The past can be a foreign subject

2nd June 2006 at 01:00
Participation in heritage education does not necessarily lead to improvements in pupils' knowledge in particular subjects or levels of the curriculum, new research shows.

An evaluation of the impact of the Heritage Lottery Fund (HLF) on curriculum-linked learning for 5-19s gave a mixed verdict. The researchers, led by Valerie Wilson of the SCRE Centre at Glasgow University, found that evidence of changes in pupils' attitudes, particularly involving their behaviour and enthusiasm, was much stronger than any gain in subject knowledge.

The team concluded: "We think that projects might benefit from establishing closer links to curriculum areaslevels in their project applications and working more closely with teachers to establish areas of need."

The research covered 50 lottery-funded education projects across the UK, including five in Scotland, and focused on eight unnamed case studies. The five projects north of the border are the Nadair Trust Landscape Partnership Programme; Sustainable Development in Scottish Secondary Schools; the Recording, Conservation and Promotion of the Oral and Cultural Traditions of Scottish Travellers; North Ayrshire Museum and Education Outreach; and Hunterian Art Gallery Goes into Schools (Haggis).

The research focused on three broad areas within the 50 projects - delivery methods, resources (including staffing, finance and sustainability) and results.

"Outputs" of the projects which were rated as successful or very successful were hands-on access to resources or materials, printed learning materials for children, pre-visit notes for teachers and outreach services to schools.

However, the researchers found it more difficult to find evidence of educational outcomes, defined as changes in the knowledge, skills or attitudes of those who participated in heritage education. This was partly because of the short duration of some of the activities and also because educational outcomes are influenced by numerous factors.

However, they found "evidence from the eight case studies that HLF-funded projects were impacting on pupils' curriculum-linked knowledge, particularly in history, and also on their skills and attitudes. Typically, pupils knew more about how people lived and worked in the past as a consequence of participating in an HLF-funded project."

The projects seemed to be particularly successful in improving cross-curricular skills, with teachers reporting improvements in literacy, numeracy, observation, thinking skills, group work and motor skills. There was also an impact on attitudes.

"Pupils enjoyed the experiences of visiting heritage centres or sites, and also were enthusiastic about working with heritage professionals," the report states. "Teachers reported improvements in pupils' behaviour and self-confidence.

"Teachers also thought that their own skills and knowledge of various heritage areas increased from contact with HLF-funded projects, as did their confidence to incorporate new ideas into their teaching, especially in expressive arts.

"The introduction of parents and other members of the community to areas of heritage was an unintended benefit."

The researchers concluded that the degree to which each project was successful in impacting on curriculum-linked learning was, to a certain extent, dependent on the particular combination of idiosyncratic factors present within that project.

The skills and enthusiasm of staff, the resources available to them and their established networks varied enormously.

KEY FACTORS FOR SUCCESS

* A strong idea that was capable of being developed into a sustained educational theme which linked to what schools were trying to achieve for their pupils.

* A clear link between the heritage resource and the curriculum.

* A strong partnership between heritage organisations and schools (projects that worked in partnership with schools were more successful in achieving their educational outcomes than those that established partnerships with other agencies or museums in the heritage sector and offered schools an already developed "menu" of activities).

* Enthusiastic staff who have high-quality skills and knowledge (some concerns arose that fixed-term contracts not only demotivated staff but inhibited capacity building in the heritage sector).

* Outreach working beyond the confines of museums, galleries, historic sites or national parks - projects confined to the venues ran the danger of success becoming defined in terms of attendance figures.

* Experiential learning was enjoyed more by pupils than the delivery of theoretical knowledge and was therefore more likely to have a lasting effect on what pupils think and feel about heritage.

* Experiential school-based continuing professional development gave teachers more confidence about integrating what they had learnt into their teaching practices.

* Support from headteachers and education authority advisers.

* Joint monitoring and evaluation.

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