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Ask the Expert Q&A 25 September: Museums and the National Curriculum – Liz Denton, Museum Development Officer

Liz Denton, Museum Development Officer, will be answering your questions on the implications for Museums of the new National Curriculum on Thursday 25 September between 3-4pm.

The new National curriculum in England is now being taught in schools throughout the country, but what will be the impact for museums?

Perhaps before we look at that question we should consider what the framework is and who is in deed using it.   The new National curriculum was driven forward by the former Secretary of State for Education, the Rt. Hon. Michael Gove MP.  The process proving to be very controversial, with the first draft of the history programmes of study garnering particular wrath from both teaching professionals and academics alike.  However, a period of consultation saw a more workable structure.  With the government stating their aim to slim down the content of the curriculum in almost all subjects, though not in primary English, maths or science.

Furthermore, the government has commented that the new curriculum does not tell teachers “how to teach”, but concentrates on “the essential knowledge and skills every child should have” so that teachers “have the freedom to shape the curriculum to their pupils’ needs”.  Whether this will be the case remains to be seen and the best people, of course to ask, are teachers themselves.  Friends and ex-colleagues of mine hold mixed views on this – particularly in relation to assessment, but for very many teachers this is the statutory framework.

Who has to teach the National curriculum?

All maintained schools in England are now expected to teach the programmes of study.  With the new curriculum covering primary school pupils, aged five to 11, and secondary schools pupils up to the age of 14.  From September 2015 a new curriculum for 15- and 16-year-olds will come into force.

However, if you consider providers, for example, in a 25 mile radius from your museum, you may find a number of exemptions.  Free schools and academies


do not have to teach the National curriculum but ‘must teach a broad and balanced curriculum’.  Whereas, the private sector also retains it’s independence.  Some areas in the region have a disproportionate amount of those that are exempt but for most museums the majority of their key school audience is now working to a new statutory document.  And it is that term – statutory – that is very important to appreciate.  Whilst the government talks of giving teachers more ‘freedom’, schools know that they will be assessed on their implementation of the curriculum.  The result being, that teachers will want resources that are linked to their interpretation of the programmes of study.

How do we give them what they want?

The starting point to providing a valued service is finding out what both your customer wants and needs.  You’ve probably already had a good look at the new curriculum, but if not, do take the time to understand what it actually is.  You can download the whole document, but if you don’t fancy reading 238 pages at once (!) make a start by reviewing individual programmes of study https://www.gov.uk/government/collections/national-curriculum

A good idea would be to start with the curriculum area/s that you already offer sessions for.  Is what you currently offer still relevant?  Can you see new areas of opportunity?  For example if you have a strong prehistory or Saxon collection – the new programme of study for history identifies great potential!  Remember as well that although academies have far greater freedom in what they teach, they are likely to use the National curriculum as a guide.

The next step is to find out what your potential audience is actually studying and what they would like.  For that I’d recommend you analyse data from the last 3 years to look at school visitation flow. When, why and how often have they visited?  Look at your school data and make the most of any contact details you have!  Find out from them their new schemes of work and the learning styles that they prefer.  Building up intelligence on visit motivation can be very timely but without contacting schools you are wasting your time developing a workshop, trail or handling box that despite being informative, fun and unique, is not something that a class is actually studying.

I won’t lie – contacting teachers can be very difficult and certainly is time consuming but here are a few strategies that have worked for museums I’ve supported:

  • Use individual school email addresses if you’ve got them from previous bookings rather than sending something through to the general school email (it often gets lost) – for data protection r please remember that if you send a group email the addresses should not be visible to all recipients
  • Maximise your contacts!  Do any of your staff or volunteers have a way in to a target school (e.g., parent, school governor, volunteer at school, relative or friend that is a teacher etc)?
  • Offer to give a brief presentation at a staff inset or a school cluster group meeting
  • Provide a bribe – a free workshop or visit on offer for one lucky respondent…

A change of direction

You may have already found that there has been a change in demand from schools.  This can be an opportunity…time to consider looking at other aspects of the curriculum that you have previously not focused on.  For example teacher consultation might have already identified a move away from a specific period in history BUT lots of interest for other curriculum areas.

