Qualified Teacher Status: A Requirement for Museum Educators?

In a piece on The Conversation UK earlier this month, Jacqueline Baxter of The Open University argues that all teachers should have Qualified Teacher Status (QTS) [1]. Her piece reminded me of the fact that in many museums, QTS is the required qualification for museum educators – the people that deliver the programmes for schools.

Now, museum educators aren’t teachers in a school classroom. In surveys that I have done in various roles, teachers bringing their classes to a museum or site have said that they want the children to experience something that they can’t give them in the classroom. A school trip is a huge administrative and financial burden for schools, so the value for the children has to far outstrip the effort. In our surveys, teachers have expressed that they want the children to experience the museum (or site), see the collection, handle artefacts, become immersed in history with opportunities teachers simply can’t offer in school.

And yet, I continue to see school programmes delivered as structured sessions in ‘education rooms’. Even where children are taken out into galleries, all that changes are the surroundings – the management techniques, the way that children are expected to behave, the way that they are invited to learn often stay the same as in the classroom. Educators count down to ‘stop talking’ with primary classes, children are sat down and asked questions, which they must answer by raising their hands. More often than not, the programmes don’t extend into the galleries at all. Teachers are expected to take classes there on their own, with resources that are often little more than historical background information, and possibly a ‘quiz’. [3]

I think museums can do so much better than that. Interestingly, at heritage sites the dynamic seems to be consistently different. When I was at 1066 Battle of Hastings two weeks ago, for example, I twice observed school groups going around with costumed interpreters. The children got dressed up, learnt to wield weapons, and re-imagined parts of the battle right above the battlefield itself [2]. Yes, they were expected to follow rules (they did get a bit excited by the battle re-enactment, and who can blame them?), but there was none of that tightly controlled discipline that seems aimed at supporting intellectual learning. This was hands-on, immersive and, judging from the children’s reactions, fun.

I don’t know if the interpreters at English Heritage are qualified teachers. If they are, they certainly have learnt to be interpreters rather than teachers. And this is why I would argue that museum educators should have interpretation as their required qualification, not QTS. Interpretation teaches us about learning styles, communication, managing groups, and working with children. We don’t need to know about classroom discipline or assessment. In fact, I believe it is this training in classroom techniques followed by formal assessment in the discipline the teacher is trained in that is responsible for the classroom programmes offered in so many museums. While interpretation encourages us to think creatively about ways of engaging people with the heritage that is there, QTS is ultimately about making sure children succeed in passing tests. And it shows. [4]

[1] Academies and free schools in England can hire teachers who do not have Qualified Teacher Status.

[2] This was one of the Discovery Visits that English Heritage offer. Note on their website the emphasis on ‘out-of-the-classroom experience’. Because that is what it is about.

[3] Obviously, teacher resources are necessary. Not every teacher wants a formal programme, nor can every school be accommodated. Teachers do ask for resources. What I would suggest, however, is that the resources are structured in such a way that teachers themselves can step outside their usual role (something that incidentally will also help children pay attention, as it’s not ‘the same teacher doing the same thing’). They should contain more than information, and a few suggested questions and ‘search’ activities. In effect, the resources should present a fully structured programme, supported by in-gallery resources, that teachers can quickly access, understand, and guide themselves.

[4] Perhaps it would help if we dropped the ‘educators’ label altogether. Let’s call them anything but educators. Education as a concept sets us on a specific path that just doesn’t inspire in museums and heritage sites – even for school groups. Teachers are great at educating pupils, and schools (and colleges and universities) are set up for education. Outside of these places, let’s stick with ‘informal learning’, unless we’re entering into a more formal agreement, which is usually with Further or Higher Education institutions, to provide part of a course, or a formal placement. But that’s not a school programme.

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