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.