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Setting up a New Education Department – Developing Strategies and Forming Partnerships

Chris Millican, National Botanic Garden of Wales, Llanarthne, Carmarthenshire, Wales, UK

The National Botanic Garden of Wales opened on 24th May 2000, and has welcomed over 500,000 visitors, including over 30,000 learners to the education programmes. It is a £43.6 million project, built with funding from the Millennium Commission; £21.8m was raised from private and public sources in order to draw down an equal sum from the Millennium Commission. Now open, the Garden receives no grant in aid, and must raise revenue to cover all aspects of its operation. It is situated in rural West Wales about one hour’s drive from the capital city of Cardiff.

The Education Department provides programmes for three main groups of learners – school pupils, students of further and higher education and adults (accredited and non-accredited courses). We have built a variety of partnerships in the years prior to and since opening, to enable us to offer a wide range of courses to a large number of learners.

Partners include county councils, through the local education authorities, Education Business Partnerships, local schools (in both the state and private sector), other educational establishments (further education colleges and universities), charities, environmental education groups, museums and private sponsors.

Putting a Strategy in Place

When planning any new provision, there are three critical issues to consider: the audience you wish to target, your unique selling points and how to publicise your activities.

Who is the audience?
My remit on this was clear – the Garden was committed to provide plant and sustainability-based education for schools, colleges and universities and adult learners.

From discussion with other educational providers, it was clear that it is reasonably easy to attract large numbers of primary school children (aged 7–11), but harder to bring in other ages, particularly older students, and that most want to visit in the summer term. It was therefore necessary to develop strategies to attract older pupils and to spread visits over the year.

A year before opening there had already been interest from universities who had brought students to see the estate and the ongoing building work. Without additional marketing there were regular requests for guided tours, talks and lectures on a variety of topics – ecology, botany, sustainable development, architecture, landscape architecture and engineering. The only group targeted directly were students in teacher training, as I felt that these would be a good source of return visits with pupils.

In lifelong learning it was clear that there were many providers seeking funding from a relatively limited pool. The situation was made more difficult, since funding for further and higher education in Wales was undergoing a major reorganisation. From a pragmatic point of view it made sense to work with existing providers to offer accredited courses – allowing us to use their accreditation procedures, administration and marketing systems, whilst setting up courses purpose-made for the Garden.

In addition to formal education, I planned informal learning opportunities – holiday activities for children and families and Family Fun Weekends based on seasonal themes.

What unique features do you have to offer?

The most obvious answer is plants, but I also wanted to attract groups for whom this would not be an initial selling point, so it was important to think of the wider advantages of a visit to the Garden. These included:

  • an inspirational environment, both natural and man-made, which could act as a stimulus for work across the curriculum
  • national curriculum-linked programmes taught by Garden staff for early year groups (3–5 years), primary pupils (5-11 years), secondary pupils (11–16 years), and post-16 students (A-level and GNVQ)
  • plant collections from around the world and guides who could bring these alive for students. This could support the teaching of an area of the syllabus they found difficult
  • a variety of buildings and landscapes: some dating from the eighteenth century, others using the latest technology in their design and constructiona distinctively Welsh experience, including bilingual teaching and materials as required
  • a safe, enclosed site with good teaching facilities, suitable for all-year-round visits.

What is the most effective way to tell them what you have?
Without doubt the most effective marketing tool for schools was a teacher-training day, focusing on a particular school programme. This attracted teachers who may have heard of the Garden, or even visited before, but usually had very little idea of the educational facilities on offer. A high percentage of teachers attending training days went on to book visits for their pupils – this worked equally well with class teachers and head teachers. During the first two years, over 1000 teachers attended training days like this.

Before we opened in May 2000, I sent a booklet to all schools in Wales which set out the curriculum-linked programmes available and detailed the bookings procedure. This ensured that when the general publicity surrounding the opening of the Garden was at its height, schools had the information they needed to plan a visit. An updated version of this booklet has been sent to all schools, and to named teachers who have brought pupils on visits or attended training days with us, each year at Easter time.

The yearly mailing of the booklet was supplemented by brochures sent to local schools (within a one-hour travelling distance), to remind them of seasonal events e.g. Science Week activities, Japanese Week. This normally resulted in a flurry of last-minute bookings.

