England, Wales and NI: What does heritage learning mean for us?

The National Trust for England, Wales and Northern Ireland

The National Trust is a charity that works to preserve and protect historic places and spaces – for ever, for everyone. We have more than 4 million members, 65,000 volunteers and we welcome more than 120 million visitors to our places each year.

Our vision for learning (first adopted in 2002) commits us to embedding learning in all that we do by creating opportunities for personal discovery and life changing experiences for our visitors, members, staff, volunteers and local partners.

Quarry Bank Mill, Wilmslow, Cheshire.

Visitors in the garden at Quarry Bank Mill, Wilmslow, Cheshire.

We have a habit of using the word “learning” to mean “delivery of schools activities, usually targeted at Key Stage 2”. However, the idea from 2002 of “learning being at the heart of what we do” was much wider than that and drew on all of the learning outcomes that all visitors may gain (ie closer to the accepted definition of generic learning outcomes).

Across the National Trust we have a whole range of relationships with the formal learning sector, including:

  • Postgraduate and research relationships with individuals, Universities and Research Councils. These are often managed by strategic leads, national specialists, Heads of Profession but may also be through property experts.
  • Vocational training and apprenticeships such as the National Trust Academy formerly careerships), schemes such as Passport to your Future and project based activities at properties
  • Partner relationships, such as leasing four sites to the Field Studies Council, collaborating on policy with a range of conservation charities, or working with partner learning initiatives such as Children’s University or Eco Schools.
  • School relationships with a local community involvement objective – a good example is the large number of ongoing relationships with local schools (formerly called the Guardianship scheme)
  • Delivery of schools programmes at properties. For some properties school visitors represent a very important slice of their audience and these places (such as Quarry Bank Mill or Stackpole) carry specialist learning staff. These activities tend to be targeted primarily at Key Stage 2 children (8-11 year olds)

However, in practice the area that preoccupies us most is the last and largest of these – the delivery of schools programmes.

In 2010 we had a major reorganisation of the National Trust, involving a move to much more delegated framework. In reviewing all areas of our work it’s fair to say that it was we were spending too much time chasing volume of schools visits and that we had begun to think of ourselves as an education service provider. Now, while that may be a good approach for lots of our publicly funded counterparts (schools work is a visible way of showing how you deliver public benefit), it is not true in the same way for us. In practice, we want all of our places to deliver as much public benefit as possible, but with limited resources we cannot do everything for all audiences in all places.

So, instead we have moved to a delegated model: there is no national target for learning visits, no central policy framework (beyond the organisational strategy) and freedom for properties to decide their own destiny.

Within this framework, Property Managers and their teams decide what to do in the context of an evaluation of their audiences and property ambitions. We might choose to provide structured learning offer for a range of reasons:

–        because there is demand (although that doesn’t necessarily mean we have to fulfil it)

–        because it is a core part of our business model (ie schools business pays the rent) – although this emphatically does not mean that we should just chase volume.

–        for audience development reasons (although we need to be clear what we mean by this).

–        for local community involvement reasons – eg guardianships

However, it should be noted that other organisations have also made a shift in their learning programmes over the past decade. The trend, as exemplified by an organisation like the National Portrait Gallery, is a move away from lots of staff led learning activities, towards much more of a self led model and also a learning offer that links very closely to the wider family offer (ie is less about curriculum delivery and more about the type of experience that could be described as family learning).

Across the Trust this shift has also been mirrored at properties to a greater or lesser extent. At many properties there has been a move away from learning officer roles focused entirely on schools towards broader roles (VE and community, VE and learning etc). Some properties, however, remain rightly very focused on schools as a target audience – such as Quarry Bank Mill, Bodiam, Chedworth and Stackpole.

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