Gillian Thomas joins a group of primary children for a fascinating insight into the work and history of the Bank of England
A glittering pyramid of gold bars attracts rapt attention when 29 children from Chrysolyte School arrive at the Bank of England Museum, in the bank's famous building in the City of London. Disappointment spreads across their faces when they learn that the bars are only fakes. But they are soon consoled when they are allowed to hold a real bar worth pound;90,380, by putting their hands into its closely guarded glass case. It weighs more than 12 kilograms.
The museum covers the bank's history from its foundation by royal charter in 1694, through documents, photos, models, artefacts and interactive screens.
"Education is a very important aspect of the bank's work", says Maxine Self, the education and museum officer. "It's basic to the long-term stability of the UK's economy that everyone understands two of the bank's key roles: controlling inflation and maintaining trust in the notes it issues. During school visits we try to get these messages across."
The bank has recently revamped its programme for school visits. It has produced new worksheets and a lively video called Pounds Pence, aimed mainly at 9 to 11-year-olds (another version for those aged 14-16 is due later this year).
"I thought we'd see lots and lots of money," chirps one pupil when Maxine introduces the video at the beginning of their visit.
In a clearly explained and entertaining way, it introduces the children to terms such as inflation and interest rates, which are unfamiliar to most of them.
The questions that follow range from: "Where is all the bank's gold kept?"
to "Does a general election affect the bank?", and clearly show that the pupils have a natural interest in money, and also grasp the basics of how the bank operates.
Facts about banknotes fascinate them most of all, particularly that "economies of scale" means each one costs only 3p to produce - despite having watermarks, holograms, intricate raised printing and a special metallic thread to deter forgeries, which could lead to a loss of trust.
"I just thought money was for spending, but now I realise how it could all go wrong," says Nathan Drummond, age 10. "If you didn't trust the notes, they'd be useless."
At the end of her presentation, Maxine hands out large sheets of pound;10 and pound;20 notes, secured in plastic, for pupils to handle. It's another highlight of the visit.
Then they go round the bank's well-laid out museum guided by worksheets, which draw attention to important facts in the displays: such as the introduction of watermarks (1697) and when coloured notes were first issued (1928). The main section is a recreation of the original Stock Office, designed by Sir John Soane in 1793, complete with lofty plasterwork ceiling, pillars and polished counters. Early banking documents, printing equipment and a rare collection of silver are on display in glass cases around it.
In the adjoining Rotunda, the pupils are fascinated by a display of old weapons once used to guard the bank's gold.
As the visit ends, the children's teacher, Rally Ikiebe, realises that she's forgotten to remind the children to bring pocket money to buy souvenirs. No matter. Those who have brought some are quick to offer loans to their classmates and, using their newly acquired knowledge, insist they have to pay interest. Obviously a lesson well learned.
* Free group visits (minimum 15, maximum 45) must be booked in advance.
Tel: 020 7601 38333951 www.bankofengland.co.ukeducation To order Pounds Pence resource packs (up to three free packs per school), which include videoDVD, activity cards, teachers' notes and poster, tel: 0870 242 5572
On the map
Bank of England Museum Threadneedle Street London EC2R 8AH Tel: 020 7601 5545 www.bankofengland.co.ukeducationmuseum