Over the past two years Museum Development Yorkshire (MDY) has been working with museums to develop new resources in advance of the new curriculum.  For examples the DalesCountrysideMuseum has developed cross-curricular resources around prehistory, whereas Burton Constable Hall and the StewartMuseum have developed resources linked to Science, Technology, Engineering and Maths (STEM) programmes of study. A change in direction might be something that you want to consider..

New curriculum, new audiences

The new National curriculum could also herald a move to working with new audiences.  Schools may have previously been your “bread and butter” but there is a wealth of other audiences out there: from the U5s all the way through to older people.  This may mean the need for partnership working, training or additional support but being audience focused has always relied on being fleet of foot and up for a challenge!

Good luck with future programming and don’t forget to contact Museum Development Yorkshire if you feel you would benefit from some additional support or advice.  We are here to support all museums in the region that are either Accredited or have Working Towards status.

Liz Denton

Liz Denton, Museum Development Officer, will be answering your questions on the implications for Museums of the new National Curriculum on Thursday 25 September between 3-4pm.

You can post questions before the Q & A session, on 25 September , or you can converse in real time with our expert. You can use the comment box below to post a question, or you can use twitter with the hashtag  #mdyask.

Comments have to be moderated, to protect the blog from spam, so if your comment doesn’t appear straight away, don’t worry, we’ll get to it as quickly as we can.

If you have a problem submitting questions, either in the comment box, or via twitter, please email your questions to gillian.waters@ymt.org.uk

If you have ideas for subjects you’d like to see us cover in future, or would like to take questions yourself, please get in contact with us and let us know.

Your Comments

  1. amanda martin |

    In light of the NC changes please could you indicate the best format for activities in order to maintain/increase our numbers of education visitors. With limited staff available we find it difficult to manage school visits who seem most engaged if we offer directed activities or taught sessions.

  2. Alan |

    We have tried a teacher consultation but have had a very disappointing response. Have you any suggestions how to get teachers to come and see what our museum has to offer.

  3. Gillian Waters |

    @MDTurnpenny asks “Some museums I work with want to know how to find out about their local schools e.g. academy chains & free schools #mdyask”

  4. Liz Denton |

    Dear Amanda

    In regard to the format I would start by consulting with your target audience to see what they want. Can you contact teachers that have previously visited or go into a local school to ask staff directly? Do you (or anyone else in the museum) know teachers personally or maybe someone who is a parent governor? In my experience schools want fun, hands-on activities that are directly linked to the National Curriculum (NC). They want to come to the museum (or you come to them) to have an experience that they cannot replicate themselves – they will see you as the expert. Please remember that at Primary level the majority of the teachers will not have studied the subject at degree level and as such may lack some confidence in subject knowledge. If, for example, they are coming for something related to their study of history then back in school this will be an area that only has c.5% of the timetable. Teachers I have consulted talk at length about the pressures of assessment on Maths and English and work around Science and ICT. The trip to the museum is often one of the highlights of the term – where the children have fun, learn lots and go back inspired to apply their learning back in the classroom. I personally think that is why a lot of teachers really like to book a taught session or led tour – but however good it is, it needs to link to their learning objectives. I would recommend that you look at the Programmes of Study and see how you can support not only the themes but aims (e.g.,in history, skills and concepts are very important).

    You mention capacity and that is a challenge that faces many museums. One good tip that a museum gave me was to look at themed weeks, whereby you can not only generate excitement but also focus minds on a decision (book soon or you may miss out!). For example if you are launching a new prehistory or Anglo-Saxon workshop you could reserve a week in your timetable. It will save time on set up and resource allocation etc and also be a good way to thoroughly evaluate the product. You can of course also link to national initiatives – for example if you’ve got a new science workshop, link it to the British Science Week http://www.britishscienceassociation.org/national-science-engineering-week

    Draw on previous consultation to develop the framework of a popular session. Things that have worked well in workshops developed by MDY include:

    • Hands on opportunities with exciting artefacts and/or high quality replicas
    • NC linked!
    • Lots of activity – less time talking more time doing. Multi-sensory is also very popular, together with a consideration of different learning styles
    • Everyone involved (group work)
    • Opportunity to make something to take back to school
    • Follow up activities for teachers

    Good luck and if you are working on something that you would like some advice on, please do drop me a line in the future

  5. Liz Denton |

    Dear Alan

    I’m sorry to hear that previous consultation has not been very successful. I would recommend that you target this in 2 ways.

