A report published recently by King's College London shows the huge benefits for children, teachers, parents and museums when pupils are taught in a museum environment.
Most of us remember school trips to museums and galleries - in some cases, only because of the welcome contrast to the everyday. At best, the museums and galleries - their collections of curiosities rich with cultural history - created memories more enduring than the classroom-based learning they were intended to supplement.
Despite a fair amount of academic evidence on the value of learning within cultural spaces, the majority of school visits support specific elements of the curriculum rather than the learning experience itself. This provided the starting point for My Primary School is at the Museum: might the entire curriculum benefit from a co-location approach? Could there be beneficial learning, social and cultural outcomes for children and their families if full time education took place in a museum - not to mention the benefits for the museums?
And so earlier this year, for the first time in the UK, three pilot projects placed nursery and primary school children in local museums and galleries for an extended residency lasting up to a term. Most of the daily activities took place there, from Maths and English, to playtime and lunch.
The pilots developed out of discussions between Dr Jennifer DeWitt and Dr Heather King of King's College London's School of Education, Communication & Society and Wendy James, an architect with experience of creating learning spaces in museums. King's enlisted the National Waterfront Museum in Swansea, Tate Liverpool, the Arbeia Roman Fort & Museum in South Shields and their local schools - St Thomas Community Primary School, Life Bank Nursery at Kensington Children's Centre and Hadrian Primary School respectively - to take part.
The experiment found that not only can the full curriculum be successfully delivered in a museum or gallery environment, but that the benefits extend to the children, schools, teachers, parents and museum staff.
The children proved themselves highly adaptable to their new environment and demonstrated increased interest in learning. The experience made them more confident and effective as communicators, they remembered more of what they learnt and developed new and improved social skills. The pupils' enthusiasm for 'their' museum infected their parents, some of whom visited for the first time. In each location, different impacts were observed. In South Shields, increased creativity in the children's writing; at Tate Liverpool, increases in confidence with verbal communication, especially in group discussions; in Swansea, expanded vocabulary and improved social skills, as the children interacted with a greater number of adults.
But the benefits extended beyond this. Teachers gained confidence in using a range of resources in creative ways to deliver the core curriculum. Schools felt it brought them closer to parents, helping create greater community cohesion. Museums had the opportunity to engage in formal, curriculum-based education, especially with younger children, and to extend the use of spaces and collections.
Of course, there were challenges. The right equipment wasn't always available, or the physical space wasn't ideal. At times, the museums and schools struggled to understand each other's needs. As with all successful partnerships, brokerage, translation and 'bedding in' time were required before the full benefits could be realised.
At the very least, the positive outcomes this new report details support the development of more partnerships between schools and museums. Financial pressures on local authorities - which impact on museums and galleries as well as local education authorities - have reduced the frequency of school trips. These findings reassert the value of children's interactions with museums and galleries and suggest that extended stays in cultural settings, such as the participants in the pilots enjoyed, enhance both learning and social outcomes.
At best, this research supports the idea of a co-location model for primary schools and museums. It isn't an idea that could be implemented overnight: it would take leadership, vision and, of course, funding. But might museums of the future be designed with school education in mind? Or might a new school, fit for future generations, include a museum within its boundaries? Co-location presents opportunities for both the education and cultural sectors, supporting the needs of not just young people, but of museums, too. The Warwick Commission on Cultural Value highlighted the lack of diversity - social, cultural and economic - among museum visitors, with 'higher social groups' accounting for 87% of visits to Britain's flagship museums. Despite free entry being 'one of the most internationally admired policies for cultural access', the Commission says it has 'failed in its declared mission' to make museums more inclusive.
So in the long term, My Primary School is at the Museum might be as significant for the museums as for the pupils, in helping them cultivate from an early age the habits of cultural engagement that will secure them as visitors in the future. The importance of early years intervention is well understood. King's College London's report into government policy towards arts access for young people - Step by Step (2015) - suggested that greater attention to arts engagement for young children would have a significant impact, 'shaping encounters that may profoundly affect subsequent engagement with the arts'.
These pupils from Swansea, Liverpool and South Shields may well have a head start in becoming the culturally confident citizens of tomorrow, helping to ensure that local museums remain a vital component of their communities.
More information about the project is available on the King's College London website.