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A Q&A with... English Heritage

Date Posted: 23/04/2013

Sandra Stancliffe, head of education and interpretation at English Heritage, explains how the organisation can support school visits and Learning Outside the Classroom.

English Heritage hosts over 370,000 students each year as part of its free education visits scheme. We asked head of education and interpretation, Sandra Stancliffe, to tell us more about the organisation that manages over 400 significant historical and archaeological sites, and what it can offer to educational groups.

Q: How much history do you cover?

A: Everything! From Stonehenge to the Cold War and everything in between. We have 5,000-year-old pre-historic flint mines at Grimes Graves in Norfolk; the iconic Stonehenge; Roman forts and villas; medieval castles and monasteries; great Tudor and Victorian Houses, including Osborne House on the Isle of Wight; World War Two operations rooms at Dover Castle; and a Cold War bunker in York.

Q: What do you think is the best way to inspire children to become interested in history?

A: They need to be able to touch it, inhabit it, and relate it to their own lives. Getting out and experiencing history first-hand is the best way.

Q: What other subjects can be covered on an English Heritage visit?

A: There’s not much that can’t be covered, but visits to our properties are very relevant to understanding Geography and the importance of the landscape, especially at castle sites. Our properties are also very rich sources of inspiration for creative writing, developing speaking and listening skills, carrying out mathematical investigations and considering issues like parliament, government and democracy.

They are fantastic sources of inspiration for arts projects; Music, Dance and Drama as well as visual art. Schools have used them to explore building materials, talk about geology and natural history, and activities that range from putting on theatrical performances to writing songs and performing them.

Q: What does your department do?

A: We carry out a range of activities with essentially quite a small team. We work with teachers and students to provide resources to support visits to our properties; whether those are on-site resources like dressing up clothes, books, geo-caching trails or resources like teachers kits which can be used before and after a visit.

We have also developed a range of discovery visits where we provide a member of staff to carry out a range of enquiry-based activities on site. These can involve taking part in military drills, role playing a Victorian servant, or inhabiting a medieval castle.

The education team has also developed a range of well-reviewed resources to support learning in the classroom, using primary source materials such as photographs and images of objects and paintings. These can all be found on our heritage explorer site. We also provide a lot of teacher training, both initial teacher training for student teachers but also continuing professional development.

Q: Has your educational offer changed over the years?

A: Over the years it has evolved to keep up with the pace of change in schools. Discovery visits have been introduced to support teachers who may be daunted by running a visit themselves and to provide a very different experience for children.

New technologies have been introduced, like geo-cache trails, which can be booked free of charge at some sites. On the whole, the experience of visiting the properties is very hands-on. Where we introduce new exhibitions and displays, there are hands-on elements to encourage children to engage at a deeper level.

There’s much less reliance on worksheets and we place more emphasis in suggesting a range of activities for teachers to do, both in the classroom and on site, which are based on the principles of enquiry-based learning.

Q: What options do you provide?

A: The first thing to mention is that admission to English Heritage properties is free for booked education groups. Teachers who have booked a visit also get a free planning visit. We also provide a range of facilitated activities, plus discovery visits (which are charged for although admission is still free). These are generally for one class at a time and are available at a selection of properties.

Q: How can you help teachers prepare for trips?

A: There are a range of resources on the English Heritage website and Heritage Explorer website which support pre and post-visit activities, and suggest activities for teachers to carry out on a visit. A range of teacher’s kits cover many of our properties.

We also provide background historical information for teachers, as well as images of the property, timelines of key events and suggested activities. All of that is freely available.

Q: What can teachers do to make the most of their trip?

A: Being prepared is essential for children to get the most out of a visit, and that means properly preparing the adult helpers who may be leading groups too. Make sure that you have a range of activities prepared to do on-site if you are leading the visit yourself.

We don’t recommend worksheets with closed questions to be filled in, but imaginative ways of asking children to collect information to use in the classroom are essential for a well-run visit. Putting children in roles such as photographers, tourist guides, writers, poets or newspaper reporters from the past often works very well.

Teachers also need to make sure they know the basics; where the toilets are, where they will be eating lunch, what the potential hazard might be, and of course carry out a free planning visit to complete their risk assessment.

Q: How do you help overcome any concerns about organising a trip?

A: We provide hazard information sheets for all our sites and for our discovery visits. These are available to download from our website.

Q: What makes a great educational visit?

A: Thorough planning and preparation; a range of exciting and imaginative activities for children to carry out, which are matched to their skills and abilities; plus enough adult helpers to manage the children properly. And make sure you give the children permission to have fun and enjoy themselves!

Q: Is there anything new for educational groups this year?

A: Keep an eye out for our new resources with more activities to do on-site and watch the press for news of travel bursaries.

Useful contact:

English Heritage:
0870-333 0606

School Travel Organiser's Guide