Moving primary school lessons into the museum

Written by: Russell Dwyer | Published:
Learning: Pupils from St Thomas Community Primary School at the National Waterfront Museum in Swansea learning about the role of shipping and industry (Image: Amgueddfa Cymru)

A King’s College research project has investigated the learning, social and cultural outcomes when significant parts of primary education take place in museums and galleries. Headteacher Russell Dwyer, who took part in the research, explains

As a primary headteacher, many people come to you with wide ranging opportunities which may or may not be of benefit to the school and its pupils.

One such meeting took place in October 2015. I had just returned from paternity and my deputy had arranged a meeting with an architect and the local museum. I was intrigued but not quite prepared for what Wendy James, from Garbers & James Architects, was about to suggest: “We would like to move some of the school to National Waterfront Museum.”

Was it the lack of sleep as a consequence of having a new born son which had caused me to mishear? Was Wendy really suggesting bringing the school and museum together by moving classes there? If that was the case, this was going to be one of the more outrageous “opportunities” I had ever been presented with!

As the meeting developed, it transpired that I hadn’t misheard at all and moving some classes to the museum for a number of weeks was indeed the prospect on offer. There were a number of reasons going through my head as to why this may be an opportunity too far, but Wendy continued to speak passionately as to how she saw huge benefits for schools and museums being brought together under one roof.

The more I listened to Wendy’s clear vision and well-thought-out arguments for the action research project she was undertaking with Kings College London, the more the concept seemed to make sense. After all, when you think back to the distant memories of your days in school, what do you remember? Is it the day-to-day lessons or does a particular class visit or experience invoke memories of your younger self?

For me, my earliest recollection in school is visiting the local bakery. I’m sure I did other things in those early years, but a lasting memory is the smell of the bakery and kneading the dough. Now I know a bakery is not a museum and I’m not advocating putting schools into bakeries (although the idea of daily fresh bread is quite appealing), but why not capitalise on that “hook” of a new place, outside the classroom, and extend the time children have to engage with the experience?

This view, coupled with the amazing opportunity to undertake action research with Kings, made the proposal an exciting one to engage with. In essence, Wendy’s passion for the project had been intoxicating and I had been convinced. By the end of that initial meeting we had agreed that our two Reception classes would spend five weeks each at the National Waterfront Museum!

However, as the enormity of what I had actually signed up to dawned on me, I realised that despite my enthusiasm, there would still be barriers to overcome. One barrier could be the staff as it is not every day you go to your Reception teacher and say, “you are going to take 25, four and five-year-olds on a five-week visit to the museum – enjoy!”

Parents also understandably had the potential to be an obstacle; would they have concerns about their children being transported to the museum for nearly half-a-term?

Part of my philosophy as a leader though is that you have to occasionally take calculated risks; how will you ever grow if you play it safe all the time? If it didn’t work, then we wouldn’t do it again. It was as simple as that.

In reality, staff and parents were the easy aspects to convince. It is fair to say that some staff had reservations but I knew they would all do their best to make it work. Parents were also incredibly supportive. We held a parents’ meeting, aiming to convince them that this could potentially be a great opportunity for their child and the result was that three of them signed up as volunteers to help with the project.

Other logistical issues included safeguarding and risk-assessments, which had to be carefully considered as the children would be mixing with the general public. Dinners also proved more complicated than I anticipated. Although the museum could provide meals, there was less choice and it cost more.

Free school meals added another layer of complexity because no money changes hands regarding these children, but we still needed to pay the museum for their food. Kings and the National Waterfront Museum though were incredibly accommodating and the funding provided enabled us to overcome these issues.

So was the outcome worth the effort? Quite simply, yes it was, and I’m fairly certain the experience these children had will be something they will remember for many years to come, if not for the rest of their lives. To see the children so enthused when I visited them, telling me about the many things they had learnt, was heart-warming.

They clearly gained confidence over the five weeks and developed their ability to interact with others appropriately; something which hadn’t been considered as a gain prior to undertaking the project. We also observed increased levels of enjoyment in learning, improved oracy skills and, in some cases, higher attendance.

Were there pitfalls throughout the project and would there be things we would do differently if we repeated the process? Yes, but the issues that arose during the project, such as transporting equipment, travel each day and organising lunches, would not be challenges in a purpose-built “museum school”. I believe the potential for learning in such an environment is huge. Who wouldn’t want to be able to easily access historical artefacts to make local history come alive?

Wendy’s infectious enthusiasm for this project, coupled with our now personal experiences from the action research, has certainly convinced us that there is an educational benefit in extending a visit to the museum beyond the usual morning or day session. I guess the real success of such a project comes from its longer term impact and the willingness people have to develop a legacy from it.

I am pleased to say we continue to work closely with National Waterfront Museum and our two new Reception classes this year will be visiting the museum for a sustained period; only a week each this time but that is due more to funding than anything else.

A final anecdote to my experiences of this project is actually an inspirational comment from my nine-year-old daughter. Mollie was telling me about her own recent trip to a museum as we drove past the local secondary school. “What’s that, Dad?” she asked, commenting on a new structure going up in the school grounds. “I really don’t know, Mollie,” I replied.

After a short pause she responded: “Wouldn’t it be great if they were building a museum at the school?” Her comment was innocent but resonated so loudly after the incredible journey we, as part of My Primary School is at the Museum project, had just been on. A school in a museum – just think how great it could be.

  • Russell Dwyer is headteacher at St Thomas Community Primary School in Swansea.


Learning: Pupils from St Thomas Community Primary School at the National Waterfront Museum in Swansea with one of their teaching assistants (Image: Amgueddfa Cymru)


My Primary School is at the Museum

Research overview by Dr Heather King and Dr Jennifer DeWitt, research fellows in the School of Education, Communication and Society at KCL

My Primary School is at the Museum was developed against a backdrop of threatened museum services, a shortage of school places, and ever-growing evidence for a wide range of benefits of learning in cultural environments and through collections.

This was the first time in the UK that school classes have been placed for extended residencies into museums. To pioneer the concept, three very different partnerships between schools and museums across the UK – in Swansea, Liverpool and South Shields – were created. Classes from two primary schools and a nursery moved into a museum or gallery for between two weeks and a term while continuing to deliver the national curriculum and EYFS.

The project highlighted some of the most pertinent issues in the cultural and education sectors – embracing flexibility and creativity, exploiting local resources to the full – and put a spotlight on the potential of radical new ways of working.

Children proved themselves to be surprisingly adaptable to the new environment and stimuli. In particular, many became more confident and effective communicators, developing new social skills as a result of their extended stay in a public and adult structured environment. Schools and teachers became more confident in using out-of-classroom resources and spaces for teaching. The more relaxed environment encouraged teachers to explore a greater range of resources, in creative ways, to deliver the curriculum. The projects also fostered deeper relationships between schools and parents.

New partnerships formed and there was a flow of skills, knowledge and ways of working between the partner organisations. However, it was evident that if educational and cultural organisations are to work together in this way longer term, closer communication and a better understanding of the different organisational cultures are required.

Further information

King’s College London has published a report on My primary school is at the Museum, a project which tested the hypothesis that there may be beneficial learning, social and cultural outcomes for children and their families if a significant portion of their nursery and key stage 1 and 2 education were to take place in a museum or gallery. You can read more about the project at www.kcl.ac.uk/schoolsinmuseums


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