If you want to judge the quality of a museum, take a look at the schools it attracts. Museums exist as a cultural resource and learning should be a central pillar of their work - all schools should have access to what is on offer.
Unfortunately, special schools and schools with a high proportion of students with special educational needs often feel uncomfortable in museums, or that their particular needs are not accommodated. Some museums have a "take us as you find us" attitude and can be inflexible about how they cater for specialist requirements.
At the Mary Rose Museum in Portsmouth, we did not want to fall into that trap. When we noticed that special schools were reluctant to visit us, it was my job as community engagement officer to find out why.
Although I was never explicitly told what the problem was, I inferred that, in general, special schools felt that most museums did not comprehend or cater for the complex learning needs of their students. When the schools did take steps to visit or form a partnership with a museum, they frequently found the institutions unwilling to meet their requirements. We felt that we needed to challenge that perception.
With this in mind, I set about finding ways for museums and special schools to work more closely together. The aim was to ensure that our fantastic resources are accessible to all pupils, not just a privileged few; this culminated in the creation of an outreach programme adapted to meet the demands of the history and science national curriculum. I learned a lot in the process, so here I offer a blueprint that schools can take to museums to demonstrate what is possible - it will also help museum staff to formulate an offering that is truly accessible.
Create community partnerships
We have worked with local and national charities to explore ways of supporting specialist needs; these partnerships are incredibly effective. Together we have found ways of using the resources we have at the museum to develop lessons that support the aims of special schools, such as rehabilitation, confidence-building, speech improvement and well-being.
We have also partnered with local schools. For example, our namesake, the Mary Rose Academy, is a local community special academy and specialist sports college for 120 pupils aged 2-19. It caters predominantly for pupils who have severe and complex learning disabilities. Many students have additional needs associated with physical disabilities, autistic spectrum disorders and medical conditions. Numerous visits have been made, both to the school and the museum.
The school has benefited from using the museum as a tailored and evolving resource, and the museum has been able to refine its programmes to cater for a broader range of schools. The partnership is a win-win situation, so it's worth asking your local museum if such an arrangement can be made.
Prepare in advance of visits
Where possible, arrange for museum staff to visit the school before the trip. This will enable museum staff, school staff and students to get to know each other, and it also aids the planning and preparation for both parties.
If costumes are worn in the museum as part of the learning environment then they should also be worn on the pre-visit: it's about ensuring familiarity. If a pre-visit is not viable, booklets introducing the museum and staff could be sent to the school.
All the activities, lessons and tours that will take place on the day of the trip should be planned in advance in consultation with teachers.
Try bringing the museum to pupils
If a visit is too difficult, schools should ask if sessions can be brought to their premises instead. I visit many visually impaired groups, including the Royal National College for the Blind in Hereford and the Royal National Institute of Blind People in London. Replica artefacts are passed around the group and I dress up in character. Members of the groups can handle the artefacts and touch the clothes I am wearing - a tactile experience that enables them to connect with the crew of the Mary Rose in a personal way. This is followed up with a verbal presentation explaining what the artefacts were used for.
Take out a loan box
Ask museums if they offer outreach boxes. These contain real and replica artefacts that can be loaned to schools, generally for a full term, to support the curriculum. Our box contents are highly tactile and include wooden and pewter artefacts such as bowls, plates, spoons and various items of clothing, together with real wood and rope from the Mary Rose. Boxes should also include a variety of support materials for teachers and, if possible, link to numerous subjects.
Educate museums about education
Museum staff and volunteers need to really understand education, so let them know about opportunities to get involved at a more formal level. For example, I am an academy governor and director of the Solent Academies Trust. The head of operations at the museum is a trustee of the Mary Rose Academy, while the head of learning is a governor at a local primary school. The insight these roles provide is invaluable.