Museums, like the nation's politicians, have discovered that education plays a key role in everyone's lives. Some 150 museum professonals met at the Victoria and Albert museum last week to discuss the first major report on museum education.
A Common Wealth: museums and learning in the UK, by David Anderson,head of education at the V and A, showed a gap between intention and reality. As reported in last week's TES, the report found a patchwork of provision with around half providing very little. Less than 400 out of nearly 1,700 museums had an educational specialist on their staff.
But Mr Anderson said:"Those that have say education is the golden key which opens doors to resources of skills, money and facilities in their communities. But in most museums, provision for lifelong learning remains an aspiration rather than a reality."
Mark Taylor, director of the Museums Association, said: "Ten years ago the report and this debate would not have happened. We have come an enormous distance, but when an education specialist becomes a museum director, we'll know we've arrived."
The barriers between staff were breaking down, he said. But educators must continue to fight their corner and not get over-resentful at having been excluded from the mainstream of museum life for the past 40 years.
Some education staff felt more isolated because they were funded from elsewhere, usually by the local authority. "If education is a core activity it must come from a central budget; staff must not work to different agendas and a different set of masters," he said.
If all institutions were to have access to an educator in five years time, as the report recommends, Mr Taylor suggested that the seven area museum councils should play a key role in co-ordinating shared posts.
The report gave an example of this type of initiative in the South-east where the council had set up an education unit which worked with curators in six museums to develop science sessions for schools. Nottingham museums have produced a pool of trained freelance educators who provide sessions for schools who pay them directly. The East Midlands Museum Service supported the training with the help of European Social Funding. The freelancers provide a wide range of specialisms on a flexible basis.
Patrick Greene, director of Manchester Museum of Science and Industry, gave delegates a checklist to ensure their organisations were not just paying lip-service to education: did education appear as a prime objective in the corporate plan; were significant resources devoted to it; how did education staff contribute to the development of new programmes; was it on board agendas; did the commitment to learning extend to museum staff (the report noted that only a quarter offered in-service training). University museums were often the worse culprits, he added.
Copies of A Common Wealth: museums and learning in the UK, by David Anderson are available from the V and A education department and the Department of National Heritage