Some museums need to brush up their act in order to fulfil their educational potential. Jon Slater reports
IT'S all very well sitting in a classroom and listening to a teacher talk about Roman Britain or the invention of electricity, but on a hot summer's day even the most studious pupil's mind can wander.
There is nothing like a chance to discover things first hand to spark a lasting interest in any subject. A trip to the local museum can often do just that but unfortunately, many are not up to the job.
That is the verdict of a new government policy document on museums and education, outlining the strategy for England's 2,000-plus museums.
The report says: "The Government believes that education is central to the role of museums today and recognises that many museums are already providing learners with an excellent service, sometimes on limited resources.... However, at present the provision of educational services by museums is patchy, ranging from the outstanding to the mediocre. There is no apparent justification for this arbitrary pattern of distribution."
Every museum will be expected to include a commitment to education in its mission statement. Minimum standards and "clear benchmarks" will be drawn up by Resource (a new body to provide strategic advice for museums, archives and libraries) against which museums' performance can be measured.
An educational audit of existing services will be carried out and research will be commissioned to look at staffing levels, visitor numbers and how people learn in museums.
But it is not just museums that are goig to be asked to raise their game. By September, Office for Standards in Education inspectors will be given new guidance on monitoring how well schools use museums.
As well as schools, local authorities, colleges and youth services will all be encouraged to form partnerships with museums to maximise the educational use.
Since April 1999, all government-funded museums have been free to children. But there is no money to top-up the pound;20 milion already announced to fund educational improvements and widen access. Instead the document is intended to tell museums about what will be expected from them when they bid for funds in future.
Examples of best practice are dotted throughout the report. They range from a story-telling project for the under-fives at Tiverton Museum, Devon, to the learning curve website run by the Public Record office. The latter is possibly the only website to include both medieval cartoons and a plan to assassinate Hitler.
"The Learning Power of Museums - a Vision for Museum Education" is produced by the Department for Education and Employment and the Department of Culture, Media and Sport. It can be viewed at www.culture.gov.uk. Copies are available from DCMS enquiry line, tel 0207 2116200
THE GOVERNMENT'S STRATEGY
* An audit of existing provision
* Set minimum standards for education in museums
* Every museum to include education in its core objectives
* Create partnerships with schools and other education and community organisations
* New inspection guidance for schools' use of museums