Heritage is a word that conjures up all kinds of images when we apply it to England: mysterious stone circles, ancient castles, half-timbered houses leaning over narrow alleyways. Such monuments to the past need constant care (and money) if they are to continue to enrich our lives and those of future generations.
English Heritage is a government-funded body concerned with "every building and site in the country which contributes to our environment and our understanding of the past, by virtue of its historic or architectural significance". It identifies important sites, lists buildings and runs the blue plaque scheme for commemorating famous residents. It awards grants for archaeological work and conservation, and runs or manages more than 400 sites.
Education, in the widest sense, is a statutory duty and one that English Heritage takes seriously. But it also expects teachers to do their homework. Those planning trips to English Heritage sites should have a clear idea of objectives - not "just a jolly for the children", says Jennie Fordham, English Heritage's London and the South East regional education officer. She sees her role as one of "empowering teachers"; providing ideas and materials, contributing to courses, liaising, but not running, tours.
To help them, English Heritage produces a range of publications on specific sites and general topics. Teachers' planning visits are essential before taking a group and are free. Some properties also have free teachers' notes.
Certain sites have education centres which can be booked. These range from a simple room to use as a base in wet weather, to ones with facilities for art work, or artefacts which children can handle or replica costumes to try on.
Ten "discovery centres" are being set up across the country which will provide more activities and hands-on experience for children in an exhibition-style setting. The centres will be used by schools during the week but open to the public at weekends.
Kenwood House, on the edge of London's Hampstead Heath, is a good example of an English Heritage site. It attracts a wide range of tourists and school parties. When I visited these included six and seven-year-olds from St George the Martyr primary school in Camden. Their teacher, Sally Govanelli, had put a lot of effort into planning and preparing for the visit and her class were busy drawing objects from the library from which to make a guide book. Previous groups have made replica friezes and constructed a chandelier out of toilet rolls.
Sally feels that far more could be done for infant and nursery teachers. She feels that museums by and large neglect this age group. "I ask what activities they have for them and they say 'storytelling'. It's so boring, children are capable of much more." She believes that even nursery-age children can get a lot out of historic sites.
Jennie Fordham points out that English Heritage is publishing a history book for primary schools which will include case studies and activities from many sites. She is also keen for teachers to start using the buildings in their own areas to make the most of the learning opportunities they offer.
For teachers who are planning trips to heritage sites, her advice is: "The temptation - perhaps because you've spent a lot of money on a coach - is to try to see everything in a couple of hours. You can't. Focus on one feature and do it properly."
* All group educational visits to English Heritage properties are free, but must be pre-booked. There is a teacher membership scheme (pound;25 a year, pound;27 from April) which offers benefits such as unlimited leisure visits for teachers.
* English Heritage Education Service, 429 Oxford Street, London W1R 2HD. Tel: 0171-973 3442.
Stands PV106 and SJ60