Now and the Future – schools and museums

Young children dressed in lab coats being dino-scientists looking at a fossil reptile
Dino Scientists at the Natural History Museum

Walking down the Fossil Marine Reptiles gallery at the Natural History Museum as well as encountering extinct giants you may well come across a crowd of scientists armed with magnifying glasses and decked out in lab coats. Not officially part of the scientific staff these Dino-Scientists are some of the two million children and young people who took part in facilitated and self-guided visits to the UK’s 18 national museums in 2015/16. This audience group is the focus of the a recent Arts Council review Now and the Future: A review of formal learning in museums. What does this review tell us about the state of learning in museums in 2017? 


The review

Now and the Future: A review of formal learning in museums was published in November 2016 by CapeUk.  CapeUK carried out online surveys, in-depth interviews with museum educators to focus groups with teachers and desk based research.


The report starts by reflecting on how we developed our current understanding of the role of learning in museums that was kick started by David Anderson’s 1997 Common Wealth. It takes in a whistle stop tour of the investment that museums saw during the ‘golden age’ of museum learning  between 2001 and 2010 in terms of infrastructure and how national government supported the high quality provision of services for schools. This investment was achieved through projects such as the Department of Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS) and Department for Education and Skills’ (DfES) strategic commissioning National/Regional Museum Education Partnership programme or the Renaissance in the Regions.

During this time there was a step-change in the support and value placed on museum learning, a time that gave the sector programmes such as Campaign! Make an Impact, Real World Science and Take One Picture to name but a few of the innovations in how collections can support the delivery of the national curriculum.  And the report brings us up to date with how the Arts Council is supporting museums and schools through their Major Partner Museum model.


The report finds the sector in buoyant health, with museums providing a responsive and well-rounded service for schools that has a good take up and appreciated by teachers. It acknowledges the pressures placed on museum learning from external pressures finding museum educators responding creatively to drastic changes in the national curriculum and new financial settlements since 2010. Educators have innovated in programming and entrepreneurial skills have met income demands placed on their learning service.

The future

As well as looking back the report used four research questions to shape their report:

  • What is the current offer of formal learning delivered by museums?
  • How do museums and schools assess the quality and impact of the offer?
  • How is formal learning developed, delivered and resourced by museums?
  • What are the barriers and enablers of delivering and sustaining a high quality formal learning offer?

Based on these the authors have come up with nine recommendations for the sector that they believe will  based on some of the best practice they have encountered. Whilst not revolutionary, the recommendations will hopefully reinvigorate the discussion around formal learning across the sector.

Why formal learning in museums matters

Young children seated around a demonstration station at the Science Museum
Primary school pupils taking part in a demo in Wonderlab at the Science Museum

Today, it seems almost unimaginable that just two decades ago around 50 per cent of museums made no provision for schools. Teachers now have access to resources that support their delivery of the national curriculum and millions of pupils benefit from high quality learning experiences in museums. In many ways formal learning is a victim of its own success and is no longer ‘fashionable’ with other work, such as health and wellbeing, taking its place on the museum learning agenda or being replaced by  the term ‘cultural education’. But this report comprehensively re-states the value of museum’s role in formal learning:

Their power to excite curiosity, explain and inspire adds a dimension to children’s learning and makes it memorable. At their best, they are sites of learning that inform not just the past, but also what we individually and collectively might become. It is our belief that better formal learning in museums makes for better schools.

It’s a statement of intent and a call to arms for us museum educators re-affirming the vitally important role our programmes can play both educationally and socially. We shouldn’t forget that visiting a museum with a school is the best way to ensure cultural engagement for all children regardless of background.

But the fact remains that many children and young people will never have contact with museums and other cultural organisations unless they do so in the course of the school day and at the instigation of teachers. That is why formal learning in museums matters

Who is the audience for this report?

Taking over from the Museums and Libraries Archive, Arts Council England in 2010 was, I imagine, more concerned with fitting a whole new unknown area of work into their portfolio of responsibilities than the programmes delivered.

I was surprised that this report has not been more widely celebrated across the museum sector, however, I believe that Now and the Future isn’t for us museum educators but folk at Arts Council England who are still getting to grasps with the museum portfolio.


Warning signs

Whilst representing all our hard work exceptionally well there are some alarm bells ringing from some of the findings.

Is the model right?

Place-based curriculum from Heritage Learning Hull part of the Hull Culture and Leisure Ltd.

Drilling down to the data makes it clear that at institutional levels in museums of various sizes there is a commitment to formal learning as an income generation stream,  64% of respondents claimed formal learning is provision by schools paying for the service 55% having income targets. With a shift towards income generation is there a real risk that the security that allowed museum educators to innovate in their approach and create some world leading programmes during the ‘golden age’ of museum learning will be considered too risky. This could result in the sector becoming more cautious in its delivery of services for this audience. Any investment that is made should alleviate the financial pressures placed on learning programmes giving museum educators the space to take risks. However, as the report suggests the sector is innovating with models such as those championed by Heritage Hull, Hull and the place based curriculum through the Hull Culture and Leisure Ltd.

Secondary Schools still don’t visit 

Three teenage girls looking at archive material in a museum
Yr. 10 pupils visiting the Winding House

Secondary schools, they still aren’t using museums. This is not a new issue, but what is new is the rate of decline due to factors that have been well by the Collins and Lee report back in 2005, such as class size and backfill. I think museum educators know how to stem the decline, but in a financially driven model of working there is a disincentive to develop more bespoke and higher input programmes for schools. This is where investment in staff and resources will make a big difference for formal learning in museums such as it did with the DCMS/DfES strategic commissioning programme. One area that is unexplored in the sector and has much potential to benefit from museum learning support is the further education sector. Key investment in formal learning and extending it to further education could potentially seed fruitful partnerships.   

Museum folk

Schools and Grant Museum
School pupils with a museum educator at the Grant Museum of Zoology

I am in no doubt that the resilience and the buoyancy of the formal learning sector that is highlighted in this report is due to a generation of museum educators who are currently delivering or managing programmes in museums. The ‘golden age’ of investment created a generation of professional museum educators committed to the value of museum learning and understanding the needs of the teachers and pupils. However, as in many other areas of the economy there has been a substantial growth on the reliance on freelancers to deliver learning, creating the casualisation of the museum educators. How resilient will this generation prove in times of pressures in the future working in an age of job insecurity? Is that being too negative, on a workforce delivering learning in a range of organisations? Is this generation of freelance educators an opportunity to drive a next wave of innovation in programming with their entrepreneurial spirit? Casulaisation of the museum workforce I am certain is a hot topic that will emerge in the next few years. 


There is a much to celebrate in this report for formal learning in museums. For me, it’s  reassuring to see how museum educators are placed at the core of the success of the current practice and with our “naturally outward-looking, collaborative and fiercely committed” attitude should be part of the future of the sector.

“By investing in the quality and reach of formal learning in museums, we are also nurturing the historians, scientists, cultural producers and – a crucial consideration for museums themselves – the audiences of the future”


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