When you reflect on your own experience of school, what do you remember learning? Most of us can’t now recall Pythagoras’s theorem or the elements on the periodic table, but a lot of the learning at school is often done outside of the classroom.
At least, that is the argument of Sir Michael Barber, an educationist and advisor to Boris Johnson. He recently came up with a plan to make pupils more “rounded human beings” – and it involves leaving the school gates.
He proposed that students take up to 10 days off school (seven days for primary school children) to tick off a “bucket list” of cultural excursions including museums, concerts, theatre trips, and tours around country estates, sports stadiums and Westminster.
Whether such a scheme is implemented remains to be seen. In the meantime, the following are the recommended activities for a cultural education, chosen by the experts.
Palace of Westminster
Sir Michael Barber made the case that school pupils should visit the Palace of Westminster for “an introduction to democracy and how it works”. A visit to the meeting place for the House of Commons and the House of Lords could also be a good way for young people to begin to engage in politics.
Tickets: £12 (child), £28 (adult); ukparliament.seetickets.com
Almost 5,000 years since its creation, Stonehenge is still standing – and still worth a visit. “It is absolutely iconic,” says Matt Thompson, head collections curator at English Heritage. “It is the kind of gateway for so many people to begin thinking about the heritage that surrounds us in Britain.”
For children in particular, there is a “captivating magic that goes above and beyond the science,” he adds. “It gives young people the opportunity to use their imagination, to dream – but then also to dive into the science and the archeology and the history of it, should they choose to.”
Tickets: £12.90 (child), £21.50 (adult). Family tickets also available; english-heritage.org.uk
While most children cover the Romans at school, there’s nothing like seeing a piece of Roman Britain in real life. “The legacy of the Romans is still all around us in the landscape we look at today,” Thompson says, “and when you see Hadrian’s Wall it’s this remarkable feat of engineering that hopefully illustrates to young people that while something might be 1,900 years old, that doesn’t mean it can’t also be monumental.”
The nearby Vindolanda camp is also worth a visit, as it holds letters written by women at the time. “It brings about more appeal, I think, to all ages,” says Dr Deborah Mays, head of listing for Historic England.
Tickets: £6 (child), £9.90 (adult); english-heritage.org.uk
Tintagel Castle, with its incredible vistas and wide open spaces, is a “breathtaking” place to visit, according to Thompson – and the North Cornwall castle is full of history.
“Of course the most significant thing is those associations of King Arthur and Tintagel,” Thompson says, explaining that it was built in the Middle Ages by someone who was “aspiring to the ideals of the mythical King Arthur”.
These timeless myths that are “steeped in these ideas of chivalry and knightly romance” are sure to appeal to both children and young adults.
Tickets: £10.40 (child), £17.30 (adult); english-heritage.org.uk
The seaside town of Whitby makes a great day out in general, but it’s particularly worth visiting the gothic abbey, as it inspired the story of Dracula. “Bram Stoker went on holiday to Whitby and actually came across stories of Vlad Dracul – the original Count Dracula – in the library in Whitby. That’s where he got the inspiration,” says Matt Thompson of English Heritage. In the novel, the eponymous vampire first enters England on a boat to Whitby.
Tickets: £6.60 (child), £11 (adult); english-heritage.org.uk
The seaside family home of Queen Victoria and Prince Albert on the Isle of Wight is full of rich interiors, wonderful paintings and other significant artefacts for those interested in the royal family – which, according to Thompson, includes a lot of children. “It does have this allure for young people – the idea of being a prince or princess,” he says.
At Osborne, you can see how the royal family lived – “but it’s not an intellectual exercise,” Thompson is quick to add. It’s immersive. The Swiss Cottage, a little Alpine-style chalet with its own gardens and museum, where the royal children could play at being adults and learn the skills that Prince Albert believed would make them better rulers, is particularly enchanting.
Tickets: £12.60 (child); £20.90 (adult); english-heritage.org.uk
Before there was the Burj Khalifa or the Empire State Building, there was the Iron Bridge, situated in what is now a sleepy town in Shropshire. The ground-breaking metal structure is remarkable and beautiful in its own right, but it is also “the birthplace of the Industrial Revolution,” Thompson says.
While, in hindsight, the discovery of coal was not wholly positive (given the current climate crisis), Thompson believes young visitors can take inspiration from the industrialists who created the Iron Bridge. “These people were innovators, they were problem solvers, they found challenges and they overcame those challenges […] It’s being curious about the world and being able to innovate and problem- solve that’s going to get us out of this [climate] problem.”
At over 1,000 years old, Windsor Castle is the oldest occupied castle in the world. Its usage has changed over the years – as you can tell from the barracks (which were originally built for defensive measures), and the beautiful stables (from a time when horses were the main mode of transport). “It’s a complete castle,” says Dr Mays. “It has something of everything.”
Most famously, Windsor Castle has a strong connection to the Royal family. It is also a fascinating snapshot into the evolution of the monarchy. “It tells the whole story of life gone by and therefore it helps us to appreciate where we are now,” says Dr Mays.
Free (under 5), £13.50, (under 17), £23.50 (adult); rct.uk/visit/windsor-castle.
There’s a reason Blenheim Palace is a World Heritage Site. Yes, it is a beautiful piece of architecture, set in a stunning landscape in the Oxfordshire countryside. But it’s also a significant place in history.
“It’s important to understand that after the Medieval period up to the Second World War, these big houses played a role,” says Dr Mays. “Until civic society and municipal culture was built in the 19th century, social life was led by these big houses.”
Instead of the NHS, for instance, there were patron-funded hospitals. “It’s the evolution of our history, and what we have now you can actually distill back to what it was in its earlier times,” Dr Mays says.
