colleges in attendance; the Culture and Creative Arts section seems also to have been larger.  This may have been my imagination, or it might have been that by the time we got to Halls 1 & 2, our feet were rather sore.


The Skills Show ran from 14-16 November 2013, with 14-15 November open to schools and educators and 16 November being a family day.  Entrance is free, but you need to book ahead via their website.  We went on Friday 15 November, with three children, aged 7-11, we parked at the NEC at a cost of £10 for the day, we arrived at just after 9.45am and stayed until 3pm.  Skills Show 2014 will take place on 13-15 November 2014 at the NEC.

Review: Homeschooling for Dummies by Jennifer Kaufield

Homeschooling for Dummies by Jennifer Kaufield* follows the usual "Dummies" format and it is very upbeat and positive. It was a useful introductory overview of Home Education and included lots of tips and advice. It also covers all age-ranges and it touches on the main methods of home-education but not any particular area in depth. The focus is very much "how to" rather than a "why would you?"

Some aspects relating specifically to the US are not applicable to the UK (some US states seem to have far more regulation and administrative requirements than the UK, for example) and the book does not cover UK law on home-education. Similarly, the book does not go into any €detail about specific educational philosophies or educational theories).  There is not enough detail, on it's own, for those starting out on home-education/homeschooling with older students.

Good introductory book to get started with, particularly for those with younger children.  It is typically light-hearted and encouraging.

 Also available on Kindle*


Review: Trip to Buckingham Palace

We arrived at the group entrance gate in good time (10.15am) for our 10.30am slot.  Buckingham Palace operate timed entry slots.  There's no "waiting area", so it is a case of standing on the street and clogging it up (fortunately, it's quite a wide street, but it wouldn't be very pleasant at peak times) and the road alongside is not the quietest.

We were called in quite promptly at 10.30am by a cheery member of staff (who are all uniformed) and ushered to benches to get our visitor badges and be told what would happen next (which amounted to walking up a path and into the building to their airport style security).

Buckingham Palace do not allow buggies, and it certainly isn't built for them.  Therefore, if you have brought one, you must "check it in" to their "cloakroom" (you don't have to walk back to collect it, the transport it to the rear exit of the building, next to the coffee shop)

We were on a self-guided tour and the hand-held "audio guide" was included in the entry price.  There are two options - adult and child.  The adult one was quite informative (and kind of reminicent of a BBC comentary), the child one went into less detail (to be expected?) but was more lighthearted.

The tour takes in a view of the quadrangle and the state rooms.  It's frequented, as you can imagine, by fans of the royal family (whose knowledge rivals the guides in some cases - and thank you to that person who educated us in what an ermine is) and foreign tourists.  At times, these two groups are so enthusiastic, it is hard for the smaller children to get a good view of the exhibits through the three-deep crowd of adults. (Particularly in the Throne room where clips of the Queen's coronation were played and there were displays of official photographs from the day) and in the room where the clothes worn by the Queen and other members of the Royal family and party
for the coronation)

The tour is one-way (you cannot normally double-back on yourself). Since our group contained children of different ages and stages meant the group soon split up. Indeed for some sections, our family was separated.

At the end of the tour, just before leaving the building, we collected our baggage (which had been wheeled round from the entrance).
We opted not to go to the coffee shop (probably just as well, if prices in the gift shop are anything to go by - a biro was £5.99 and a single Christmas decoration £14.99)

Finally, we ate our lunch sitting on a bench bordering the garden. (On a really busy day, bench space would run out)

The visit ended with a trip to the toilets (the poshest portaloos I have ever seen) and a walk down one edge of the garden. There you are unceremoniously ejected out of a door in the wall, into a street somewhere at the back of the palace. There is no clue as to where you are and no one has thought to put a sign saying "this way to the front" (or something similarly helpful). We had planned a leisurely walk onwards to the London Transport Museum; a journey that turned out to be rather more aerobic than anticipated.

Overall. .. interesting, not least because it is where the queen lives but not worth a repeat visit unless you are an avid Royal fan or History buff.
Staff are helpful, friendly and numerous.
Toilets are plentiful and immaculate.
There is no parking and it is inside the London Congestion Zone.

Buckingham Palace is open to the public in August and September (although, there is a special Winter opening at selected dates between December and February). Check their website for exact opening dates.  Normal entrance prices are  from £19.75 for an adult and £11.25 for under 17s, under 5s are free.  Education rates work out at £5/person but with some free adult places, depending on numbers and limited slots are available and must be booked and paid for in advance. They also do guided tours and visits to the Royal Mews.

Review: Sky TV Skills Studio

Sky TV Skills Studio.  Photo credit © BSkyB 2012

Sky TV Skills Studio. Photo credit © BSkyB 2012

A few months back, a home-educator very kindly shared the fact that Sky TV offer free educational workshops.  She wasn't in a position to organise a trip herself, but shared the details so that others might.

