A heritage of learning

The National Trust has become one of the biggest business providers of educational resources, writes Sue Jones.

Whether it's a visit to a stately home for a cream tea or a coastal walk, for many teachers the National Trust means a civilised treat for the holidays. But it also provides multiple resources for term time, with hands-on experiences from drama to pond-dipping.

"We're developing a new vision for learning," says Laura Hetherington, the trusts's head of education and interpretation. "It's about creating opportunities for life-changing experiences where the National Trust can make a unique contribution and give people a real 'Wow!' moment."

The focus is on its main strengths in the curriculum: sustainable development, citizenship, history, geography and the creative arts. Each trust property will combine formal and informal education to produce more than just a good day out and some display work.

"Our strategy for next year is to evaluate what we offer schools. We want to ensure that children have really engaged, that real quality learning is there."

With more than 2,000 buildings and gardens, 50 industrial monuments and mills, 60 miles of coastline and nearly 250,000 hectares of land in England, Wales and Northern Ireland, the Trust caters for 600,000 pupil visits a year. And if you can't manage a visit, there are published resources and the website.

Other professionals are often hired to complement trust staff. In "Whose Land Is It Anyway?" student actors from the Stepping Stones theatre company take on the roles of a farmer, rambler, eco-warrior, archaeologist and property developer to engage pupils in debate about access to the countryside and how we use it. Children meet the characters in the morning of their visit to a National Trust property. After lunch, they discuss issues raised by the morning's investigations, and the actors benefit from their first taste of life in a small touring company.

"We have a super partnership with the National Trust," says Yvonne Hurt, theatre studies subject leader at the University of Derby. "For the pupils, this is more than just a hypothetical situation. "Whose Land..." will tour the country and the course modules benefit from being put into real contexts."

Dancers, poets, artists, musicians and photographers have all helped pupils to develop creative skills in the context of particular properties. At Sir Francis Drake's home at Buckland Abbey in Devon, parents and friends promenade the house and grounds while watching pupils from rural and inner-city schools perform dances on the theme of "five continents", inspired by the Elizabethan seaman's circumnavigation of the world.

"It's an interesting way to bring people on to the sites," says Fiona Ross, the Rambert Dance Company's education officer. Plymouth is nearby, but for many this is the first time they have visited the abbey.

Conservation has always been important for the National Trust and is at the heart of its science education. On its website, you can help Dan the Pest Detective track down and deter the creatures that make holes in tapestry and woodwork. Or you can get into your wellies at Wicken Fen in Cambridgeshire, where GCSE science pupils have helped to build a raised dipping pond.

But the National Trust also gets involved in local communities beyond schools too, providing opportunities for creativity and to look at relationships in the locality.

Ham House near Richmond was the setting for children of refugees and asylum-seekers to work with puppets and respond to tales of the Murray family and the dangers they encountered as secret supporters of the exiled Charles II during the English Civil War.And in another project, groups of disaffected youngsters in Carmarthenshire do forestry projects aimed at developing personal and social skills as well as vocational qualifications.

Being such a huge landowner, developing awareness of the countryside is vital to the Trust's work. Rural poverty and foot and mouth disease have also focused debate on how the countryside should function.

Fiona Reynolds, the trust's director general, believes in its mission to help regenerate the countryside. To do this, she says: "We must articulate the meaning and value of heritage... and make education and lifelong learning integral to everything we do."

Contact the National Trust at 36 Queen Anne's Gate, London SW1H 9AS. Tel: 020 7222 5097www.nationaltrust.org.ukeducation

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