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The modern photonics and optical communications industries have placed ever increasing demands on the supply of skilled graduates who are competent in the design, installation and operation of photonics systems. In response to this demand, we have developed a range of photonics laboratory teaching experiments to support accompanying lecture courses by underpinning fundamental principles with hands-on experimental experience. These systems enable students and trainees to investigate experimentally the basic principles, characteristics, and design of optical waveguides, optical communications systems, optical amplifiers and fault location techniques for optical networks, with additional scope for open-ended investigation of real technical issues such as mode spectrum analysis in optical waveguide and optical pulse dispersion/bit rate limits in fiber communications systems. The educational and overall system design philosophies, hardware,and experiments are reported in this paper.