That was too good an opportunity to miss (and makes a nice change from a museum - lovely though museums are).  I rang and spoke to a very nice lady who seemed to want to "reach out" to home-education groups (particularly for the school holidays), although at that point, they had never had a home-ed group participate and with the blind-faith that only someone who had never encountered a home-ed group visit, booked us in for two Sky Skill Studio sessions (morning and afternoon) on Monday 8 April 2013.

I explained that home-educators aren't formal groups, as such.  I tried to explain that no one was really in charge, it all revolves around yahoo groups and Facebook and the like.  But we'd definitely fill it, one way or the other.

Over the next few weeks, I had a couple of conversations with the lovely Lucy, which possibly made her wonder what she'd let themselves in for.  I apologised for the daft questions but explained it really is best to minimise any "surprises" on the day.

"No, they aren't all the same key stage."  "They will range from 8-16, yes - all in one session!" "It'll be fine, honestly... erm, pitch it somewhere around KS3."

"Has it was wheelchair friendly and has disabled toilets?" (they do, as it happens, the building is very new and completely accessible).  "How many adults can we bring in?" (no more than 6, they advised),

The penny might finally have dropped during one of the later conversations.

"No, we will be travelling separately, we won't need to arrange coach-parking and by the way, is there room for 15 or 20 cars to park?"

There is a slightly horrified silence on the other end of the phone... "erm, no, there's room for about 6 cars at most,"

"Ah, is there a coffee shop where parents can wait?"


"Ah, well, that would at least solve the parking problem, if there's nowhere to wait and drink coffee, then they won't need to park" I reassure her.

Sky have spent a lot of time and effort on developing their workshop.  It's clearly aimed at schools.  There are 16 national curriculum linked topics to choose from, covering all the major subject areas.  For this reason, I had a moment of indecisiveness (ok, madness) where I decided I would let the 30 or so children so far booked on, take a vote on the topics.  Each child could give up to 5 ordered preferences.   The suprising winner was "World of Money" with "Natural Disasters" a distant second.

There were up to 8 roles to choose from (producer, director, scriptwriter, camera operator, editor, presenter/reporter, eye-witness/expert).  These roles are flexible, so children can share roles or take on more than one.  Again, still not having learned from the whole voting thing, I let children (or their parents) choose which roles they preferred and whether they wanted to stay with siblings or not.

So, on the day, despite my best intentions to arrive first at 9am, I arrived at 9.20 and discovered that half the people had beaten me to it.  I blame the M25.

There followed 20 minutes of pedantic name-ticking and coloured name badge distribution, and this was just on my part. Meanwhile the sky skills staff engaged in a bit of an ice-breaker activity, which was a good idea, since most of the children only knew a handful of other children.

During the tour, which lasted roughly 45 minutes, we got to see a production control room where the producer and director work; a studio (where I had my illusions shattered once and for all.  No, the presenters aren't sitting in front of a nice bright sunny window with sweeping views of the golf course - duh.  They are actually in a windowless room on the ground floor, with sweeping views of a black wall); and the transmission floor, with banks of monitors of all the programmes they are transmitting but bizarrely few staff (apparently, some work can be done in advance, but even on Christmas day, that office is staffed)

The tour leader explains what goes on in a lively and engaging manner and they answer any questions which come up.  No question is too silly.  Our group was mixed-age and he handled the difference in ability/comprehension quite well.

After the tour, the groups come together briefly before splitting up into 4 teams (Introduction/studio anchor; On location report, Eye-witness report; Expert Interview) for the workshop part. Sky have built a dedicated, purpose-build area just for the workshop.  The area features a central hub area and four smaller rooms (one for each of the teams) leading off the hub, which is equipped with a TV camera, editing desk (pre-loaded with video clips), green screen/ filming area)

This is where all the children can really get to work.  Each group leader encourages the children to work together as a team (I get the impression that teamwork is a very important part of the Sky corporate culture.  It's mentioned several times, in different contexts), they decide on a script, choose costumes, backdrops, footage and so on.  Everyone plays their part.  The Sky group leaders had an extra job on their hands, as the children did not know eachother (At best, each child knew three or four others in their group of six or eight), getting the group to work together.  That said, the group I watched did brilliantly.

Afterwards everyone came together in the hub area and watched all the clips. In the afternoon, Sky very kindly arranged for David Garrido, one of their Sky Sports presenters to speak to the children and take questions.  He did this with much enthusiasm and fielded even the most off-the-wall questions with good grace and humour.  In fact, all the Sky staff were welcoming, helpful and friendly (including the lady I spoke to on the phone to make the initial booking)

Sky can accommodate groups of 32 participants and around 4-5 adults/teachers/parents. They will also take youth groups such as Scout or Guide groups. There is no charge for the visit but it needs to be booked in advance.  The encourage youth groups to visit during school holidays.  Schools may create a login via the Sky Skills website.

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