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All in a day at the VA

Elaine Williams looks at a selection of Inset courses.

In the Toshiba Gallery at the Victorian and Albert Museum hangs an exquisite 18th-century kimono with a delicate repeating leaf pattern made with tie and dye technique.

This is tie and dye as few who can remember their Sixties T-shirts will have experienced it; the leaf image made out of thousands of tiny knots worked into the red silk. Teachers attending the day-long textiles in-service training course at the museum will move from this to a 19th-century Japanese print that shows a courtesan wearing a kimono with the same design.

On a tour around the Indian, Chinese, Japanese and European collections teachers will look at the VA's rich displays of textiles to learn about technique, construction, function, colour and pattern. They may focus, for example, on the beautiful chintz decorated with birds and insects from Ashburnham House in Sussex. They will be encouraged to pick out motifs and to draw one of them.

Their attention may then be drawn to the border designs of miniature Indian paintings, to 19th-century cotton embroidery from the Punjab Hills. They may be encouraged subsequently to simplify their chosen motif and to incorporate it into a border pattern using isometric grid paper. Examining a mid-17th-century Mogul border of a floorspread will take this idea further. Having distilled their motif, teachers may engage in practical workshops, making a printing block to create fabric printing, for example.

Teachers are encouraged to think about where the Victorians got their decorative ideas from and how they can use the museum's collections for their own teaching purposes.

Under the directorship of Dame Elizabeth Esteve-Coll, the VA schools service has grown to provide one of the most extensive programmes of Inset courses run by any museum in the country, some of them accredited by the University of London Institute of Education towards its Advanced Diploma in Professional Studies.

The museum's schools education officers do not regularly teach children in the galleries, preferring to educate teachers to use the museum independently.

Apart from textiles, other Inset one-day courses include maths in Islamic art; Chinese culture and customs; the Renaissance; pattern and shape; hats and headgear; Using the VA at key stage 1, and many more.

Carole Mahoney, the VA's Inset co-ordinator, says courses are designed to make teachers aware that the museum's collections are of "special things for special people". She says: "They are not everyday things, but very special craft objects. We look at the importance of craftsmanship and the time that it takes. We look at skills that have been lost. We hope that by teaching children through these objects it will give them a perception of how instant our own age has become. It is not until they are confronted with objects of this quality that kids can realise this."

The museum also offers whole-school professional development days, designed for the entire staff of primary or middle schools, or whole departments in secondary schools, which are activity-based and cover some of the principles of working in the VA. Staff vary the programme according to the needs of the school. Carole Mahoney says: "These have really taken off. The day is custom-built for the school, although it is linked to our teachers' publications. They are very participatory. Teachers have to work hard, engage in role-play among other things, but it is a lot of fun.

"Head teachers always comment that staff so rarely get time to socialise in a professional setting. Teachers learn a lot about using the museum, a transferable skill they can use in other museums, but it also gives them a chance to look at objects in peace and quiet."

At around Pounds 395 for the day for 15 teachers including lunch, it makes a good, competitively-priced out-of-school alternative to employing an adviser in school for an Inset day.

* Victoria and Albert Museum, Cromwell Road, London SW7 2RL. Tel: 0171 938 8638.

* Free publications available from the VA education department include Plant Motifs: Information and Ideas for Secondary Art and Textile Teachers; China: A Teacher's Pack; and Maths and Islamic Art: Information and Ideas for Teachers.

* Publications for sale include: Using the Dress Collection at the VA: A Handbook for Teachers; and A Teacher's Guide to Using the Print Room.

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