Heads in the clouds

The Met Office provides valuable services for weather studies, from faxed forecasts to school visits. Frances Farrer reports

Weather is an enjoyable subject to teach because it relates to real experience with the immediacy of what is happening outside the classroom window. The Met Office is an obvious and very useful resource. Any school with a fax machine can download hourly Metfaxes of satellite weather maps (synoptic charts) for the cost of the phone call. Peter Ruddell, head of geography at St Mary's College, Wallasey, picks them up early. "You can get the faxes at 7am and be teaching with them at 8.45," he says. "It catches pupils' imagination in a way other data can't."

With a sixth-form class he makes comparisons between the morning and the afternoon conditions, showing the progression of the commentary. "The charts can be used with satellite images," he says, "and the Met Office gives a synopsis of what it means." The charts show cold and warm fronts, cloud formations, pressure systems, directions of travel. Peter Ruddell compares the synoptic chart with the Atlantic chart and the general weather forecast for use with his sixth form, and he has also used the charts with key stage 3 students.

"Some local schools have got satellite dishes on their roofs, but they are costly to install and maintain." A very rough estimate of cost is Pounds 1,000 "for the satellite dish and the technical stuff, another Pounds 1,000 for the PC and printer inside the school, plus the cost of maintaining it all. Set against that, the Metfax service suits us very well".

Jeremy Haigh at Westborough High School in Dewsbury, West Yorkshire, also uses the Metfaxes and enjoys their immediacy and demonstrable practicality. "The weather map shows cloud, and there is cloud," he says. "Doing weather we got above average results for a modular topic."

His Year 11 pupils are united in their enthusiasm. "Now, when you look at the weather report you know what it means." Hanifa, one of the group, is eager to show the materials she has used. There are explanations of the technical symbols, maps in various stages of interpretation, and questions. "Draw the symbols for rain, snow, drizzle thunderstorm, rain not reaching ground, obscured skyIWhat are isobars? How are they drawnIOn the plotted weather map give references for a depression, an anticyclone, etc."

Others speak enthusiastically of relevance. Kirsty says she can now tell what the weather will be like when she goes on holiday; Naveed mentions sport; Shahid and Majad enjoy explaining the television weather forecast to their families; Gemma and Shojab say they would like to visit the Met Office's Leeds Weather Centre.

Leeds Weather Centre attracts students of all ages. A 20-minute introductory talk is followed by a tour of the roof showing the computer-assisted observation instruments and how they link with the national and international observation stations. Schools speak highly of their contact with the centre and of visits there.

Lesley Flockton of Roundhill Junior School in Ferrybridge has been taking groups to Leeds Met Office for 12 years. She shares the view of many who say that the key feature of a visit is the way the staff relate to the children. "They don't talk down, and when they get the children to say what they know already, they bring out amazingly high quality stuff," she says. "Some questions pupils ask put the Met Office people on the spot - how many hours of sunshine were there last year? What was the foggiest day this year? - but they just go and look it up. They don't mind a bit."

"We enjoy these visits," says staff member Alan Murray. "Seven and eight-year-olds see things in the sky pictures that can't easily be answered. "

The question of relevance is taken further when they ask children to consider who needs weather forecasts: a construction company might need to know wind prospects before hiring a crane, farmers and sailors base work decisions on them.

"The children particularly love the television studio," says Mrs Flockton. "Their attention never wanders."

Visits to Leeds Weather Centre at Oak House, Park Lane, Leeds LS3 1EL cost about Pounds 45 for groups of up to 30 with helpers. Contact: Graham Peacock or Alan Murray, tel: 0113 245 7753 The Meteorological Office at London Road, Bracknell, Berkshire offers some school visits, as do some weather stations in provincial cities.

Tel: 01344 420242

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