Whatever the tabloids say, the royal family is still a huge attraction. Stephanie Northen finds its palaces can be used for teaching more than history
The squabble over whether the family Windsor is to be relaunched in a Pounds 60 million floating gin palace clearly left many of Her Majesty's taxpayers feeling a little seasick. Defenders of the monarchy tried to calm their stomachs with the argument that HM needs a big boat to whip up trade and tourism.
In 1995, 5 million people visited royal properties, but, despite the healthy circulation of Hello! magazine, the reasons may not be as voyeuristic as sceptics would have us believe. The Tower of London is the country's top tourist attraction - 2.5 million visitors in 1995 while Windsor Castle took third place with 1.2 million - but these figures should be compared with the staggering 7 million who went to Versailles in republican France last year. Perhaps a dead monarchy has as many uses as a living one.
If the Queen is on shaky ground in terms of tourism, could she at least claim to be good for education? Does a living monarch make history come alive for children?
According to the Historic Royal Palaces Agency, most people visit royal property for "educative reasons". History was made in these houses and social history embodied in the way they were run. Their rooms are brimful of antiques, while art hangs on the walls, is painted on the ceilings and carved in the fireplaces. The royal collection is estimated to number 500,000 pieces - few are brazen enough to estimate its real value.
There has certainly been a renewed effort at some royal properties to improve facilities for schools. Last year, Windsor Castle opened a new education centre (see box right) and three years ago both Hampton Court and Her Majesty's private residence of Sandringham in Norfolk revamped their school programmes. Kensington Palace is preparing a big relaunch in 1998.
Young people need a "hands-on experience of our heritage", says Dickie Arbiter, director of media affairs at Royal Collection Enterprises Ltd (RCL) which looks after the contents of all the royal palaces. RCL is involved in the running of the big three official residences: Windsor, Holyroodhouse in Edinburgh and Buckingham Palace.
The new centre at Windsor was "a must", Dickie Arbiter says, while RCL is considering setting up an education centre at Holyroodhouse. Buck House, however, offers schools very little. The state apartments are closed most of the year and even the Queen's Gallery and the Royal Mews, both of which have more generous opening hours, do not run regular educationprogrammes.
Despite presiding over such a vast and valuable resource, Her Majesty does not apparently take any direct involvement in what is being offered to her youngest subjects. Staff at her residences say only that she is "kept informed".
An education programme relies on the commitment of individuals such as Gillian Dawson, the enthusiastic mastermind of Hampton Court's varied schools programme, and Gill Pattinson, the public access manager at Sandringham.
Three years ago, Gill Pattinson set down on paper how schools might use Edward VII's country house to help their teaching of the national curriculum. Sandringham offers a way into science and technology, social studies, art, English, environmental studies and, of course, history. One rather daring suggestion to help 12 to 14-year-olds study the use of historical sources is "consider bias, either for against the royal family, when reporting news".
Does the prospect of catching a glimpse of our tabloid royals inspire children? Audrey Laing, deputy visitor manager at Windsor, says that school parties might get excited if the flag is up, signalling that the Queen is in residence, but otherwise they are happy to get on with their work on Henry II and early castle development.
And it is the adults, not the children, who want to know where Diana, queen of hearts, keeps the clothes she hasn't sold, according to Sue Whittaker, who co-ordinates Kensington Palace's education service. Pupils prefer to busy themselves trying on robes from the royal ceremonial dress collection or imagining what life would have been like for the young princess Victoria who grew up there.
At Caernarfon Castle, groups of schoolchildren clutching their worksheets stride purposefully past American tourists who, ignoring the "Keep off the grass" signs, take pictures of the empty dais where Charles was invested as Prince of Wales in 1969.
Before teachers are accused of, or praised for, spreading rampant republicanism, it should be said that the nation's children are not immune to the mystique of majesty, or at least to the scandal and intrigue that often accompanies it. The Queen might extract some comfort from the fact that no member of her dysfunctional family is - yet - in the same league as the man who holds all the court cards when it comes to child-appeal: Henry VIII.
Last year, one young visitor wrote a thank-you letter to Hampton Court, whose Tudor sessions are sold out until the end of April, saying: "The monarch's behaviour was not as good as ours today but they did a lot of sport." Another confessed: "It was good to learn about Henry VIII. He was a very bad king because he did not rule the world. He did fun things like dancing, playing tennis and writing music."
