Wild about education

Date Posted: 01/04/2015

Bob O’Connor, managing director of Port Lympne and Howletts Wild Animal Trust talks about an educational offering that’s been going more than 40 years.

Part of the Aspinall Foundation, both Howletts Wild Animal Park in Canterbury and Port Lympne Reserve in Kent, offer educational opportunities inspired by both the concepts of conservation and the National Curriculum.

Between them, the attractions provide homes for hundreds of animals, from gorillas and rhinos to big cats. Visiting schools can take part in everything from talks and guided educational safari-style experiences, to camp-style sleep-overs.

Bob O’Connor has been the managing director for both parks for more than a decade, and has seen the educational offering grow with both parks. 

Q. How long have Port Lympne and Howletts been offering educational visits?

A. Schools have been coming here since the mid 1970’s. Typically we get 35,000 to 40,000 school children per year, which is several hundred schools.

Q. How big is the education team at each venue?

We have two full time and two part time presenters, they are supported by our keeper and ranger staff. We cater for all ages – between five and 18.

Q. Why does it matter to your foundation to offer educational trips and experiences?

A. It matters for several reasons. Firstly, as a conservation charity it is crucial we make youngsters as well as adults aware of what’s happening with wildlife on our world. Secondly, money generated by these trips helps fund our overseas projects. Finally, by building relationships with children maybe we can educate future generations.

Q. What do you think pupils and students get from a visit to you that they can’t yet elsewhere?

A. A good fun day out. It’s outdoors, there’s lots of walking and fresh air, we can produce worksheets for children from Infant to High School and we can cover not only conservation, but Mathematics, Science, History and Geography.

Q. What’s the most unique/memorable experience you offer children who visit?

A. Definitely the overnight stays, whether that’s camping at Elephant Lodge or our new Ecopods at Pinewood, it’s a truly immersive experience.

Q. Your education packs have been developed in line with the National Curriculum. Can you tell me a bit about the process involved in this?

A. Yes, by ensuring we work to national standards we can ensure we cover all Key Stages of a child’s education, working with schools and education authorities ensures we are relevant.

Q. How do you keep up to date with changes in the National Curriculum?

A. Great relationships with schools and education authorities.

Q. Do you get a lot of feedback from your school visitors? If so, what’s the best ‘good news’ story you have heard back from a trip?

A. We do get lots of lovely feedback from our school visitors and we particularly enjoy hearing about how the pupils were inspired by our conservation methods. One really good news story that springs to mind is of a pupil who requested to return to the parks in their own time to work as a keeper for the day.

Q. What are the most popular education experiences at Port Lympne and Howletts and why do you think they are the favourites?

A. This very much depends on the age of the children, but everybody loves the African Safari experience.

Q. You are just launching new pod accommodation. How do you think that will improve the experience schools can have at Port Lympne?

A. This will be a really immersive experience, sleeping close to endangered tigers and lions, talks about British wildlife around the campfire – it’s something really unique.

Q. You seem to be constantly developing what you offer. What’s next?

A. Yes we have to keep changing, the next big this year will be the opening of our Tree-house Hotel in May.

Q. How do you help teachers prepare for visits?

A. We can produce full packages ready for teachers to just roll up with the kids and we can completely structure the day.

Q. What’s the funniest story you have heard from feedback on a school visit?

A. We had some great feedback from a school who visited Port Lympne Reserve, at the same time as a black rhino arrived with us from another collection, as part of our breeding programme with these endangered species. They loved seeing the rhino arrive in the car park, just as they were boarding their bus to leave!

School Travel Organiser's Guide