Top of the Class – A Museums Association and Group for Education in Museums Seminar

In April, Phil Ainsley of the East Anglian Railway Museum attended this MA/GEM run seminar day looking at museums and schools. Phil was able to attend due to a grant from Essex Cultural Development. Here are his thoughts on the day:

I was immersed into a lecture theatre filled with representatives from all over England, including some heavy weights such as British Museum and Library – yet we all, big and small, have similar challenges to face. Maintaining school visits being one of them.

Museums have traditionally found a relatively easy connection between education and their ability to offer schools visits. Times have changed significantly recently, with schools adhering to the scriptures of a revised chronological curriculum. Museums need to maintain or increase educational visit numbers for income.

A disruptive disconnect had taken place through the process of change. Schools staff are pressed by their auditor (Ofsted) to satisfy up-rated professional standards.  Museum’s are being disadvantaged by the need to satisfy demonstrable learning outcomes.

Schools and academies are increasingly run by more independently,  it was widely reported no cosy relationship exists – anywhere!  New alliances will be built up on individual relationships, as they are re-established then these connections should be cherished.

Most educational advance is delivered without outside visits – it takes a leap of faith stepping outside and offering children a visit. Heritage learning has a big strength, as it links the visitor away from C21 life into unfamiliar territory, forcing a learning or enquiring mind set . As there may be a lesser number of electronic distractions this is a plus! Museums are a place where the young may interact with “inspiring adults” who can enthuse, stimulate thought, and demonstrate. Through unusual objects, show children a contrast to the familiar and everyday

Schools visits are almost exclusively undertaken a primary age children, while many might like to enthuse an older age range, is was universally accepted that is a tough nut to crack. So don’t fret and deliver what you are not comfortable with. Schools offerings should be delivered with consistency, so it was recommended that your collection must be the prime focus –  your curatorial task is to find the link between collection objects and educational goals (noted below).

A museum visit should have some outcomes, it may be it re-enforces what’s been introduced at school, or an opportunity to see new objects or see new activity that can’t be seen in a school building. You may want to pose a question at the beginning of a visit to be answered towards the end.

Visits therefore are more of a lifestyle choice of the schools teaching staff promoter (normally a subject co-ordinator) and the head to sanction the visit.

Best practice is to find historical themes that are not set in any one time period, as the recent changes teach history chronologically. Therefore sweet spots to concentrate on include:

  • In living memory
  • Local History
  • A significant turning point in history

Some school measures may include attention to

  • Spiritual, Moral, Social and British values
  • Heritage
  • Diversity

Which if demonstrated by your collection, will give the necessary specific curriculum value required back at school.

Post visit evaluation therefore is of value to ensure learning took place. Certainly a feedback form – what may be developed together make a stronger connection – even better a dialogue should take place – “How was it for you?”

An alternative approach is a form of outreach through use of loan boxes these can be promoted by web sites, or a link out to “Flickr” ( or any alternative photo-sharing website).

As children are our target audience, then their questions, thoughts and feedback is most important. Adult museum and teaching staff need to concentrate on their observations experiences and questions arising from the day’s visit.

Homework on schools.

Schools with the highest pupil premium may be good candidates for alternative methods of teaching away from the school building. You could read the OFSTED report on schools to identify good points and potential weakness. It can be the weakness you try and address – in this find a path to improve their score.

Normally there would be a named teacher leading in a specific subject area. School newsletters may report on previous visits – in all cases the first person to speak with is probably the school secretary – so never forget them!

Teachers time is a very finite resource, it is suggested any contact is in the “twilight hours” (immediately after lessons 3.00-4.30)

For details of forthcoming Museums Association events, visit their website. The GEM annual conference is in September and details can be found here.

If there is a training day or event that your museum could benefit from attending, but requires financial assistance contact your MDO to discuss potential funding sources.

SHARE Children and Young People’s Conference 2015

On Wednesday 4th February, SHARE Museums East and ROH & NNF Bridges ran their third annual Children & Young People Conference at Coleridge Community College, Cambridge. “Object Lessons 2- Celebrating Creativity and Partnerships in work with Children and Young People” was attended by museum staff, volunteers and freelancers from throughout the region and the full programme can be found here.

Catherine Hammond, Education and Outreach Officer for Epping Forest and Lowewood Museum Services, shares her thoughts and experiences of the day:

“I had really been in two minds about attending the SHARE conference.  As is so often the case, with so much to do and so little time, a day in the office catching up with current projects seemed a good option. But, once again the conference proved a good reminder of the importance of getting out, sharing ideas and experiences, and most of all being inspired by the huge amount of talent and creativity within the sector.
The day got off to a good start with a warm welcome by Bev Jones, head teacher of Coleridge Community College, our base for the day.  Bev’s commitment to developing creativity and a sense of community amongst the students in her school and recognising the role museums can play in this make her a great advocate for our sector.
The keynote speakers all set clear messages for the day – Susan Raikes, from the British Museum gave a timely reminder that ultimately it is the objects in our collections that are at the centre of memorable, inspirational learning experiences.  Paul Collard gave us some fascinating case studies of putting creativity at the heart of learning, what this can look like and what it can achieve for young people.
The breakout session ‘Why should I bother with arts award’ by Ancient House Museum in Thetford, answered the question very well. I was convinced to give it another go in our museum by the demonstration of very simple but highly effective ways of delivering it as part of an existing programme.  There was also a wonderful bonus presentation by a member of the teenage history club at the museum, a wonderful advocate for the benefits such a group could bring both to young people and the museum itself.  I very much hope they get their funding to visit Japan to develop their project on flint – to inspire such ambition and ideas among young people was a testament to how much confidence this group had given them.
After a good lunch, the breakout session on Lifelines, the Start Hospices project by the Fitzwilliam Museum was a very informed presentation about the value of working with families with life limited children and the practicalities of what such work can involve.  It was particularly interesting to hear how much support was available from practitioners within the hospice movement itself, from psychologists who could help with managing the personal and emotional challenges of working with this group to family workers, art and play therapists.
Jo Roberts’ presentation on establishing a framework for professional development was a timely reminder of how important it is to place a value on our skills and experiences to ensure museums do recognise the value of having  experienced practitioners in learning roles at a time when many museums are facing cutbacks.
The final project reports from SHARE’s Takeover Day Cohort members Francesca Pellegrino at Lowewood Museum and Nollie Cacciatore at Much Hadham Forge Museum, showed how flexible this programme is in terms of how you choose to deliver it, but that having Takeover Day as the focus really helps to get young people on board.
Steph Parmee, from Gainsborough House Museum closed the day with an entertaining and reassuring presentation showing how well even smaller specialist museums including Newmarket Horse Racing Museum have adapted to the challenge of the new curriculum and continue to offer creative learning experiences that directly engage learners with their unique collections.”
The film of Lowewood Museum’s Takeover Day project is available here. Jo Roberts was presenting on the Group for Education in Museums (GEM) new foundation course in Museum Learning, more details of which are available here.