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Out in the open

A recent report reveals that secondary schools could be making much greater use of the national heritage. David Bocking investigates.

There are lots of people in our castles and country houses who like working with small children, observes Giles Waterfield, of the Attingham Trust.

"But not so many of them feel thrilled about a party of obstreperous 15-year-olds," he says candidly. "You can't get them all putting on little hats and making porridge. You've got to be slightly more sophisticated."

The trust's report, Opening Doors: Learning in the Historic Environment, was published this summer. At a time of huge popular interest in history and archaeology, our historic sites offer "enormous potential for formal and informal learning", the report concluded, and the status of education has increased over the past 20 years in organisations such as English Heritage, Historic Scotland, the National Trust and many Anglican cathedrals.

But although plenty of primary schools are happy to take their "little ones" out for porridge or hat-making, secondary schools still see the nation's ruins, factories and manor houses rather differently.

There are four main problems for secondary teachers, says Janet Ratcliffe, a retired history teacher who visited 12 north of England sites for the report. "First, the internal logistics of the school, including timetabling and staff cover. Then there's the fact that field visits are not compulsory in GCSE history whereas they are in science and geography. Then there's the transport cost, and finally insurance, which may or may not be covered by the LEA or the school."

The result is that history field trips only take place in secondary schools - especially for older pupils - if there's a great deal of enthusiasm for the idea among both teachers and school management. "I was brought up with the view that a good historian gets his boots dirty," says Mike Fenton, head of history at Carre's Grammar School for boys, Sleaford. He and his students regularly get their boots dirty at various sites around Lincolnshire and Norfolk.

A visit to the monastery of Castle Acre examines the daily life of the people who lived there, and Year 7 students visit the 12th century Castle Rising as spies with a sealed envelope containing instructions for "Operation Garderobe". Students are asked to provide either a detailed examination of the castle's defences and a plan for a forthcoming attack, or an escape route for an imprisoned damsel. Finding out what garderobe actually means is considered a bonus, says Mike Fenton.

Janet Ratcliffe recommends visits to coal mining museums for older pupils.

"There is no substitute for the real thing," she says. "You can go on as long as you like in a classroom, but you can't beat putting on a miner's helmet, going down a mineshaft and getting dirty, and talking to someone who actually did the job." She has taught 15-year-olds who would regularly tell her to "I off", she says. "Taking them down a mine changes the whole nature of your relationship. You have a trust and a common experience and they look at you in a different light."

Former head of history Alison Webb now develops field studies resources for the Field Studies Council, the Open University and the Historical Association. "Students out of the classroom are 'doing' history," she says.

"They find their classroom studies become more real, and fieldwork generates questions and theories from the most timid students. They have a better understanding of the nature of history, and they hone their observational and deductive skills."

The national curriculum does list fieldwork as a possible source of historical enquiry, Alison Webb points out, and some courses actually require field study but, like many fieldwork enthusiasts, she believes that field studies should become an integral part of the history curriculum.

Opening Doors reports a mixed and fragmented picture of education at our historic sites. Half of them offer teachers' packs (English Heritage guides are singled out for special recommendation) but only just over 40 per cent offer "living history" interpretation or practical workshops. And funding is criticised: two thirds of sites reported that learning is hampered by lack of investment, with 50 per cent investing less than pound;1,000 a year in educational resources. Pay scales for staff are "embarrassingly low".

Although government and the heritage sector are showing signs of an improved attitude towards secondary schools, Opening Doors editor Giles Waterfield cites as "rather depressing" the fact that 90 per cent of sites currently don't offer anything to secondary schools other than slightly adapted versions of primary education sessions.

At present, it seems it's up to teachers to make the most of any opportunities out there. "Teachers and staff from historical sites should work together," says Janet Ratcliffe. "It's all down to whether people are prepared to put the effort in. If not, they're missing a better relationship with their children and they're missing the broader tangible history rather than just the history on a page."

Giles Waterfield believes schools should develop an ongoing relationship with sites, which should ideally provide not just printed materials but enthusiastic guides and interpreters who really know the place. "Historic sites have the potential not just to present their contents as something that's established behind a metaphoric glass wall, but to explain why the place looks like that, how it's developed, how it's changed over 500 years or whatever it may be. I think that's fascinating to anyone."

Chris Culpin, director of the Schools History Project says: "You don't go to a historic site to prove something you already know. A visit should not be the icing on the cake, it should be a real enquiry and a real investigation. It's about asking questions and looking for explanations.

It's putting together the skills from the classroom."

Tips and links

Visit tips

Consider local sites: contact local authority museums, regional English Heritage and National Trust officers, tell them the area of work you're interested in and ask them for suggestions.

* Visit or telephone beforehand to discuss your ideas and needs with staff at the site.

* Be clear about the purpose of a visit: develop an enquiry question or an activity that's directly relevant to work being carried out in the classroom.

* Keep instructions simple; encourage students to carefully examine the site and list their questions or observations for later use, and perhaps take reference pictures with a digital camera.

* If it's a long trip, take two videos to view on the coach: one related to the visit on the way there, and one to relax on the way back.


The Attingham Trust: set up for the study and conservation of great country houses and collections.

* Heritage Lottery Fund: has become one of the most important funders of heritage learning in the UK.

* Heritage Education Trust: promotes educational work in historic properties and hands out Sandford Awards to those that provide the best services to schools.

* National Trust for England, Wales and Northern Ireland: provision of learning facilities is a core objective. Schools can obtain education group membership.

* National Trust for Scotland: the NTS has now developed a programme related to the Scottish national curriculum.

* Historic Scotland: agency of the Scottish Executive education department working with new cultural co-ordinators in schools.

* English Heritage: the Government's statutory adviser on the historic environment. Helps teachers to use the historic environment across the curriculum.

* Joint Advisory Council on Built Environment Education: a joint Department for Culture, Media and Sport and DfES advisory committee explores the use schools can make of the built environment as a resource

* National Assembly for Wales:provides free school group access to ancient monuments during term time

* Historic Houses Association:now piloting the appointment of education officers at historic homes in private ownership in south-east England.

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