    Offer to go into schools to talk directly to staff. This could be as part of their weekly staff meeting (can be tricky as they may have a lot to get through and only have c.1 hour) or as part of their INSET training. In service training occurs each term and the advantage is that you may get longer to speak and usually all the teaching staff are there (including the teaching assistants and learning mentors etc). Alternatively I would research into your area’s provision for cluster meetings (where a group of schools link together and may have a subject leader meeting) or investigate if the region has an advisory service – e.g., North Yorkshire has Science, Maths and Humanities advisors. You may also want to consider partnering with other organisations to market your museum service. For example both the Northern History Forum and CapeUK have offered stalls at their events.

    On site

    Can you offer any incentives? Teachers are very busy but they do have a life as well – therefore can you offer something available to their whole family? Innovative projects in the region have included museums having family days, at the weekend or in school holidays, whereby the teacher meets with the museum learning team, whilst the rest of their family look around the museum or perhaps take part in an activity.

    You could also offer all attendees at a twilight visit at the museum to be entered into a draw for a free workshop for one class etc.

    Whatever strategy you choose make sure that you have a clear message about what your museum can offer and don’t forget that teachers will not just be looking at the activity itself but what the site in general can offer – from ease of parking to a lunch space…whatever helps to make the visit as stress-free and enjoyable as possible.

  6. Gillian Waters |

    ‏@ruth_mather asks “#mdyask There’s been a lot of concern about lack of diversity in new history curriculum – what can museums do to fill any gaps?”

  7. Liz Denton |

    Dear Michael,
    If you are researching the profile of schools in a target area l would recommend that you look at CapeUK’s 2013 annual report. It has some really useful information about the evolution of schools, details about academies and an excellent resource bank about Teaching School Alliances http://www.capeuk.org/wp-content/uploads/2013/11/SOR-FINAL.pdf

    For individual authorities you could start by looking on their website for information about schools in their area and a number have a school locator e.g., http://www.northyorks.gov.uk/article/27368/Find-your-local-school-or-childrens-establishments

  8. Liz Denton |

    Dear Ruth

    A very interesting question. There has been a lot of debate, as you know, about prescription. In my consultation with teachers many feel that the final version of the statutory document is an improvement on previous drafts but that the government’s claim that they “have the freedom to shape the curriculum to their pupils’ needs” is not always viable for non-core subjects. For example for history only having c.5% of the school timetable and with far less demand for assessment (only 20 OFSTED subject site inspections for history per year!) then much of their focus is presently being directed to other areas. One thing that came out loud and clear from teachers is that they often see museums as the experts. At primary level many are not subject-specialist and even in secondary the knowledge base is declining in some schools. Therefore, in regard to diversity the opportunity for the museum is there to unlock the collection and present the stories of individuals and communities often under represented.

    Consultation with schools will identify the needs and interests of pupils and there is of course real potential with the increase in focus on local studies. The opportunity to look at an aspect beyond 1066 is also something that museums can optimise. Many museums have already been doing this of course (for example when I worked at the National Army Museum we looked at WWI through the soldier’s perspective and when looking at the Western Front the images we used were of Jamaican soldiers) but there is more potential. Museums need to do this in an holistic rather than add on fashion. I wonder if the potential for diversity in pre 1066 is also being effectively considered ….

    One problem I think is that in the programmes of study the examples, although non-statutory, can influence. It is for museums to demonstrate that their resources can fulfil the teacher’s learning objectives. A great session that meets the needs of the curriculum and presents information that schools cannot readily access (it is not just the NC that is prescriptive..I find a lot of teaching resources lack diversity) can really inspire! Follow-up resources that show how learning can be embedded can only serve to strengthen this.

    Lastly, I think it would be very useful for museums to share best practice via online resources such as MyLearning and the TES. We need to publicise the good work that is going on out there and advocate to schools how history can be taught