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Sites with vision lead the field

Historic places have a unique opportunity to educate children. The Sandford Award has been supporting the best of them for 20 years. Caroline Palmer reports.

Blenheim Palace, Glamis Castle, Manchester Jewish Museum, Canterbury Cathedral, the Cutty Sark and Wigan pier have one important thing in common.

They are all winners of the Sandford Award for Heritage Education which aims to recognise outstanding learning opportunies in a historic setting.

The award's kite mark is a message to schools organising outings that they can expect high standards. The Heritage Education Trust, which runs the awards, would like to think that it has enriched the quality of history teaching over the last 20 years.

Today the Sandford award scheme encompasses more than 90 historic sites throughout the British Isles and includes historic houses, museums, galleries, cathedrals, gardens and historic artefacts. Any historic property, artefact and landscape is eligible.

"We know that schools look for properties holding a Sandford award. There is no other independent assessment of these facilities and we are recognised and recommended by the Historic Houses Association and the National Trust," says the trust's chief executive, Gareth Fitzpatrick.

The annual, non-competitive awards were conceived in 1975 as a result of the European Year of Architecture. Founder members were Lord Montagu, of English Heritage, Lord Sandford, representing the Department of the Environment and Commander Michael Saunders Watson, of the Historic Houses Association. Their purpose was to raise the profile of the educational use of historic properties.

As its name suggests, it was Lord Sandford who instituted the awards scheme to encourage those responsible for running historic houses to appreciate their important educational role, to provide support and monitor standards. Although the awards were originally administered by the Council for Environmental Education, the Heritage Education Trust was set up in 1982 to run and develop them.

Mr Fitzpatrick likes to think that the trust is as imaginative in the way it judges the award applicants as the winners are in their approach to education. Just as teaching has changed over the years, offering a more hands-on approach, putting history in a wider social context and using artefacts in a way that will bring the subject alive to schoolchildren, so the Sandford award winners have changed too.

"We like to see a property achieve its full potential in terms of the educational services it provides," Mr Fitzpatrick says.

"Visiting a property is not just about having a guided tour any more, but also about oral history, artefacts, costume, art, drama, literacy, numeracy. It is more about quality of content than presentation. We wouldmuch rather see worksheets that can be adapted to the requirements of individual schools and current national curriculum needs."

The panel of 12 judges want to see the wide range of schoolchildren's backgrounds and abilities taken into account, constant evaluation of facilities and good liaison with visiting teachers, as well as a close relationship with local educational establishments. The judges, who include Ofsted inspectors, former headteachers, education consultants and heritage property-based education officers, now have to consider health and safety. Ensuring that properties have carried out risk assessments, have an adequate refreshment area and places for schoolchildren to hang up their coats and bags are just as important as the educational element.

"We don't expect that sites necessarily have every ideal facility, obviously that is not always practical. But we do like to see that they have at least considered them," says Mr Fitzpatrick.

He believes the awards have triggered a marked improvement in the standards of education provision at historic sites over the past 20 years. Until last year, all properties winning Sandford awards were reviewed every five years and if their high standards were sustained, they would be presented with a quinquennial award. Now, in a move that the trust hopes will raise standards further, winners must reapply after five years for a full reappraisal of their educational programmes. Failure to reapply or to pass a new inspection will mean losing their Sandford award-winning status.

Whether a property is reapplying or going for a first time award, the trust makes its assessment available to help the property improve or enhance services, whether it is an award winner or not. The trust has had several instances of sites that have failed to win an award first time, acted on the assessment and won at the second attempt.

Meanwhile, the popularity of the award among schools and historic sites continues to rise, according to Mr Fitzpatrick. "January 31st is the closing date for next year's hopefuls and we have already had more applicants this year than last."

The Sandford Awardis run by the Heritage Education Trust.Tel: 01536


* ALNWICK CASTLE Alnwick, Northumberland

* THE BASS MUSEUM Burton upon Trent, Staffs

* BEAULIEU Hampshire




* DOVE COTTAGE Grasmere, Cumbria


* HOLDENBY HOUSE Northamptonshire

* KINGSTON LACY HOUSE Wimborne, Dorset



* SCONE PALACE Perth, Scotland

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