Look north

Tosh Warwick, 13.05.2015
Museums and heritage work with schools in the north east
Bridge North East’s Knowledge Exchange Symposium, looking at museums and heritage work with schools in the north east, took place at Sunderland Museum and attracted delegates from across archives, museums, local authorities, heritage sites, schools and universities.

The first project we heard about was Making a Mark, a project with Tees Valley Museums, which aimed to encourage return visits to museums by adopting a three-visit strategy across museums, which included the Dorman Museum and the Captain Cook Birthplace Museum in Middlesbrough, Head of Steam in Darlington, Hartlepool Museum, and Kirkleatham Museum in Redcar and Cleveland.

The project led to improved awareness of strengths across organisations and helped facilitate a dialogue with teachers in developing resources that had greater relevance to the curriculum. This was a key outcome given the concerns echoed across the day about the curriculum changes of 2014.

Making a Mark led to follow-up visits with 12,600 students making 37,800 visits as part of the scheme. Students subsequently brought carers and parents to venues during weekends and holidays as part of the project’s school passport scheme.

The legacy of Making a Mark can be gauged by the partnerships that developed, such as the one Teesside Archives and the Tees Transporter Bridge cultivated with the Dorman Museum. The project also instilled local pride, regional unity and sense of place among staff and students alike.

Next we heard about Bridge North East’s Action Research Bursary Projects, which saw £1,000 distributed to each of the five organisations participating in the scheme.

Durham University Museum’s learning officer, Ross Wilkinson, said the scheme to engage local schools, working with two teachers and offering curriculum sessions for free on a test basis, had been a success.

The scheme also served as a bridge into archives and the university’s rich prehistory and medieval collections for schools, and were tweaked based on teacher feedback and requirements.

Wilkinson discussed the pros and cons of introducing pupils to handling centuries-old artefacts, but stressed how the “wow factor” offered for learners more than compensated for any potential for damage.

The final component of the morning session was the Heritage Schools initiative, inaugurated in 2012 and supported by the Department of Education in partnership with English Heritage.

Viki Angel, English Heritage’s local heritage education manager, told us how Heritage Schools has helped embed heritage across curriculum topics and school years.

The scheme highlighted the important role of staff able to devote suitable skills, knowledge and time, and the need for careful planning and a willingness to work with partners in moving beyond more established frameworks.

The gathering concluded with a roundtable considering the impact of the new curriculum on heritage organisations and education, the involvement of teachers in developing education programmes, working in partnership with museums, sustaining relationships with schools and teachers, and the role of national organisations and partners in the interactions between heritage and schools.

The new curriculum’s local study component is a way in which the area’s key heritage traits can be used in a way that allows for a continued emphasis on local history, events, places and archives.

It was contended that, as a result of the new demands and methods, a zest for creative approaches has emerged in rethinking how heritage can provide a key focal point across subject areas, with the Heritage Schools initiative presenting learning in a variety of ways as a key means for accessing and developing a wider skills-base in developing education provision.

There are still challenges in ensuring local heritage organisations’ place in the curriculum, and the sector faces issues with the use of off-the-shelf curriculum packages with potentially prohibitive issues of copyright and access limitations.

The importance of balance between catering for schools alongside the specialist and general visitor when developing new interpretation and resources was also emphasised, particularly in single-subject museums, with a recognition of the need for museums to offer a range of ways to access information, formal and informal learning, whilst providing an enjoyable experience.

Collaborating with teachers was championed as a clear benefit at the symposium, leading to relationships that had longevity and would help create a dialogue between heritage organisations and schools. When developing content on new projects previous schools partners were said to be reliable testers of resources, providing valuable feedback.

But there are still numerous challenges to be met given that the funding for a number of the projects was subsidising teachers’ time, or offsetting the costs of museums visits and travel, and there is a need to translate the supported projects into continued visits that are not reliant on subsidies.

Tosh Warwick is the education, learning and events officer at the Tees Transporter Bridge. He has recently submitted a PhD thesis in history at the University of Huddersfield where he previously worked as part-time history lecturer and research assistant