Education & Family

Learning aboard the floating classroom

Pupils aboard the Elsdale II
Image caption Learning is a different experience on board the floating classroom

In a quiet spot on the Grand Union Canal, just behind where Southall Tesco stands today, there once bobbed a floating classroom.

It served the children who worked on the canals with their families in the 1930s, allowing them to go to school just one day a week.

Eighty years on, an environmental charity has brought that tradition back to life, offering local pupils an educational journey along the same canal.

Image caption Michael Moritz is a former high school teacher

"The children who come on the boat don't really understand what the canal is, they either think it is a river or they think it is a sewer, because everybody throws their rubbish in," says Michael Moritz, the education manager on the West London Floating Classroom.

"It's quite a shock for them when they come on the boat and find out it's over 200 years old."

The project, run by environmental charity Groundwork Thames Valley, serves some quite deprived parts of Hillingdon, Hayes and Ealing.

'Victorian M1'

And most of the children who come on the barge the Elsdale II - named after the original floating classroom of the 1930s - have never been on a boat before, explains Michael.

This is certainly true of the group of 10 and 11-year-olds from Featherstone Primary and Nursery School who come on board for a special end of term day out.

Anila Das, the parent support adviser at the Southall school, who organised the trip, says: "The parents of these children don't take them out to places very much, so this is a real treat.

"For them to find out about Southall and their local area, they really need to be out there."

The boat picks the children and the school staff up from a mutually convenient spot on the canal.

And as they set off on their journey, Michael explains the importance of the canal network to trade in Victorian times.

Image caption Idil appreciates the different experience

"The Grand Union Canal was the Victorian equivalent of the M1 motorway," he says.

And through a series of games and quizzes, the children learn about what it was like to live and work on the canal.

They also get glimpses of wildlife fluttering and paddling by.

Former secondary school teacher Michael says: "As a teacher in a school there's a need to be formal and strict.

"But when you are going to see children for only a couple of hours you need to build a relationship with them super-quick - you have to do that by making it fun."

And the pupils seem to appreciate the informal interactive style on board the Elsdale II.

Eleven-year-old Idil is one of those who has never been on a boat before.

She is particularly interested in the original floating classroom and the lives of the children who used it.

Lasting memory

She says: "I think they wanted to go to school but they didn't have a choice. Makes you see how lucky you are."

Image caption The pupils get the chance to dress as Victorian canal children

And there is an interesting parallel here, because some of the children Mrs Das chose to come on the trip were picked because of their poor attendance records.

"We've been trying to engage their parents and get them more involved. It's certainly worked today because they have all turned up for the trip," she says.

"The thing is - being on the boat is a different learning experience.

"You could do this in class but they would not get so much out of it.

"What they get out of today, they will remember and take with them," she adds.

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