In addition to this, I wrote articles for newsletters, for company magazines e.g. those of the Garden’s sponsors and for specialist magazines such as Primary Geographer and the Times Education Supplement. Wherever possible we publicised our activities through the local media, making sure that there was enough topical information to make it useful to them.

Lifelong learning courses were publicised via leaflets produced three times a year. These were sent directly to members, made available to visitors and distributed via libraries, partner educational establishments etc. In a reciprocal arrangement, the National Museum of Wales sent our leaflets directly to all of its members. Whenever possible an editorial piece in the local press would give information about the range of new courses on offer.

First Steps– Setting up the Schools Programme

It seemed most sensible to concentrate on a small number of areas at first, and to build on these once we had feedback from schools. I initially decided to work with three topics:

  • Plants in Action – plants in the science syllabus
  • Wonderful Water – habitats and ecology, making use of the Water Discovery Centre
  • Everyday Choices – a sustainability trail on the site, linked to science and geography.

Carmarthen and Ceredigion Local Education Authority had committed £20,000 per year for the development of programmes and in-service training of teachers; this was to be taken as staff time and costs associated with development of materials. In total, they funded advisor time, the costs associated with releasing teachers from school (for meetings, to prepare work, and to bring pupils for trialling), transport costs for trialling and the translation of materials. There were several benefits for the Authority: the opportunity to influence programmes, teacher development, free visits for pupils, and reduced charges for teachers coming on subsequent teacher-training days.

Once materials were prepared we planned teacher-training days based on each of the programmes. All of our training days followed the same format, based on three sessions:

  • A tour of the Garden for teaching staff – this familiarised them with the resources on site, and helped them to plan how to use their free half-day with pupils
  • A pupils eye view of the visit – teachers would spend 2 hours following the same programme that their pupils would experience when they visited
  • Pre-visit and follow-up work: a two-hour session helping teachers to put the visit into context. This included suggestions for prior knowledge needed and consolidation work for pupils back in school, as well as cross-curricular links and ideas for resources.

These teacher-training days were advertised in the Local Education Authority training list sent to all schools. There were several advantages to this: the courses had the approval of the LEA and were endorsed by advisors; schools could transfer the cost from their training budget rather than having to pay cash; and the cost of the course was reduced to schools as part of the deal with the LEA. These factors ensured a healthy take-up of courses, resulting in subsequent school visits. The major benefit was that teachers were well prepared for the visit, and had planned the work as part of an extended teaching period, not a single day.

Following the same planning format, provision for schools has been extended to include:

  • Plants and Health – using the Physicians of Myddfai exhibition
  • Paths to Maths – a teacher-led pack for primary and secondary level
  • Step Back in Time – exploring the 18th century heritage of the Garden
  • A Very Special Tree – focusing on literacy and the Japanese Garden
  • Art at the Garden – a teacher-led pack of activities for primary and secondary pupils
  • Building the Garden – technology-based visits for secondary pupils
  • Genetics at the Garden – using the plant collection in the Wallace Garden
  • In addition to this all-year-round programme, there are seasonal activities designed to spread visits across the year.

Lifelong Learning – Reaching Out

A botanic garden should provide a stimulating environment for people of all ages to extend their learning. We sought to offer a variety of formal and informal learning opportunities to increase inclusion, and to attract a wider range of participants.

Initially we focused on working with existing providers who wanted to offer courses at the Garden. These were accredited courses lasting up to 30 weeks and likely to attract learners already involved in formal education. We have now run accredited courses in three subject areas and have a group of over 70 students regularly attending.

In addition to this we planned a number of independent, non-accredited courses, mostly lasting one or two days. The main aim of these courses was to appeal to new learners, with some providing access into longer courses. Many were skills rather than knowledge-based, and all were designed to be fun. The take-up of these courses was very strong, with some being repeated to meet demand. Examples of the most successful include Herbal Medicine, Willow Weaving, Local History, Practical Gardening and Ikebana.