The Tower of London "could do nothing but Tudors and still be booked up all year", according to Mark Folwell, an administrative officer at its education centre, which is used by about 14,000 children a year. Its programmes are prepared by teachers on the staff. It tries to make children aware of Henry's brutal side as it was in this fortress that he kept some of his most famous prisoners: Thomas More, his former Chancellor, Anne Boleyn, wife number two, and Catherine Howard, wife four. For Catherine he prepared a treat: adorning a bridge that she passed on the way to the tower were the spiked heads of her two lovers.
Some of the reactions the staff get to their tales of the terrible Tudors suggest that Henry's genes linger on. One child wrote: "The torture weapons were very good!!!! I liked the cannons and swords and King Henry's armour had the biggest codpiece I've ever seen."
Of course, many royal properties cannot rely on Henry appeal, but most have suitably ghoulish substitutes. A child favourite at Holyroodhouse is the room where David Rizzio, friend and secretary to Mary, Queen of Scots, was murdered in front of her by a gang of nobles led by the queen's husband.
One of the most notorious events in English history can be studied at London's Banqueting House, all that remains of the royal Palace of Whitehall. In 1649 Charles I was led through Inigo Jones's beautiful building and out on to a scaffold.
An activity sheet given to children recently asked them to ponder why the second Stuart king was executed in public. Answer: to prove that he was really dead and secure the nation some valuable educational resources without the running costs of a royal family.
(Only joking, your Majesty I) ROYAL PALACES OPEN TO SCHOOL GROUPS
* Windsor, one of the Queen's three official residences, is England's largest castle. The site was chosen by William the Conqueror. The Berkshire fortress has been a home to a sovereign ever since.
* Its new education centre "has been a long time coming, but is something we always said we would do", according to Audrey Laing, deputy visitor manager.
* The centre, which has four classrooms and can cater for up to 170 children a day, is in a mews house two minute's walk from the castle's main entrance.
* In order to provide a structure to the children's visits the castle's schools programme has developed four themes in consultation with teachers. They are: Henry II and early castle development; the Stuart kings; Queen Victoria and empire; the castle and monarchy today.
* Children can follow trails round the castle using activity sheets on these themes.
* The school visits programme runs throughout the year. A visit to the education centre comes with a teacher's pack. Child admission Pounds 4, one adult free with every 10 children.Tel: 01753 868286.
Education Show stand SJ15
State rooms open in August and September only. Queen's Gallery and Royal Mews open all year. No special arrangements for schools.Tel: 0171 930 4832
PALACE OF HOLYROODHOUSE, EDINBURGH.
School parties from November to March. Free entry.Tel: 0131 556 7371.
BALMORAL CASTLE, ABERDEENSHIRE
Open May-July. Under-16s free, one adult free with every 4 to 5 children. Admission only to ballroom and carriage house. Ring first.Tel: 013397 42334.
Extensive school visits programme from March 28 to July 21 and August 7 to October 5. Price: (house, museum and grounds) 5-15-year-olds Pounds 2.50, students Pounds 3.50. One free teacher with every 10 children.Tel: 01553 772675.
TOWER OF LONDON
Sessions on wide range of topics for all ages run from September to July. Most are free. Teacher's notes available for those who want to visit tower independently. Tel: 0171 488 5658.
Extensive education programme for all ages on offer until April. Programmes from May to July can be arranged on request. Prices vary, some special rates available.Tel: 0181 781 9554.
KENSINGTON PALACE, LONDON
Undergoing resoration. Some programmes available. Tel: 0171 376 2858.
BANQUETING HOUSE, LONDON
Open all year but can be closed at short notice for public functions. Concessionary rates for pre-booked parties. Tel: 0171 930 4170.
CAERNARFON CASTLE, GWYNEDD
Open all year. School parties admitted free. Audio-visual show: 50p per child; historic tour Pounds 15 per party. Book 8 days in advance.Tel: 01286 677617.
ROYAL PAVILION, BRIGHTON
Open all year. Guided tours (minimum charge Pounds 20). Entrance for under-16s Pounds 2.50. One adult free for every 1-20 pupils. Brighton and Hove groups free.Tel: 01273 603005.
OSBORNE HOUSE, ISLE OF WIGHT
Queen Victoria's country retreat. Open March 22 to October 31. On-site education centre. Schools should apply in advance for free admission.Tel: 01983 200022.