Learning in the South East

Throughout history, the south coast has often been the last line of defence against would-be invaders, so has a wealth of military and maritime places of interest for school trips, writes Nigel Smith, chief executive of Tourism South East

The South East of England is hard to beat as a school trip destination. It’s the UK’s most popular region outside London for visitors and as a result has a wealth of diverse, unique and rewarding experiences on offer. It comprises the counties of Berkshire, Buckinghamshire, Oxfordshire, Hampshire, Isle of Wight, Sussex, Surrey and Kent, all within two hours of London.

Throughout history the south coast has often been the last line of defence against would-be invaders so has a wealth of military and maritime places of interest. There is no better place to learn about the importance the Normans had on the development of Britain, than the conflict that started it all. The site of the Battle of Hastings including Battle Abbey on the Sussex coast is a popular English Heritage site offering expert-led Discovery Visits or alternatively, you can enjoy a free self-led visit to the Abbey and design your own day to suit your curriculum needs. Students can learn first-hand what it was like to be a Norman charging across the battlefield during the Battle. They can understand how it felt to be part of the Anglo-Saxon shield wall, or how the Norman cavalry helped them to victory. By standing on the battlefield where history was made your students can better comprehend the events leading up to the Battle of Hastings and beyond. Discover what life was like for a Monk at the Abbey and their daily routines, and why it was built in this location.


With regard to the UK’s maritime history, the south coast has no equal. At the forefront is the must-see Portsmouth Historic Dockyard. The Dockyard offers a fantastic range of education visits for groups at all levels from Foundation Stage through to Post 16. It provides experiences which cannot be created in the classroom and are designed to maximise pupils’ learning experiences, with a range of options depending on curriculum, visit time and budget.

The Dockyard experience involves 11 different attractions including the iconic HMS Victory where students can explore Horatio Nelson’s flagship and experience a day in the life of a sailor, taking part in the ‘powder monkey challenge’ and ‘learning the ropes’. Led by costumed staff, workshops give pupils the opportunity to discover what life was like onboard for 18th century sailors. The Mary Rose Museum presents a unique opportunity to immerse students in the Tudor world.

They can see not just the remains of the ship itself, rescued from the depths of the Solent, but also the thousands of real artefacts all dating from 1545 that had been preserved under the silt for centuries, including some not found anywhere else in the world. Dr David Starkey calls it “England’s Pompeii” – one moment in time preserved for ever.

Teachers can make a free preliminary visit to the Portsmouth Historic Dockyard. For schools that have made a booking, a free preliminary visit for the education visit leader plus two colleagues or a free family ticket for the education visit leader are also offered.


From Portsmouth you could take your group on a short ride across the harbour to neighbouring Gosport and explore the Waterfront Trail starting at the Royal Navy Submarine Museum. Here you can see some of the first submarines ever invented as well as go inside HMS Alliance, Britain’s only surviving Second World War ocean-going submarine. The two mile Waterfront Trail offers spectacular views across Portsmouth Harbour and takes in the Falkland Gardens and the ‘Timespace’ sundial en-route, as well as Royal Clarence Yard. At the end of the trail you will find Explosions! Museum of Naval Firepower. This award-winning museum contains weapons used by the Navy throughout the centuries and is housed in buildings of the Navy’s former armaments depot centred around the original powder magazine of 1771. Explosions! traces the development of naval armaments from gunpowder to the atom bomb to the Exocet missile.


In the neighbouring coastal city of Southampton, you can find another fascinating story of maritime triumphs and disasters at the Sea City Museum. Based at the heart of Southampton, the Museum tells the story of the people of the city, their fascinating lives and historic connections with the ill fated Titanic and the sea. A dedicated team of skilled and experienced educators offers a great range of workshops and guided discovery sessions to complement museum visits. As you can imagine the story of the Titanic is core to these sessions but is presented in a child‑friendly and sensitive way particularly at Key Stage 1/2 level through getting to understand this significant disaster and life on board by dressing up, artefact‑handling and cross circular hands-on activities.

The experiences are broadened out under a Southampton: Gateway to the World Discovery Sessions covering why it is a gateway city, with particular focus on Roman, Saxon, Medieval, or Second World War history. The Museum has also developed new cross-curricular bundles that provide a balance of history and art sessions incorporating a broad range of styles and learning experiences. At Secondary level students work with practicing artists, historians, and educators to take the visit to a deeper level of learning and engagement.


The South East also has some of the most famous Castles and Historic Houses in Britain. Our current Queen’s favourite home is Windsor Castle and it actively welcomes visits from schools and educational groups of all kinds. Students can explore the castle’s role over the centuries as fortress, prison, baroque palace, family home, wartime refuge, heritage attraction and residence used by The Queen for official duties. Notably, the first official Royal Collection Trust iPad app Kings and Queens: 1,000 Years of British Royal History traces the royal line of succession from 1066 to the present day. To support teachers in using the app to bring alive the turbulent Stuart period for KS2 pupils there are a series of lesson plans with linked resource material.

Leeds Castle in Kent is known as ‘the loveliest castle in the world’ and is proud to have been awarded the Sandford Award for Heritage Education. A day at Leeds Castle can include themed workshops and educational talks that discover almost 900 years of history, including Tudor Life and the 1920s and if you want free time for your group to let off steam there is the added bonus of a maze, magical underground grotto and playgrounds.

Waddesdon Manor, in Buckinghamshire recently won the VisitEngland Best Large Attraction award and for secondary school pupils you can actually learn how it functions as a major tourist attraction looking at how visitors use the facilities, what promotional materials and techniques are used, and how the local community are employed. For primary level there are such sessions as ‘Fun with the Fairies’ literacy based workshops that link with the famous Sleeping Beauty paintings by Leon Bakst that hang in the Manor. Waddesdon also has a Teachers’ Forum to help guide the future of education at the Manor.


If you fancy taking your students on a real adventure then you should consider the Isle of Wight. The island is only a relatively short journey by ferry (less than an hour) vehicle or just foot passengers, from Southampton, Portsmouth and Lymington. It is already a popular destination for educational trips with lots of accommodation that encourages a longer stay.

The Isle of Wight is a small island filled with a big history. It is one of the best places in Europe to find dinosaur fossils, hence, it is known as “Dinosaur Island”. The main museum – Dinosaur Isle in Sandown – caters for students from reception class (and pre‑school) through to A-level.

It provides a range of activities all year including talks and fossil handling sessions, unguided (and guided) visits and field trips; including visits to local coastal sites containing visible geology and fossils. Within the building they can often provide tailored activities, for example introductions to evolution (GCSE Biology), extinction, rocks and soils.

Other popular visits on the island include several English Heritage properties including the holiday home of Queen Victoria at Osborne and Carisbrook Castle where Charles I was held prisoner.

The Isle of Wight Steam Railway offers you the opportunity to make a virtual visit first by using its interactive familiarisation guide ‘Through a Teachers Eyes’. For the more adventurous the UK Sailing Academy in Cowes offers a range of different watersports that can benefit students through inspiration, enjoyment, teamwork, boosting self‑confidence and self-reliance, as well as the making and sealing of friendships. There are a number of excellent companies and organisations that can help you plan an inspirational educational or school trip to the Isle of Wight.

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