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Make the most of museums

Class outings are usually tightly pegged to the curriculum. When the Year 2s are studying the Romans, off they go to the local museum to look at coins and broken pots and waxworks of centurions. When Year 5 tries a bit of portrait painting, a trip to the nearest art gallery might be in order.

Museums and galleries are geared up for this sort of visit: they produce work sheets and question trails for all age groups, and some even get the staff to dress up in period costume and give talks.

But even so, museums and galleries are under-used treasure troves of objects and ideas that can stimulate children in all sorts of ways. The very experience of being in a building full of paintings or sculpture, or objects that have been painstakingly collected and labelled, opens up a new area of experience for children, and can enrich and underpin their studies right across the curriculum.

Even better than one-off visits are longer relationships developed between a school and a local museum. Many galleries and museums now have education officers, who are usually happy to work with schools in this way.

The story of Charles Dickens primary (see opposite), an inner London school on special measures, illustrates how wide-ranging the benefits of such a relationship can be. According to headteacher Liz Owens, her school's fruitful contact with the new TateModern gallery has inspired the children with a desire to learn. It has improved the children's language work, given them confidence, and given the whole school's morale a much-needed boost.

And never has there been a wider choice. The year 2000 will see more new cultural institutions open in Britain than any other time in history, representing an investment of more than pound;400 million, much of it proceeds from the National Lottery. To mention just the biggest projects, a huge new gallery opened in Walsall in February, the flagship Lowry Museum in Manchester was completed in April, and May brings the opening of the Tate Modern by the Thames in London, complete with the new Millennium Bridge to bring its visitors across the river.

To celebrate all this activity, the museums and galleries of Britain have designated May as Museums and Galleries Month 2000. Some 11,500 are taking part and projects include activities for school children ranging from a conservation workshop for children in Kirkcaldy, a series of maths workshops at the Abbey Pumping Station in Leicester, and Roman craft-making sessions in Folkestone, to a three-mile walk in the footsteps of Richmond's drummer boy in Yorkshire.

The events run from May 1 to June 4. For a list, check the Museums and Galleries Month website, at www.may2000.org.uk, or telephone 020 7278 8574.

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