In this blog post Emma Taylor, Supplementary Schools Programme Manager at the Museum of London, gives us insight into her work with supplementary schools, how museums are well placed to engage with this new audience, and the mutual benefits this brings.
I have been working with supplementary schools for five years, both at the British Museum and now at the Museum of London. Over this time, both institutions have built up an impressive track record for providing relevant, responsive and sustained programming for this audience. This has not come about without its share of challenges and set-backs along the way, but rooted in its foundation of collaborative working practice, both organisations have developed strong partnerships with supplementary schools across the UK and have provided meaningful ways for students, teachers and their wider communities to access and engage with their respective collections.
First of all though, starting with an overview of supplementary schools seems like a good idea. Supplementary, Complementary or weekend schools provide additional learning opportunities for children and young people either on weekday evenings or during the weekend. Their main aim is to raise the attainment of the children they support by offering a range of core curriculum, mother tongue and culture, heritage and faith based teaching, and as such to complement the learning achieved in mainstream schools. As voluntary run, community based organisations, it is difficult to say how many there are in the UK, but a good estimate is between 3,000-5,000. Catering for children and young people between 5-18, although some also provide nurseries, they often rent school buildings or community halls to deliver their teaching.
Weekend and evening hours means that supplementary schools often face difficulties accessing traditional schools programmes and often if they visit museums in large groups, cannot access family offers either, which is one of the main reasons why creating a bespoke programme in both organisations was so important. At the Museum of London we run lots of outreach visits, teacher training days, large scale events and workshop throughout the year in order to build sustainable partnerships. This type of intense programming is however not something that can be easily replicated without having a significant amount of funds, staff and time in place to work in this way. This is not to say that museums can’t work creatively with supplementary schools on a smaller scale – far from it – and I shall give examples of a few ways in which this can be achieved.
Working with supplementary schools on family led projects
Last year I worked with our Family Programmes Manager to engage with three schools with the aim of developing collaborative artworks for a redisplay in the Clore Learning Centre at the Museum of London. A family led project, recruited through supplementary schools, enabled the museum to deliver a multilingual, multigenerational and multicultural project inspired by the collections. The families valued the quality time together that this project provided, the unique ‘behind the scenes’ experience as well as working with a professional artist and learning new skills. In my opinion one of the main successes however was the sharing of personal objects reflecting their respective cultures and heritage both within their own families and with other participating schools, as well as learning about London’s shared history in the museum, which created a lasting sense of ownership and belonging over the space.
By recruiting families through the schools, this meant that the museum could extend its relationship from the teachers into the wider community that the schools represent. Due to the connection that the families had with the lead teachers, the project benefited from a higher likelihood of sustained engagement throughout, with families that ordinarily may not have felt confident enough or interested in taking part in a project like this. As a result 100% of the participating families expressed an interest in taking part in similar projects and many have visited the museum again with their extended families, to see their display. This certainly shows a desired transition between facilitated group visits to independent family trips, one of the main goals of the programme.
Working with supplementary schools on young people led projects
As well as a route to engaging with families, recruiting via supplementary schools can work for young people’s projects too. In 2015 I recruited young people between 13 and 19 years old from three supplementary schools to come together as a group to develop creative content for the Kids in Museums Takeover event that year. They created drama, spoken word, music compositions and digital content inspired by the collections, which gave a unique and bespoke perspective, being created by and for young people. This is something the Museum of London will be continuing exploring further this year with the upcoming City Now, City Future exhibition season.
Adapting existing schools sessions for supplementary schools and outreach visits
One of the things I have learned creating my programme is to observe, adapt and borrow from existing mainstream school offers. Museums provide brilliant, high quality learning offers for mainstream schools which, with a few tweaks, can be made suitable for supplementary schools too. Any sessions that draw upon core curriculum subjects, particularly literacy and STEM would be of interest, as well as those that encourage a dialogue about topics such as citizenship, heritage, language and identity which are relevant to the subjects taught at supplementary schools.
Supplementary schools often find it a challenge to visit museums due to limited teaching time as well as transport costs and perceived challenges of bringing children offsite. Outreach visits are therefore very important to overcome this and to start building connections with groups, and in many cases onsite sessions can be adapted and delivered offsite too. Although this still requires members of staff to deliver these sessions, the remaining costs are relatively low and could be incorporated within existing exhibition projects or seasons to reach new audiences.
Museums and supplementary schools have been working together on ad hoc projects and programming for years, but there now seems to be much more of a growing interest for arts and cultural organisations across the UK to work with this audience in new and exciting ways.