Education: Learning comes alive

One botanic garden is helping schools make the most of learning outside the classroom. Gavin McEwan reports.

'Learning through doing'. Image: BBG
'Learning through doing'. Image: BBG

In these straitened, health and safety-conscious times, many teachers have reservations about asking parents to pay to take school children out for the day to unfamiliar locations.

Yet by offering children "leaning through doing", attractions such as gardens can provide educational opportunities beyond what is achievable within the school building.

Recognising this, the Department for Children, Schools and Families launched the Learning Outside the Classroom Quality Badge at the start of this year. The aim is to reassure schools that the learning provider meets a range of learning and safety standards. More than 400 attractions, from art galleries to zoos, have already received the award.

Among these is Birmingham Botanical Gardens, which attracts around 15,000 school children a year from Wales to the west to Derby to the east. No novice in the education field, the 6ha Edgbaston attraction became an educational charity back in 1962 and has had an education officer in place since 1975.

Quality badge acts as seal of approval

According to current incumbent Deborah Knott: "The badge has put the seal of approval on what we were already doing. As an organisation we take into consideration all the quality indicators of the scheme. There wasn't really anything we had to work at - all we had to do was write it all down."

The badge helps the garden gain the confidence of schools, she explains. "We are well-known in the outdoor education world but not so well-known to schools - it can be a struggle reaching them. But the badge has helped get the message across and we have increased the number of new schools since being awarded it."

Teachers are encouraged to visit the gardens in advance to ensure that the learning opportunities on offer meet pupils' needs, she says. "We always discuss what national curriculum points the visit will address, what material they have already covered in class and any special needs that the children may have."

The garden can meet a range of curriculum demands — not just in science, but also art and even mathematics, Knott points out, adding that the garden can also help teachers to prepare the obligatory risk assessments. "We make sure that we get feedback from them afterwards via evaluation forms. Was the interpretation child-friendly and easy to use? Were staff friendly? And we follow up on their comments."

Meeting the needs of school groups has dictated some priorities within the garden, she reveals. "A lot come for the tropical rainforest section of the glasshouses, but that had the fewest labels. We've worked to correct that."

The garden also ensures that teachers are well prepared to deliver teaching material thanks to a rolling programme of continuing professional development courses, which was overhauled earlier this year.

Both this and the classes for pupils are delivered in the garden's dedicated teaching facilities. The main study centre, opened in the 1970s, has familiar classrooms, toilets, cloakrooms and a mini-glasshouse upstairs. This is now complemented by a range of resources in the garden itself, which is constantly being added to.

The centrepiece of these is the Growing Schools Garden, originally designed by TV gardener Chris Beardshaw — and shown at the 2007 Hampton Court Palace Flower Show — to promote the Government's Learning Outside the Classroom policy. After the show, Birmingham Botanic Gardens put in a successful bid for it, beating rivals including the RHS itself.

A building open to the garden on two sides houses a "story-telling chair" and art exhibits beneath its green roof. Now a second, all-weather building made of lime-rendered straw bales is being constructed in the middle of the garden. Due to open in March, it will also serve as a base for events.

Many of the smaller features of the garden have been built by visiting schools themselves. One, a willow "nest", is currently under repair. Knott says: "The children don't mean to damage things, but the garden is so well-used that there's a fair bit of wear and tear." An installation shows the cycle of water use surrounded by a display of plants that have to cope with low water levels, while simpler features such as raised beds show what can be achieved even in the least promising spots.

"Schools might see things they will consider building themselves," Knott suggests. "We hope the gardens will inspire visiting schools to change their own grounds or use them in a different way."

Elsewhere in the garden, a Victorian cottage is being turned into an interactive learning venue with touch-screen computers. Through these, a character called the Green Man leads children on a printable quest for information from around the garden. Children key in answers and the Green Man either congratulates them or sends them back out. The interaction can be continued back in the classroom via a dedicated website.

"It's all being evaluated and needs tweaking," says Knott. "But children like the Green Man and teachers tell us that it is taking them to different parts of the garden that they didn't know about."

For younger children under adult supervision, and those with special needs, there is the Discovery Garden, which illustrates aspects of plant life in a playful way. For the more advanced, the Story of Horticulture Garden shows the development from wild plants to productive crops such as sugar cane. The garden also has a programme of family learning and even hosts children's parties.

Parents pay £12 to the school for children to go on trips, but "not all of them are prepared to pay that", says Knott. The garden charges for such activities, at rates published on its website, which also hosts supporting materials for teachers. Education assistant Vena Middleton says: "Schools' funding for this isn't ring-fenced and some head teachers may have spent their budget, or overspent it, on other things."

Revenue generated from key sources

Unlike most botanic gardens, which are funded by national or local government or form part of a university, the 180-year-old garden generates revenue from memberships, admissions, catering, conferences and other events as well as its teaching activities. Partnerships with the corporate sector, which have been running for more than a century, now bring in more than £5m a year.

According to chief executive James Wheeler: "It improves the educational facilities, which then raises the profile of garden — it's a feedback loop." Which is just as well, because Knott says: "It's a difficult site to maintain. The glasshouses need constant care and attention and some of the buildings and infrastructure are crumbling and will cost a lot to repair."

The garden plays a part in the plant world more widely. It forms part of the Botanic Gardens Education Network and Botanic Gardens Conservation International. It hosts the national bonsai collection and is looking at establishing a national Lilium collection as well.

"It's not large genus, but very beautiful," says Wheeler. "We will never be Kew, but we can do more activities with plant societies." The garden has hosted specialist plant shows for more than a century, he adds. "We are good with schools but we don't have things for teenagers," he admits. "However, we have put in a working group for the disabled and those with learning difficulties."

None are in doubt about the value of the role of plants in education. Knott confirms: "It's really important. We get kids aged 13 who have never been to a woodland and they just go wild."

For further information on the Learning Outside the Classroom Quality Badge scheme, see



From an original membership of 250 subscribers, Birmingham Botanical Gardens now welcomes 250,000 visitors a year. But according to chief executive James Wheeler, the quality of visits matters more than the quantity.

"We can't physically get a whole lot more people in, but we can give them the richest possible experience when they are here," he says. "We want their visit to count. I'm not here to encourage people to wander around on spec."

This means attracting all types of visitors, such as families, he explains. "We have to keep up with what competing attractions are doing," he points out. "We want to appeal to all ages and to build up long-term relationships with people, getting them to expand their visits."

The public is now urged to "pre-visit" the garden online and plan a trail - for example, leading around ten plants currently in bloom. They can then download podcasts with narration provided by gardeners and visual profiles of individual plants prepared by students.

"People don't want to read a lot on-screen so instead we help them put together a tailor-made experience," says Wheeler. "They can feed back to us afterwards, as the teachers do with school groups."

He adds: "Botanical gardens have always been radical in their design and their appeal. How many visitor attractions were there in 1832?"

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