In order to meet the needs of family groups and more casual visitors to the Garden, we developed a number of informal learning activities throughout the year. These included hands-on science sessions during school holidays, rainforest workshops, links to national events e.g. Big Garden Birdwatch with the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds, Family Fun for Science Week, and a themed Japanese Weekend. Since opening, over 2000 visitors have taken part in workshops, and many more have been involved in drop-in activities.
Working together – benefits for all

For a partnership to work in the long term, there must be benefits to both sides. Through careful negotiation we were able to set up a range of partnerships, resulting in successful ongoing relationships. Although the key to agreement included funding, it was more often important to establish what outcomes both sides wanted from the partnership, and to retain as much flexibility as possible in the early stages. This section gives a flavour of some of the partnerships established over the last three years.

Educational Partners

These included:

  • Local education authorities in programme development and teacher training courses
  • Education Business Partnerships – funding teachers to come on training days, organising teacher placements at the Garden to complete specified pieces of work e.g. planning and delivering A-level technology day and GNVQ Leisure and Tourism day
  • General Teaching Council – funding the secondment of a bilingual secondary science teacher for 12 weeks for teacher development
  • Local schools – free entry for pupils trialling or involved in publicity for new programmes; opportunities for pupils to carry out work experience or voluntary work in a variety of departments e.g. horticulture, education, visitor services
  • Special needs students at a local college involved in long-term work e.g. woodland area cleared and replanted, leading to cross-curricular work in languages, numeracy, art, technology. This resulted in a national award for the college involved
  • Tertiary colleges and universities delivering accredited courses on site e.g. botany, botanical Illustration, flower painting. Most of these are unique to the Garden and take advantage of the special resources of the site
  • Royal Society of Chemistry funds ‘Science and Energy Days’ twice yearly. Primary pupils have a lecture locally, and spend half a day on site in hands-on activities
  • Science Week funding to pay for the development of a new programme ‘Energy for Everyone’ and the launch event for Wales Science Week 2002.

Commercial Partners

These included:

  • The Principality Building Society provided money for the renovation of the Lifelong Learning Centre; Welsh Water funded the building of the Welsh Water Discovery Centre. These are the main teaching areas for education activities on site
  • Companies donated IT equipment and scientific equipment for schools’ use
  • Companies sponsored Family Fun Days and the development of new school programmes
  • Science and Plants for Schools (SAPS) paid to train the Education team to deliver their training days. The resulting teacher in-service training days at the Garden have been very popular, and raised awareness of how plants can be used more effectively in school teaching.

Partners Offering Indirect Advantages

These included:

  • A university-based distance-learning module in Welsh about the Garden. We benefited from a superb teaching resource accessible to large numbers of students
  • The Welsh Curriculum Authority commissioned a teaching resource for primary school geography, partially based on the Garden. We provided background information for the finished materials, which were provided free to every school in Wales. This raised awareness amongst pupils and teachers, and has resulted in a number of visits from schools who have used the case-study in class
  • Participants taking the Duke of Edinburgh Gold Award can opt to carry out the residential component at the Garden. They volunteer for a week in various departments across the Garden. This has generated very positive publicity across the UK
  • The Youth Hostel Association offers pre-booked packages to their visiting schools – this helps to publicise our programmes across the UK with schools who are visiting Wales, but might not have considered a visit to the Garden.

The Garden has succeeded in its main aim of attracting the three major groups of learners (Table 1).

Table 1 Learner groups

Periods School pupilsOther ed'l groups
Teacher-trainingLifelong learners
May 2000 –
Mar 2001
6260 963 534 1283 9040
Apr 2001 –
Mar 2002
9671 1546 550 3413 15180
Apr 2002 –
Aug 2002
5116 922 62
338 6438
Totals 21047 3431 1146 5034 30658

Further to this, we have spread groups across the year using a variety of special events and seasonal activities (Table 2).

Table 2 Percentage distribution of learner group visits

Periods School pupilsOther ed'l groups
Teacher-trainingLifelong learners
Apr – Jul 39.6 21.5
Aug - Nov 22.3 40.6
Dec - Mar 37.1 37.8


Collaboration has reduced the duplication of programmes and resources, and has helped to fund our unique programmes. We have 18 curriculum-linked schools’ programmes, have run 60 teacher-training days and over 50 courses for adults. This breadth and variety would not have been possible without successful partnerships with others in the education sector and beyond.