It is a voyage of discovery for many visitors to Hooke Court, where pupils and teachers can experience different approaches to the curriculum. Paul Newman reports
A thriving Roman settlement is the last thing you'd expect to find in rural Dorset, yet among the untamed hedgerows and dusty byways of Hardy country an ancient civilisation stirs.
Artisans skilfully fashion jewellery from precious metals, weavers manipulate wool to create togas and a team of enthusiastic cooks prepares rustic fare to feed the legions. But these are no conquerors from southern Europe, the would-be Romans are Year 6 pupils from Netheravon's All Saints CEprimary, in Wiltshire, and they're experiencing one of the living history programmes offered by Hooke Court residential centre. Later, they'll dress as Roman soldiers and discover the art of mosaic making.
Hooke Court is a 600-year-old mansion set amid 14 acres of countryside near Dorchester. Run by the husband-and-wife team of head Sarah and deputy head Chris McConnell, the centre can provide tailored educational programmes for key stage 2 or a safe and comfy base for secondary schools wanting to run their own activities in the area.
A range of three-day courses that compliment key stage 2 are offered year-round, including Roman invaders, life in Tudor times, evacuees to Dorset, and science and technology. The centre also takes full advantage of its close proximity to Dorset's Jurassic coast to provide coastal geography-flavoured excursions.
A typical day at Hooke involves a mixture of classroom-based teaching in themed locations, such as the Saxon hut in the centre's grounds or its own authentic Tudor rooms, plus outdoor activities and visits to local sites.
Facilities are impressive, with comfortable dormitories and a common room that doubles as a classroom, and a staff lounge for weary teachers. Meals are served from a kitchen that favours healthy local produce, while an obstacle course and "kwik" cricket are a fun way to exercise.
What do the children think of Hooke Court? It's a unanimous thumbs-up.
"I've been on the obstacle course and playing cricket," says 11-year-old Jack, as he carefully plucks nettle leaves to make Roman soup. And the best thing? "Probably playing cricket."
That fulfils the fun part of Hooke Court's "where learning and fun combine" mission statement, but what about the educational part? "I like the cooking because everyone gets involved," says Lauren, 11. "It helps me make friends." Her comments vindicate the centre's emphasis on teamwork. Many children are in their final year of primary education. By getting them to work in teams outside the comfort of their regular group of friends, the centre is preparing them for the challenges secondary school will pose.
Pupils aren't the only beneficiaries, though. Teachers find the strain of single-handedly supervising a large group temporarily lifted and there's a chance to pick up new teaching techniques. "I'm having a whale of a time," says Year 6 teacher Kate Chisnall. "It allows the children to experience a different perspective from a different teacher - we're covering the curriculum, but in a different way."
With the centre's field tutors leading sessions, Kate is delighted to discover how rewarding it can be to work with her pupils in smaller groups.
She also finds the themed learning experience helps to stimulate children who might have opted out under different circumstances.
"There are boys who don't like history, and in the classroom environment they might have chosen to do the bare minimum. Here they want to muck in and get involved. The practical and kinaesthetic approach is working for them," she says.
So, Hooke Court is hugely popular with pupils and teachers alike. Can there be greater praise?
Hooke Court Education Centre, tel: 01308 862260; www.hookecourt.co.uk