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How has COVID-19 affected how the heritage sector engages with schools?

From March this year, heritage and arts organisations and projects were suddenly thrown into turmoil. It’s hard enough to get genuine and wide-reaching engagement with schools, whether nationally or locally and suddenly the pandemic meant that a lot of the ways we engage schools had to change. These changes are still in place today – few schools allow outside visitors and with the second lockdown all venues are now closed for visitors again.

This has led to many unfortunate changes to staffing, operations, and finances for many museums and cultural organisations across the country. For those who could carry on their engagement work, it meant a re-defining of what their learning offers would look like for the foreseeable. It means that we can now look at some amazing case studies where – in the face of adversity – some amazing, creative, educational work has been done online to meet the needs of schools, teachers and learners. Let’s take a look and get inspired;

How we remember history – assemblies via Zoom – Newington Green Meeting House

In the wake of the murder of George Floyd – people across the UK were suddenly thrust into this active debate on public history. What is history? Can it be re-written and is there a threat of this? What is the best way to address and remember some of the more difficult parts of our national history? These assemblies or workshops, (1 hour workshops for class groups of 45 minute assemblies for larger groups), were offered via Zoom, for free as part of the Meeting House’s NLHF project ‘Revolutionary Ideas’ project. This project aims to share the building’s rich radical history. By linking their radical history to radical events and ideas today – they were able to be at the forefront offering schools a way to address recent events from a historiographical perspective. Debates that adults across the country were finding increasingly difficult; were taking place in schools across the country where respect, tolerance and understanding were fostered around a tricky subject. What do we do about statues to slave traders that stand in the UK? By starting the workshops and assemblies by thinking about what history means – an interpretation of the past, and thinking about why some histories are very present and others aren’t – learners got to build their critical thinking before tackling this big question. Schools across the UK took part – and the project engaged with over 1000 learners.

Lessons to takeaway:

  • Zoom assemblies can be scary, but they can work. It takes a school that now how to use their tech proficiently and a good grasp of Zoom for those leading the sessions. The chat function is KEY to being able to work with large groups but ensure everyone gets to take part.

Hackney Museum – Black History Month competition

This project gives us a great insight into creative schools work that can easily be done by heritage and arts organisations with schools, and particularly those pesky secondary schools that we would LOVE to work with more but are the hardest to target! Here the museum, which is part of the council’s offer – announced to local schools that it needed a flag design for Black History Month that would fly on the Town Hall. With a brief to meet, 76 students in the borough started designing and the winning entry was awarded to year 9 pupil Malaika Parillon Langlais Baron – with her wonderful, creative design. It’s a great idea that can work with very limited staff resources but instead puts focus on promotion and getting the word out to schools to take part.

Lessons to takeaway:

  • Competitions are a great way to engage secondary schools, encourage creativity and offer learners the unique opportunity to have their creation exhibited, displayed or praised. 

Franklin’s young investors science club

Thought science experiments were an impossibility whilst we were stuck in lockdown? Well Benjamin Franklin’s House showed us that wasn’t the case. Through their 30 minute science club programme – KS2 learners were invited to watch this weekly experiment – and join in! All experiments were carefully curated to use household materials (with limited mess!) and that were safe for younger children to get stuck into. From experiments freezing different liquids to testing different ways to measure forces – this international project with learners from schools in the US and UK, as well as home-school children could take part. A fun, social and exciting way to get learners engaged with your key themes – and only taking half an hour per week.

Lessons to takeaway:

  • Zoom sessions can be recorded, this means you have a legacy for this work and these recordings can be used again and again in other resources and programmes. It may take time programming, planning and promoting – but you end up with a large bank of resources at the end with a big digital legacy.