School safari: the solution to all our funding woes?

Why should Eton and Harrow monopolise all the tourists? There's plenty to see in the state sector, says Stephen Petty

Could a school safari be the answer to funding woes?

A handful of schools have already let the tourists in. A couple of places called Eton and Harrow, for instance, have got the paying punters flocking in, and are no doubt boring them to tears with their blessed associations with Harry the Prince or Harry the Potter

Presumably, it’s now all “Prince Harry this” and “Prince Harry that” if you take the Eton option, while at Harrow they doubtless lean just as heavily on parts of the Harry Potter franchise having been filmed there. These schools have little else to offer.


Quick read: Schools with richest intakes get double extra funding

Funding: Heads most concerned about impact of tight budgets on education

Opinion: Why education is in a (very English) spot of bother


Meanwhile, the rest of us are surely missing a trick. We in the budget-battered sector could offer a far more exhilarating and lucrative package. In the morning we’d take them on “safari”. In the afternoon we could offer them the “Seven Great Wonders”. The brochure writes itself really… 

Morning safari: see the Big Five

Meet your guide at the entrance to the reserve mid-morning, and begin the spinetingling experience of spotting some of a school’s most exotic wildlife at feeding and watering times.

You’ll never have a better chance than this to tick-box the classic Big Five of the school game reserve, as they each gather at their respective watering holes and grazing grounds.

First on your itinerary are the famously stooping Screens, all seated in a row on their favoured perch. Marvel at how each, with a hanging head, nonchalantly devours their food and drink from one hand while their eyes stay firmly fixed on the device attached to the other. Occasionally, there might be a brief interchange and amused sharing of images with each other, but they rarely talk – not in the usual sense, anyway.

You are then taken further into the reserve, listening out for the first sounds coming from the more voluble Soaps. Expect a few fireworks here. Something will have kicked off, once again, probably involving either cheating, a barbed comment on social media or a party next weekend to which someone has controversially not been invited.

Next, it’s a quick stop at the Sci-Fi people, always safely tucked away from any predators in their own quiet corner, talking about stuff no one else seems to care about.

In the more open veldt, you’ll easily spot the Footies, carelessly hoofing a ball across the playground at each other while scoffing a panini. Be ready to duck.

If you’re lucky, you might get a rare glimpse of the Puffalo, a small group naturally more nomadic and elusive than the other wildlife. And, if you’re really lucky, you might even catch some of them performing the celebrated "roll-up" ritual. Breathtaking.

Afternoon: your amazing visit to the Seven Great Wonders 

The Famous Waterfall and Hanging Buckets of Babylon

This is an absolute must, particularly in the current rainy season. Be enthralled by the ingeniously improvised system of hanging and tipping buckets to drain away the magnificent, naturally formed waterfall bursting through parts of the school roof. Someone has perhaps daubed “record levels of funding” on the wall behind.

The Venice of the North 

The wet season is also the perfect time to admire the intricate system of canals and lakes that magically appear in even the most modern of schools.

The Great Wall

The most astonishing thing about the Great Wall is that it is completely invisible.

But you’ll marvel at how it winds its mystical way across the entire reserve: a transcendental age-barricade, making it seemingly impossible for a member of one year group to cross over and communicate with someone from another year group. (Other than the occasional “Give us our ball back!”)

You’ll notice that the wall even stretches into the sixth-form centre, where Year 12s and 13s still mark out their territory on either side of it. 

The Bike Sheds 

Wander amid the ancient racks and artisan roofing while your guide sits on a saddle, and tells some of the fabled “stories from the sheds”. Over the years, many are reputed to have snogged, fought, smoked, hidden or even just locked up their bicycles in or around this most evocative of locations. Pupils, too.

The Staffroom Museum

Spend a few minutes in the once-bustling school staffroom. Previously a smoke-filled den of resting, crossword-solving Bohemians, it’s now usually empty and reinventing itself as a fascinating, nostalgia-filled museum. The standout exhibit is the fine old wooden structure, containing what were known as “pigeonholes”. You might even get to see one or two older members of staff shuffling in to check the contents of their hole – more out of habit than anything else.

And be ready for a classic telling-off here! Your guide will invite you all to sit down on some of the now-deserted seats. Pick the wrong one and some teacher’s voice from yesteryear will boom: “Get out – that’s my chair”, thanks to a hidden sensor and speaker. Unmissable.

The Coliseum

Dating back to the 1970s, they used to say that this prefab ruin (now known to all as the coliseum) was only “temporary”. But, incredibly, it’s still fully functioning today and is loved by all. A massive, rumbling old heater compensates for the holes and general exposure to the elements. 

Geographically, it’s out on a limb, but it’s well worth the detour. Peer around the back, and you might spot some more puffalo.

The team room tea rooms

End your day by enjoying a complimentary cuppa at one of the school’s many friendly little team rooms. You might well be offered some of the best homemade cake in the country, courtesy of the angels who work in these places. Look out, too, for people quietly practising the traditional craft of “marking”, although none of them will be entirely sure why they are doing it.

The guide will ring an old school bell to mark the end of your tour. You will then be escorted from the premises. Do please make sure that you read the small print below before booking your visit.*

*Stay with your guide at all times. If you do wander off, expect to trigger a loud siren and lockdown, followed by a full-scale police and possibly military response, including your possible neutralisation. We cannot, of course, take any responsibility for personal injury or death incurred during your visit.

Stephen Petty is head of humanities at Lord Williams's School in Thame, Oxfordshire

Log in or register for FREE to continue reading.

It only takes a moment and you'll get access to more news, plus courses, jobs and teaching resources tailored to you