The great medieval cathedrals arose in a fervour of faith and industry throughout the l2th and 13th centuries. Embellished with later carvings, glass and treasures, tempered by natural disasters, defaced during the Reformation and the Civil War, often neglected and then restored, they are a repository of English history and much else besides.
These magnificent buildings have been on the school visits trail for many years and there has been a steady improvement in the education services they provide. This year Exeter Cathedral receives a Sandford Award in recognition of the excellence of its facilities and educational services. Gone are the days when the value of a visit often depended on how well a teacher could expand on the brief leaflets that were available. The national curriculum has given impetus and a sharper focus to the school visit.
Since Alec Henderson left teaching nearly six years ago to take up the newly-created post of education officer at Exeter Cathedral, he has established a range of workshops combined with cathedral tours and trails supported by a video, a sound tape on the cathedral scene at the time of the Black Death and pre-visit and follow-up material.
"There is so much to be developed in the cathedral that could be offered to schools. I keep on learning things about it," he says. His enthusiasm was infectious as he worked with 25 Year 7s in the models workshop (which he describes as "really technology with a bit of history thrown in"), picking from among waving arms a child keen to help demonstrate how a medieval cathedral was built.
Next door in the Medieval Colour and Illumination workshop another 25 pupils from Ivybridge Community College are designing their own initial letter, having learned with Karen Taylor, a professional photographer turned teacher and Mr Henderson's assistant, how vellum, parchment and colours are prepared and how gold leaf is applied and burnished.
Leaflets listing the trails and tours and describing the workshops, such as Glass Making and Design, Tile Design and Naming, Heraldry, Pilgrimage, Brass Rubblng, and a Blitz workshoptrail on the bombing of St James's chapel and its restoration after the last war, are sent regularly to all LEA schools in Devon. Other schools can write in for the programme. In the spring and summer the centre regularly welcomes schools from London and the north of England.
This was the second group of 100 Ivybridge Year 7s in a week to visit the cathedral with their teacher, Juliette Waites, and five colleagues. In four groups, the children rotated between their chosen workshops, a cathedral tour guided by their teachers and an exploration of the remains of nearby St Nicholas Priory with Frank Gent of the county museums service, which liaises with the education centre.
Although most workshops and much of the material Mr Henderson produces is particularly relevant to key stage 3 Medieval Realms, Study Unit 1, the interests of other age groups are well catered for. For younger children, he may give a short introductory talk on the cathedral as a place of worship before leading them, for example, on the "Birds and Animals" trail.
A resource pack, Signs and Symbols, has been prepared for primary children by a local headteacher, and well-constructed guides for religious education teachers using the cathedral with 12- to 16-year-olds are also available. Groups of students taking RE for GCSE are frequent visitors. After a short introductory tour with Mr Henderson they may have a discussion session with him on the cathedral as a place of worship.
A number of last summer's special events will be repeated this year. Students from Exeter University school of education helped run a Medieval History Day with more than 400 pupils. The chapter house was divided by screens to accommodate three workshops simultaneously. As well as numerous trails, a stonemason gave demonstrations in the cloister, and in the cathedral itself students performed medieval dances. Mr Henderson admits "it called for quite a bit of organisation".
PGCE students also took part in a Special Schools' Day, running most of the workshops and acting as guides for 300 children. A Sensory Trail booklet compiled by one of the teachers helped disabled children experience different aspects of the cathedral through listening, touch, smell and sight.
These contacts with the School of Education and with the local teachers who attend special days are appreciated by everyone. Mr Henderson says: "The teachers are my eyes and ears. If a programme isn't suitable, too difficult perhaps or too long, they shoot it to pieces. For the students it is teaching practice."
There was a Benedictine monastery at Ely Cathedral from the 10th century until it was dissolved by Henry VIII in 1539. As part of key stage 2 Life in Tudor Times, local history or RE, primary children can take part in a Monastic Day, condensing 24 hours in the life of a monk into 24 minutes.