Tickets: £16.50 (child), £29.50 (adult); blenheimpalace.com
Northern Ireland’s hexagonal columns of stone look almost like a sculpture – it’s incredible that they were formed naturally, from the cooling of a volcanic eruption. “There’s really nowhere else like it in the world,” says Andy Beer, the National Trust’s director of operations and consultancy.
“It’s one of those places that’s about the laws of geology – how things are made. So something about visiting the place has always prompted questions around what is this place? Where did it come from? What does it mean?”
The strange landscape can also make visitors feel self-reflective and ask questions about their own place in the world, he says. “They’re a good thing for anyone of any age to think about, but particularly when you’re in your formative years.”
Tickets: £6.50 (child), £13 (adult); nationaltrust.org.uk
Blackpool Tower caused quite a stir when it came onto the scene in 1894. “When it opened, Blackpool Tower was the tallest manmade structure in the British Empire, so it is our Eiffel Tower,” says Dr Mays. It may now seem relatively small to our adult eyes, but to a child it is still a wonder to behold.
It’s also a fun place to visit, with some good early fairground rides near the Tower. “That’s important history about how the seaside culture developed,” Dr Mays says.
Tickets: from £15; theblackpooltower.com
Fishbourne Roman Palace
The gigantic Fishbourne Roman Palace needs to be visited to understand its scale. It is the largest residential Roman relic in England, and it has been well-protected and almost rebuilt to give you the sense you are walking through a real Roman villa.
With its well-preserved mosaics and interactive elements, it is especially suited to young visitors. “They get to understand how sophisticated Roman life could be,” Dr Mays says. “We’re so assured now that life is better but, actually, with underfloor heating back in Roman times…”. The high-quality artwork and handmade materials also bust the myth that newer is always better.
Tickets: £5.20 (child), £10.90 (adult); sussexpast.co.uk
Dark Sky Discovery Sites
While you may see a spattering of stars if you live in the city, it’s nothing compared to the spectacle of a Dark Sky reserve. These sites, which are located across the country in, for instance, Exmoor, Northumberland and Snowdonia, are distinguished by their low light pollution, thus allowing you to see hundreds of stars and constellations.
It’s fun for adults, but especially for children. “Gazing up at the stars, you feel tiny and the world feels enormous – and it’s wonderful for your sense of perspective,” says Beer. “Just spending time watching a satellite slowly track across the site, which you can readily do in any of these Dark Sky Reserves, is really good for your mind.”
Uffington White Horse
The striking figure of a white horse is carved into a hill in Oxfordshire. The man-made structure dates back to the Bronze Age, when tribes scraped off soil and hammered the chalk into the hill. It was the era of Boudicca, and this rich history makes it a “magical place”, according to Beer.
“One of the things that’s really good for all of us is to have a sense of that deep time, and being part of a place that has a really, really long history stretching back into the past. I think you have an understanding that the Romans walked here and medieval people walked here and Iron Age people held this place – for me, that’s a wonderful thing to know. It enriches your life.”
The Eden Project
This project in Cornwall is the only place in the UK where you can experience a tropical rainforest (albeit indoors). The rainforest biome is just one of many attractions. There is also Invisible Worlds, recommended by Anne Appelbaum, director of children and young people at Arts Council England. “This exhibition can help children gain a better understanding of the world,” she says.
Tickets: from £10 (child), from £29.50 (adult); edenproject.com
Towards the end of 1665, a young Isaac Newton was sent home from Cambridge University because there was a plague. While at home in Woolsthorpe Manor for 18 months, he “basically cracked the laws of physics,” according to Beer.
It was here that he had his famous apple-tree epiphany, relating to gravity. It was also here that he used a prism to split light into the rainbow colours. He inscribed some of his ideas onto the walls – and they are still there today.
“He was a teenager who changed the world, effectively,” Beer says, explaining why the Manor is worth a visit. “That’s quite inspiring, isn’t it?”
Tickets: £4.75 (child), £9.50 (adult); nationaltrust.org.uk
While there are many impressive bridges in the UK, Tower Bridge, above, stands out for its place on the River Thames. This demonstrates our history – that “we were very much a waterborne nation,” according to Dr Mays.
However, the famous landmark is also a beautiful feat of engineering. “This is one of the things we forget often,” Dr Mays says. “We didn’t just have a functional bridge, we had a beautiful structure. So if we have budding designers, there’s lots to think about.”
Tickets: £5.30 (child), £10.60 (adult); towerbridge.org.uk
The Beatles’ childhood Homes
Over 60 years since the Beatles came together, young adults are still streaming their songs on Spotify. Not only is their music timeless, but so is their story.
“The great thing about the Beatles is that they were just ordinary working-class kids who made music in their bedrooms and became the biggest music band on the planet,” says Beer. Those rooms are now available to visit, as the National Trust offers guided tours of Paul McCartney and John Lennon’s childhood homes in Liverpool.
Tickets: £13.75 (child), £27.50 (adult); nationaltrust.org.uk
English National Opera
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Young adults can hugely benefit from this old and beautiful art form – and, what’s more, the under-21s ticket scheme offers free tickets for all performances at every level of the theatre.
“It’s a fantastic chance for children to try something new and become fascinated by an art form that many have never seen before,” Appelbaum says.
Free (under-21s); eno.org
Black Country Living Museum
This award-winning open-air museum is set across 26 acres in a carefully reconstructed Industrial Revolution-era town. It’s fully immersive, and children can take part in old-fashioned street games, visit traditional shops and interact with the actors who describe what it was like to live and work in one of the first industrialised areas in the UK.
“It brings the past to life in a way that will engage children of all ages, giving them the chance to step back in time and meet for themselves the characters who built the modern world as we know it,” Appelbaum says.
Tickets: £9.95 (child), £19.95 (adult); bclm.comInternet Explorer Channel Network