Trust in the future

4th April 2003 at 01:00
Citizenship lies at the heart of the National Trust's work. Hilary Wilce meets director-general Fiona Reynolds

The National Trust is uniquely placed to show children what it meant in the past to be a citizen of this country, and what it means today.

As the largest non-governmental landowner in Britain, it can use its assets in buildings and countryside to reveal how poverty was dealt with in the Victorian era, or to explain the present-day problem of litter along the seashore in Wales. Fiona Reynolds, director-general, says the Trust can help children "think about how to weigh things up, juggle decisions, look at different viewpoints, evaluate the evidence and draw conclusions. And these are crucially important life skills that everyone needs to develop".

Many National Trust properties, she points out, are places where these sorts of difficult decisions have been taken in the past. "We can explore their stories, draw out their relevance to the present day, and help children engage with real issues, in a real place." When children visit a former workhouse or cotton mill, for example, debates are likely to encompass children's rights, charity work, child labour and homelessness.

"In every case, wherever they are, the children really get into it. They cart stuff about, they change clothes. It's an extraordinarily powerful way of getting them to engage with the issues."

Fiona Reynolds says the Trust's work is "underpinned by a shared sense of the 'essence of Britishness'". Its founders were housing reformer Octavia Hill; Sir Robert Hunter, who was instrumental in driving the 1907 National Trust Act through Parliament; and Canon Hardwicke Rawnsley, who worked to preserve the Lake District. The trio were determined to secure properties "for ever, for everyone" as a heritage for future generations.

But do today's young people give a hoot about heritage? Fiona Reynolds thinks they do. "It's clear from the rising interest in subjects such as archaeology and the success of television programmes like Time Team that there's a lot of interest in this area," she says. "And we're also involved in conserving a great variety of landscapes and environments, and the environment is an issue that young people are passionately interested in."

The Trust taps into this interest via a number of initiatives. For pound;15 per year, a youth membership scheme allows young people to visit as many properties as they wish. There are also working holiday opportunities and a variety of arts and community projects, including ones that have worked with the children of asylum-seekers and with young offenders.

In addition, the organisation offers a huge range of formal and informal educational opportunities, many of them tailored to citizenship. These have long been a staple of National Trust work. "It isn't something we suddenly put in place when we noticed citizenship education was coming onto the agenda," Fiona Reynolds says. "Much of the Trust's work has always had a clear citizenship aspect to it, so in a sense we have been able to catch the moment."

She adds: "The Trust has now launched a Vision for Learning which places learning at the centre of everything we do. This stresses the notion of lifelong learning, and has a philosophy which values self-development and creativity, learning and sharing expertise, regeneration in the town and countryside, and the meaning and value of heritage and the environment.

"We're auditing our learning and education activity throughout all our properties, and during the next three years we will be ensuring that every one of them has its own learning plan. But we're constrained by resources.

We'd love to do a huge amount more. We could do what we do many times over.

"And we really believe this is what we should be providing. After all, we can awaken children to what went on in the past, and how this ties in to present and future challenges. And if children learn and understand things in a practical way like this, it can wake them up to ideas and issues they haven't thought about before. In fact, it can be, quite literally, life-changing."

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