Robed as monks, they tie three knots in the cord around their waists to remind them of the three vows of poverty, chastity and obedience. Chastity is neatly dealt with by the children promising not to get married before the end of the day. With one minute for each monastic hour, including eight services, the class moves from dormitory to refectory, outside work to dinner (with an appropriate reading), back to work, then supper and bed.
Silence at all times if possible was part of the Benedictine Rule. The children learn some of the sign language the monks used to pass messages to one another. After lunch there are optional activities including candle-making, and learning about the healing properties of herbs. The day ends with a short service. It is well organised, the guides are former teachers and there are excellent pre-visit notes.
Durham cathedral, the greatest Romanesque church in Europe, towering above the River Wear, looks more like a castle. There could hardly be a greater contrast between the nave of Exeter Cathedral, with its avenue of slender Gothic columns rising to the amazingly beautiful vault, and Durham's awe-inspiring patterned pillars and marching Norman arches. The two northern saints, Cuthbert, in whose honour the cathedral was built, and the Venerable Bede, are buried here.
There are four audio-visual programmes, one for each key stage and one on the theme of Pilgrimage, but as yet no education room. Chapter Steward Wendy Nugent has recently been appointed to develop links with the five LEAs in the Durham diocese. A teacher for 20 years, she says: "A lot of teachers don't know much about cathedrals or Christianity."
Two workshops in the autumn attended by 50 primary teachers focused on the Durham Agreed Syllabus and the spiritual aspect of the cathedral's embroideries and glass. Next month a new schools exhibition will open in the oldest part of the cathedral.
In l072 William the Conquerer ordered the building of Lincoln Cathedral. Within 100 years it was destroyed by fire and earthquake. It was rebuilt in the English Gothic style in the 13th century.
"There have always been children coming to Lincoln," says schools officer Margaret Campion "but the education service is very new." Recently, 10 teachers completed a five-day placement at the cathedral, funded by Lincolnshire Training and Enterprise council. Everyone, from the canons to the workshop craftsmen, co-operated in introducing the teachers to the work of the cathedral, its history and treasures. With their help, Margaret is planning programmes and producing materials to cover all key stages and making cross-curricular links with design and technology and environmental education.
A project relating tours of Lincoln's magnificent stained glass to RE for younger children and iconography for older students is under way. The cathedral's master glazier has made some splendid leaded glass panels in the form of a jigsaw puzzle. For health and safety reasons children wear gloves to handle and put the glass pieces together.
There is a lovely secret garden overlooking the south rose window, known as "The Deacon's Eye", where, in summer, children can eat their sandwiches.
The 25 great medieval cathedrals of England welcome schools visits. They would all agree with Mr Henderson in Exeter: "There's no culture for a cathedral if the younger generation are not coming in."
For details send an SAE to: A A Henderson, cathedral education officer, 1 The Cloisters, Exeter EXl lHS. Tel: 0l392 55573.
fax: 01392 498769 * Jan Pye or Marjory Cooper, The Chapter House, The College, Ely, Cambs 6B7 4DL. Tel: 01353 667735 * The booking secretary, Chapter Office, The College, Durham DHl 3EH. Tel: 0l91 386 4266 * Margaret Campion, schools' officer, Lincoln Cathedral, LN2 lPZ.
Tel: 01522 544544
Canterbury Cathedral, the first cathedral of the Church of England, has a well established and efficient education centre, already boasting a Sandford plaque and a special education link with the Canterbury Heritage Museum. Schools are sent full introductory information packs for all three key stages and last year the education centre published a resource pack for KS3 history, designed to be used independently or in conjunction with a visit to the cathedral. Each section has full teachers' notes and imaginative photocopiable activity sheets.
Medieval Realms includes separate sections on: The Impact of the Norman Conquest, Relations of the monarchy with the Church, The Role of the Church -Beliefs, Monasticism, Economics and Art and Architecture. Under the title "The Making of the United Kingdom" there are two sections: The Reformation and Canterbury Cathedral and The Civil War and Restoration.
Each section costs Pounds 3.50. The complete package is Pounds 20. Available from: The Education Centre, Cathedral House, 11 The Precincts, Canterbury, CT1 2EH.