The Floating Classroom – ‘Shamefully these experiences are becoming a luxury’

The last 12 months have not been easy but Chief exec, Simon Ryder, shares how they have risen to the challenges.

Simon Ryder runs The Floating Classroom, a huge electric barge moored in Paddington. It is used to teach school children, families and community groups whilst travelling along the Grand Union and Regent’s Canals.

‘Everything we do is shaped by the environment where the activities take place – on a boat on a canal in London – and the belief that we learn best when we’re enjoying ourselves.

Cranking open the lock at Camden helps to make sense of an abstract topic like water forces and learning about bugs is a lot more fun when you’re turning over rocks and logs to find them, rather than staring at a laminated worksheet in a classroom. It’s hands-on, visceral engagement with the natural world that encourages curiosity, delights in discovery and the sheer enjoyment of learning.

Shamefully, these experiences are coming to be regarded as luxuries. Budgets for trips like ours are squeezed and the pressure to cover “key” areas of the curriculum means teachers have fewer opportunities to take pupils out of school to learn. Our challenge is to keep our trips affordable (running a boat is inherently expensive) and – when the alternative is a free trip to the Natural History Museum – to ensure our learning programme is exceptional.

To tackle the first of these, we have become increasingly entrepreneurial. We market the boat for commercial hire as the Electric Barge. After a steady start, we have seen a big increase in these activities over the last two years. We have hosted all sorts of events, from birthday parties to Frieze Art Fair to serving as the green room for the cast of Paddington 2.

It’s been bumpy, but we’ve learnt something from every event we have delivered and it is now bearing fruit. Commercial hire income now accounts for a significant chunk of our income, to the extent that early in 2016 we set up a trading subsidiary for the charity.

As a way of working, it is unpredictable and demanding; it asks us to respond quickly and creatively. It flies in the face of so much of the way we operate – or are required to operate – as charities: planned, monitored and scrutinised to determine value for money and impact. As such, it stretches us all the time, but it also prompts us to be bold across the whole of what we do.

Consequently, we threw ourselves into a blizzard of activity. Channelling the boldness I mentioned, we jettisoned the previously piecemeal approach to refreshing and renewing our learning programmes for schools and engaged one of our associate teachers to work on it full-time for three months. We now have a slate of curriculum-relevant modules covering every stage of primary schooling that excite and engage pupils in hands-on learning experiences.

Beyond schools, we piloted a family learning project that saw local parents and children take part in activities including storytelling, pond-dipping, mini-beast hunting, speedboat riding and paddle-boarding. It was a blissful experience: bonds were strengthened both within and between participating families; confidence and a sense of what is possible were increased and the obvious enjoyment of everyone taking part hit you between the eyes. This is why we do what we do.

It’s a job that can have you howling (not always metaphorically) with frustration and in the next instant, it can light you up with what it’s possible to achieve. Coming to the end of a 12-month period that has tested us like no other (propulsion-system battery failures, staff turnover, etc.) it is enormously heartening to feel that we have managed to harness the commercial imperative to achieving social and educational benefits for the communities we serve.

I don’t expect things to get any easier over the next 12 months, I’m not sure I’d know how to handle it if they did. However, I think we can face the future galvanised by the renewed and reinvigorated focus on how we fulfil our charitable purpose and clear that our commercial activity is purely in the service of this.’

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