Escorting 40 Year 5 children into a huge hole in the ground which is blasted daily by powerful explosive charges and inhabited by dinosaur-sized dumper trucks might not seem like a relaxing day out. But a visit to Whatley Quarry in Somerset (or indeed any of the 130 other quarries open to school parties) turns out to be a surprisingly unstressful and beneficial day out.
Whatley is the largest quarry owned by Hanson, one of the world's biggest providers of building materials. Hanson, however, is not always popular - especially with some environmentalists. In Somerset it has been carving away at the Mendips for decades, and two years ago a planning inquiry granted the company permission to extend Whatley over a further 36 hectares - a move that will unlock another 70 million tonnes of limestone.
Hanson has decided that open communication about what modern quarries are for, and the problems they face, is the best public relations policy. That is why at 9am on a spring day pupils from St Paul's Junior School in Shepton Mallet find themselves settling down at the Whatley education centre close to the quarry gates. The theme of of this particular visit is the geography topic "Human impact on the Environment". The Whatley centre also offers "Magnificent Materials" about rocks and their uses, and the session "Rivers and Living Things".
"Every year we get new schools asking to come after hearing about us on the local grapevine. We're completely flexible and can tailor the programme for each school," says Jo Hicks, assistant teacher-warden at the centre.
Another teacher-warden, Gill Richardson, says the emphasis is on information rather than brainwashing: "Here and elsewhere we give children - and adults - the chance to see what happens in a modern quarry."
The St Paul's party includes a teacher, a classroom assistant and a parent-helper. Outside in the quarry there has to be at least one adult per eight children. Hanson does a thorough risk assessment for all school parties, which makes organising a visit easier.
The visit is divided into two parts with a classroom session and a visit to the quarry. In the classroom, teacher Mary May distributes A4 Ordnance Survey maps of the immediate area. The pupils track down farms, football grounds and, uproariously, somewhere called Snatch Bottom. They also discover that the main quarry at Whatley has grown enormously over time, swallowing up farmland and footpaths. They discover that the quarry provides everything needed to build a road - from scalpings to asphalt - plus pre-mix concrete and mortar, and ingredients for fertilisers, animal food and toothpaste.
In the local community, 300-400 people work for Hanson. So there are plenty of issues for the pupils to discuss around the jobs versus environment debate. Mary May, who lives in the nearby village of Mells, brings a personal perspective to the session as she raises the problems of living close to a quarry, such as continuous or sudden noise, vibration, light spillage from night-working, dust and danger on the roads.
Later we set off in a minibus around the giant, terraced gash in the landscape, where stone has been extracted for 65 years. Dressed in hard hats and high-visibility jackets, we look down into the pit and see the huge crushing and screening machinery.
We go three "benches" (terraces) down and stop near a loading shovel which is scooping up rocks, raising them skywards and dropping them quietly into the rubber-lined dumper trucks. The shovel pauses for a moment and comes towards us as we get out of the minibus. It is taller than a double-decker bus and at least three times as wide; each of its wheels is 10 feet high. The children look up at it in awe, and climb into its giant scoop for a moment before it ambles back to work.
We also see the holes that have been prepared for the afternoon's blasting: always at 3.30pm. The safety siren rings, and from a high vantage point half a mile away onlookers see hundreds of feet of cliff collapse in clouds of dust. In seconds, Hanson has carved out another 20,000 tonnes to work with.
To arrange a quarry visit or to find out more about the teachers' resource pack, Material World, contact Sian AllanTel: 0207 245 1245. Email: email@example.com
LIVING IN A MATERIAL WORLD
Primary schools visiting the quarry receive a copy of Material World, a hefty ring-binder which covers, simply and attractively, the huge range of topics which can be pursued through a quarry visit - from the properties of the rocks themselves to what can be done with them and the environmental issues which quarrying raises.
There are materials for pre-visit study, and all the basic topics are carefully integrated into the key stage 2 science, geography, English and maths curriculum.