New history curriculum threatens museums

By Jenny Scott
BBC News

Image source, The Ragged School Museum
Image caption,
London's Ragged School Museum is among those attractions wondering what impact the new curriculum will have on visitor numbers

Former Education Secretary Michael Gove wielded an executioner's axe over Henry VIII, the Victorians and World War Two in favour of a broader sweep of subjects, from early history to the present day. But what does this mean for the UK's history attractions that depend on school visits?

It is 08:30 and Richard Stevenson is setting off for work carrying a fetching ermine-lined cloak, a peacock-feathered hat and a jewelled tunic.

It is hardly standard workwear - but then, Mr Stevenson's job is hardly routine, being that he is known as "That History Bloke".

As a freelance education specialist, Mr Stevenson leads workshops in schools across his native north-east England, accompanied by an array of props, costumes and dramatic spectacles, in an attempt to bring the curriculum to life.

From September though, his Henry VIII garb will be largely mothballed.

"It's a shame - it's one of my favourites," he said.

Luckily for Mr Stevenson, his income does not depend solely on the much-married monarch - or other history staples such as the Victorians and World War Two, which have also been taken off the curriculum.

Image source, Richard Stevenson
Image caption,
Educator Richard Stevenson - or That History Bloke, as he is known - will have to exchange his Henry VIII props for an Anglo-Saxon monk's cassock as he helps children understand early British history

Instead, children at key stage one (five to seven-year-olds) and two (seven to 11-year-olds) will be studying a "broader sweep" of subjects, starting with the Stone Age and continuing through a series of ancient civilisations, including those of the Greeks and the Romans.

"A few teachers have been panicking - 'We can't do the Victorians and World War Two any more and we don't know anything about the Romans or the Ancient Greeks'," said Mr Stevenson.

"Fortunately, that's worked out quite well for me. I can tailor something to suit the curriculum."

But, while Mr Stephenson will now be reaching for his Anglo Saxon monk's cassock or his Roman toga, he does not feel inspired by the changes.

"Part of the reason people hire me is to make quite a dull curriculum more exciting," he said. "Something like the Stone Age is very difficult to teach. It doesn't have a personality.

"You think of the Tudor kings and queens and there's a genuine human story there.

"We don't know enough about the Stone Age to put a human face on it - and it's that human side that gets kids excited and engaged."

He is not the only one feeling despondent over the changes - some of the country's leading history attractions also fear they spell bad news.

Image source, The Ragged School Museum
Image caption,
Behind the scenes at the museum - school trips make up 16,000 of The Ragged School's 23,000 visitors

"It's quite unclear how the changes will affect us," said Simon Woolley, head of learning at Beamish, an open-air museum in County Durham, devoted to 19th and 20th Century history.

"I suspect there will be a small decrease in school visits but we just don't know."

School groups currently make up just under 10% of Beamish's annual 590,000 visitors.

"At the moment, we are getting quite mixed messages from teachers," said Mr Woolley.

"While some are saying they will visit us anyway, others are saying 'You don't fit the curriculum, we will have to go somewhere else'."

Image source, Nigel Wallace-Iles
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English Heritage said it was trying to increase online resources for schools which did not have a prehistoric attraction like Stonehenge nearby

In London, the Ragged School Museum, which tells the history of the Victorian East End, has an even bigger reliance on school trips, which make up 16,000 of their 23,000 visitors.

"We were very worried about the curriculum at first - it would have been disastrous for us," said Erica Davies, museum director.

"Since then, they have adjusted it to allow a level of discretion for teachers, so we're hoping that will help us."

The Black Country Living Museum, in Dudley, also campaigned against the changes, motivated by the fact 25% of its total annual visitor figure comes from school visits.

"We are going to keep a close eye on our booking numbers to see what the trend is," said Laura Wakelin, director of marketing and communications.

Image source, Nigel Wallace-Iles
Image caption,
Stonehenge has seen a 35% increase in school bookings compared with 2013

World War Two attractions are also feeling the pinch.

"It's a big shame they're removing World War Two from the syllabus," said Andrew Panton from the Lincolnshire Aviation Heritage Centre.

"They don't seem to feel it's important enough to teach any more."

Image source, James O. Davies
Image caption,
The Jorvik Viking Centre, in York, says it has seen a 79% increase in school visits

The small chink of light in the curriculum for many of these museums though, is the introduction of a "local history" element to the curriculum.

Schools can, for example, choose to study what happened on their doorsteps during World War Two or the Tudor or Elizabethan periods and draw on what their local museum offers.

"We feel local history is really key to us and what we offer," said Ms Wakelin.

"Obviously, when the government are setting the curriculum, they shouldn't just think about how it's going to affect museums.

"But at the same time, we do have the resources to bring history to life for children."

Image source, Picasa
Image caption,
The Black Country Living Museum, in Dudley, campaigned against the changes but says it is "much happier" with the revised curriculum

In contrast, England's relatively small number of early history attractions have been inundated with demands for school visits.

Stonehenge has seen a 35% increase in school bookings, compared with 2013, while the little-known English Heritage attraction Grime's Grave - a prehistoric flint mine in Norfolk - has seen a 192% rise in visitor numbers.

Meanwhile, the Jorvik Viking Centre, in York, says it has seen a 79% increase in school visits.

"With the curriculum focusing more on pre-1066 history, we are in good position to support pupils' understanding," said Fran Bennett, Jorvik's education officer.

Image source, James O. Davies
Image caption,
English Heritage says it is "sad" the popularity of some attractions depends so heavily on the curriculum

"We are really quite excited about the opportunities from the new curriculum," said Barbara Birley, assistant curator at the Vindolanda Trust, an independent charity that looks after two Hadrian's Wall sites in Northumberland - the Vindolanda fort and the Roman Army Museum at Haltwhistle.

School visits currently make up about 8% of their footfall but they are hoping for an increase.

"We used to get a lot of school visits in the 1970s, before the national curriculum came in," Mrs Birley added.

Image source, Jorvik Viking Centre
Image caption,
There are concerns learning may become more classroom-based for children without an ancient history attraction on their doorsteps

However, there are concerns that in areas without ancient heritage sites, learning could become more classroom-based.

According to Matthew Tanner, chairman of the Association of Independent Museums, around 75% of independent sites are based on the history of the 18th, 19th and 20th Centuries.

"The argument is not about the merits or otherwise of providing more of a chronological structure in the teaching of history, but rather the manner in which that may be done so that young people are not being deprived of good out-of-classroom experiences," he said.

Catherine McHarg, digital learning manager at English Heritage, is developing online resources to try to help such schools.

"Only a small percentage of schools will be able to make it to Stonehenge," she said.

Miss McHarg feels it is "sad" the popularity of some attractions depends so heavily on the curriculum.

"There are certain properties we don't really invest in, from an education point of view, because we know if it's not on the curriculum the schools won't come," she said.

Image source, Jorvik Viking Centre
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The Jorvik Viking Centre is one of several attractions that could help children appreciate the broad scope of history, according to experts

She feels the more chronological direction of the curriculum will help children appreciate the broad scope of the subject.

"Children can appreciate there is history all around them," she said.

"We have this whole generation of people - including teachers - who have done nothing but 20th Century history.

"If you ask most teachers, they don't like Michael Gove but I think, from this point of view, what he has done has been really good."

But Mr Stevenson disagrees. Although his costumes and material can easily be adapted to meet the new demands, he fears next year could prove tough for some attractions.

"This is the advantage of being a one-man show - I don't have a building people can visit with a set display," he said. "One person is much more adaptable than a museum."

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