Yvonne Lawrence, Chelmsford Museum, reflects on her developing work with home educated groups.
There is a large body of parents in Essex who elect to home educate their children. There are many reasons for this, and they are supported by Essex County Council and a range of self-led groups, some of whom organise formal learning sessions with Chelmsford Museums.
With museum education we are used to starting with very little prior information about the participants compared to a school teacher and when working with a group of home educated children this challenge is magnified because the age and ability range is very much larger, typically with participants aged between 4 to 12. There may be additional special needs including those on the autistic spectrum, with ADHD, dyslexia or with social, behavioural or emotional difficulties. Often there is a participant in the group who has a special interest in the subject who will be extremely knowledgeable alongside others who know much less. In an ideal world we would like a full list of participants and any special needs and are working towards this, acknowledging that the situation is much more complex for the visit organiser than for a school.
Chelmsford Museum has been working in partnership with group organisers to ensure that home educated children are able to participate in our history, science and Arts Award sessions at both the main museum and at Sandford Mill. Our first big decision was to limit the group size to a maximum of 17 participants with whole group staying together during the session and led by one tutor. Given that most participants come with an adult and perhaps a younger sibling or two, this still leads to more people in the room than a standard class and in retrospect we should perhaps have made the limit smaller-perhaps as few as ten participants. But this would be comparatively expensive for parents/carers as we would still have to cover the tutoring costs and splitting them between fewer people means more cost per person. Where the visit organiser wanted to book more than one session we explored ways in which younger children could book the morning session whilst older ones came to the afternoon session. This was reasonably successful.
Home educated children have the luxury of learning at their own pace with a very flexible child-centred learning experience. Unlike a school with set break times and lunch hour, we found that the children seemed to be constantly grazing, eating snacks during the sessions. The participants and younger siblings would then touch the artefacts, which really wasn’t doing the artefacts any good and posed a hygiene hazard. We can’t just put our artefacts in a washing up bowl, after all! So we worked with the group organiser to request that parents were advised of a no-eating rule in the sessions and why this was important, plus reinforcing the need to wash hands after eating. We provided a trolley outside our education room for food and drinks; and we made a positively-worded request at the start of each session explaining why this was needed and and making it clear people were welcome to step out to eat whenever they wanted to.
To deal with the wide variety of ages, abilities and interests we adapted the format of the sessions to include a very short introduction and overview of what the session entailed with expectations for behaviour – participants and adults! People responded very positively and I think it helped everyone get the most out of the experience. Typically setting expectations involves explaining the session format and establishing rules such as one person speaking at a time and putting their hand up if they wanted to ask a question during the introduction. For parents it is worth mentioning active involvement, supervising their children, turning phones to silent and the eating-outside rule. I always then check if that is OK with the group so we can all get the most out of the learning experience. Fortunately the answer to that question has always been ‘yes’!
It can be hard to identify which children are taking part in the session so we have tried to set up a separate starter area for participants and parents/siblings. At the museum we often use foam mats on the floor for those taking part during the initial introduction, with parents/siblings seated behind and around them. Once we establish our participants we start by asking a few questions to establish prior knowledge before introducing tables with a range of different activities linked to the topic. It works well not to try to regiment the movement of participants as much as a school group, so we normally suggest the participants go off to explore the activities in any order giving an overall time limit to help people plan. The tables have information cards for the adults with suggested activities, and the only advice we gave was to try to choose tables that weren’t too busy rather than all crowding around the same one. There are times when we had to accept that a participant was finding it more interesting to sit in the corner playing games on their phone instead of taking part in the session. They had their reasons, and we take the view that whilst it was our responsibility to provide suitable learning activities it was the participants’ responsibility to engage with them during the session and the supervising adults’ responsibility to intervene (or not) when it came to level of participation.
At the end of each session we come together to discuss what the participants had discovered and answer any questions that arose. Although most of our sessions normally run for two hours, timings are much more fluid with home educator groups and if we do finish a little earlier – or later – that is what we do. At the end of each session, it is very rewarding to note the number of participants and parents who come up to us to thank us for running the session. As one mum said to me recently “We appreciate what you are doing. We know we aren’t the easiest groups to work with because we are all so different so thank you.” And that’s what makes it all worthwhile for us – being able to make that difference!