One Year On – Guest Post by Courtney Johnston

Museums Aotearoa kindly extended me the invitation to write about my experiences in my first year in the job. Instead, I’ve decided to give the column over to highlighting a small but important issue many of us face.

The DominionPost recently published an article titled ‘Kids dip out as cost of school trip rises’. The story is based on a report from the Ministry of Education to MPs on a decrease in the number of children taking part in LEOTC visits. The story identified the cost of getting kids to the museums and galleries (and more) that run LEOTC programmes as a growing barrier to schools:

Experiences outside the classroom were “priceless” for Cannons Creek primary school children, but principal Ruth O’Neill said the cost was a huge barrier.

… Mrs O’Neill said school trips were increasingly unaffordable, and that would cost children in the future. “We asked our year 5 and 6 children who had been to Te Papa or the Botanical Gardens and none of them had. Most of them hadn’t even been to Wellington.”

School trips provided context to the curriculum, but if children did not have the experience they would always be behind, she said.

The article backs up what we’re hearing from schools and seeing at The Dowse. We’re certainly not alone; when we hosted a hui for LEOTC educators recently, this was identified by everyone as a growing problem.

This is Barbara. She visits The Dowse once a term with her ESOL class to explore art, literature, history, culture and humanity. Barbara was one of the children who selected an artwork for the kids-curated show Pic’n'Mix; she picked a still life by Maud Sherwood.

This is Barbara. She visits The Dowse once a term with her ESOL class to explore art, literature, history, culture and humanity. Barbara was one of the children who selected an artwork for the kids-curated show Pic’n’Mix; she picked a still life by Maud Sherwood.

When we look at our visit data, schools within walking distance are our most regular visitors: we form great, long-lasting relationships with these teachers and kids, and The Dowse becomes a familiar and happy part of their lives. The further away schools are – and the lower the decile – the more rarely we see them, and the more they miss out. And that’s just locally, let alone missing out on what the whole Wellington region – which is incredibly rich in LEOTC providers – has to offer.

We are acutely conscious that the cost of a bus trip should not stop kids from using and loving The Dowse. We are lucky to have access to a subsidised bus through The Learning Connexion. Previously we’ve been able to offer this service for free, but the grant that funded this has run out. Right now, we’re offering the bus to schools we know need it, and absorbing the costs; to do this, we’re scrimping on other budget lines. Shortly we’re going to be launching a fundraising campaign to try to recreate the fund.

Personally, I feel schools’ difficulty funding transport is just the saddest and stupidest reason for those kids to be missing out. In the time I’ve been at The Dowse, some of my most joyful moments have come from tagging along with school groups. And one of my most hard-hitting moments did too.

I went into the education workshop at the end of the school day. A class was in there making shrinky-dink charms to hang off bracelets, inspired by the stories in Myths & Monsters. I’d hung out with them earlier in the gallery and met their principal, who was with them. She told me that the visit had been hard to organise, because it was tough to recruit enough parents with a combination of valid drivers licenses and current registrations. At the end of the workshop – and getting very close to 3pm – it became apparent two of the parent helpers had not come back to help drive the kids back to school. Jolie, one of our educators, and I happily loaded some kids into our cars and dropped them off ourselves. But the frustration and embarrassment I saw on that principal’s face when she realised her class was stranded in the museum at home-time –  that’s engrained in my memory.

These are the silly little barriers that stand between us and being the best we can be for our community, and one by one, we’re determined to knock them down.

As I said though – this is not a problem only we are facing, and it would be great as a sector to be able to stand up and say “Look, this is a problem for the majority of schools. We have a solution. Here’s what’s required to make it happen. Can you help us?”

It’s also a problem that illustrates the complexity of the things we all do. A year ago, I wouldn’t have realised that a  law change that went through this month meaning that all children under 7 must be restrained when travelling in cars would make it harder for me to meet the commitments of our Ministry contract. I’ve found this job to be full of the unknown-unknowns – the things you never expected to have to deal with, from super-storms to a FOH person asking you whether they should keep on feeding a regular homeless visitor. These jobs are endlessly challenging, endlessly interesting, endlessly rewarding. My conclusion at the end of a year is that I have the best job in the world.

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