Connections with the Community - Spreading the Impact
Number 25 - December 2002
Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew, Richmond, UK
'Community education’ is a phrase much utilised by educators working in the informal sector over the last few years – but what exactly do we all mean by community education? I recently asked a number of educators to define the term and found that peoples’ understanding of the phrase varied enormously. Answers I got included ‘providing programmes for anyone within the local area’, ‘working with schools nearby’, ‘outreach programmes offsite in a local facility’, ‘Friends’ of the garden’ and so on. All of these are legitimate audiences to label as community groups. However if we hope to work within the context of Agenda 21 and so seek to ‘engage and empower’ communities, this requires more than re-labelling our everyday audiences or offering our normal education service offsite.
Recently a new project was developed onsite at Kew, to try a more participative approach to education development. ‘Our Living Heritage’, was developed during a meeting between the education managers from Historic Royal Palaces (HRP) and Kew. HRP manage a property on site at Kew, The Queen’s Cottage (built as a picnic site for George III and his family). Education staff at HRP wanted to use the cottage as a focus for educational activities. At the same time Kew staff were thinking about how they could use the natural conservation area surrounding the cottage to better focus education activities on UK bio-diversity. Both parties agreed that they should set up a programme to celebrate the local heritage, both historic and environmental, in and around the cottage. The programme was to involve a number of groups local to Kew and would encourage residents from both sides of the Thames to take part. It was hoped this would ensure a rich and diverse ethnic mix. All the participants would be invited to join the initial project development stages and be fully involved in all decision making processes as to what, when and how to deliver a celebratory end product.
We sent out invitations to local community groups and individuals explaining the outline of the project and how we hoped to develop it. Several groups responded positively and agreed to participate. The final participants included;
- Hounslow business and education partnership
- 8 local schools; 5 primary, 3 secondary
- Special needs group
- Art Department staff and students from Richmond Community College
- A freelance community artist
- A London community education trust
Working together over a number of meetings we drew up the objectives of the project. They were to:
- celebrate UK historical / environmental heritage on site at Kew
- create / foster local partnerships
- create a multi-cultural community display
- increase access to / enhanced use of conservation site in Kew Gardens and an
Historic Royal Palace site
- support the ‘Year of Science’ and the Arts Council of England’s ‘Year of Diversity’
- provide a local activity to celebrate the Golden Jubilee year
We agreed to use a range of media to develop the end products for the final celebratory exhibition. We planned to include live theatre, paintings and sculpture, music, poetry, garden designs and research data. The groups of participants were given tours of the Queen’s Cottage site and nearby conservation grounds. We felt this would help them to understand exactly what it was they were being asked to celebrate. HRP and Kew staff gave background information on the habitats, biodiversity and history of the area. Participants were given free access to visit Kew as often as they wished. We hoped this would allow them to explore the diversity of the site and to work with Kew and HRP teaching staff to learn about any aspects of the area they felt appropriate to their needs. We also gave all participants access to relevant library materials, background information sheets and literature on the site. We also provided the school groups with free Kew teacher led study days and / or teacher support if they required it.
The celebration took the form of an exhibition within the Queen’s Cottage and its grounds. This was held from June 1st to June 10th 2002. All the products of the groups were displayed and interpreted for the public. The final display items included: 3D models of dragonflies and newts on site; an electronic visitor interpretation board; leaf banners; plant mosaics; a sculpture of a hidden animal burrow; poems about our native trees; artwork linking UK and exotic mythical creatures; and close-up photography of the structural framework of Queen’s Cottage. A brochure was developed as a trail to guide all visitors around the display with the nominated leader of each participating group providing the interpretation. Kew staff later edited this brochure. It allowed a very personal insight into each individual contribution and proved an effective tool for the visiting public to use. A final day, June 11th, was set aside as an event day where all the participants, their families and friends, project supporters and funders together with HRP and Kew staff met up for a live theatre performance and a presentation ceremony.
Considering the steep learning curve involved in developing any new project or educational approach, the project ran well and was much appreciated and enjoyed by all. We learnt several lessons were during the process. The post evaluation carried out afterwards has provided a set of recommendations and resolutions that will no doubt lead to a smoother delivery on any further projects. A few generic points are listed below:
- If you chose to work with a number of mixed groups, try to work with a reasonably small number (15 different groups was rather too large a number to work with easily).
- Ensure each group has one nominated contact person who will be present throughout the duration of the project
- Stress importance of meetings and set all meetings / display dates well in advance – bringing many diverse groups together can be a major issue e.g. school staff can only attend after school / parents with young children can often only attend during school hours / ‘volunteering’ groups do not always recognise importance of timeliness and attendance at meetings etc.
- Many community groups are not used to a participative approach and feel out of their depth when asked to contribute to decision making - they tend to like constraints to work within or frameworks to work to. It is easier to set up a number of working models and project objectives as aunt sallys prior to working with groups and then invite them to change / reconstruct them.
- If working with schools, ensure contact persons are appointed who can maintain continuity outside school hours and term times; some ‘school contact’ persons may be naturally reticent to give out private contact details but communication can break down very easily at critical points if regular contact is not maintained.
- Remember to evaluate your project – this is one of the few times you have a captive audience and can monitor progress over a long period. This means that you can work through a complete evaluation process from pre-evaluation, through the formative and on to post evaluation.
- Once operating frameworks, schedules and products have been agreed – draw up a contract with each group to ensure that there is full understanding of the project requirements and full commitment to complete it.
- If participating groups are working off-site, maintain support and supervision by frequent visits to their institutes / meeting rooms / schools etc
- Allow plenty of time for setting up display work; many local groups are not familiar with display techniques and will require skills development and support
- Ensure you have put in place methods for sustaining the contacts and partnership relationships that naturally develop through long-term close communication with your community groups.
Although there were problems to resolve and adjustments to be made – the benefits of working in such close relationship with local groups far outweigh any issues. All participants found the project thought provoking and exciting and several new partnerships were formed that are now continuing to explore new educational initiatives both at Kew and with HRP. Ideas from one group naturally sparked off others and cross fertilisation was a natural outcome of the programme. All participants felt that the project had met not only the overall objectives but had also met their own personal objectives such as enriching the school curriculum work for the school participants, or realising a planned and implemented piece of construction work on the part of the special needs group. A real feeling from the participants was of having contributed something very personal to the Kew/HRP education programme and many spoke of their sense of pride in having their work on public display. Everyone responded positively in the post evaluation process and indicated that they would be happy to participate in any further initiatives – something some of them have already been taken up on for 2003!
" Notre héritage vivant " était un projet d’éducation destiné à la communauté, mené récemment à Kew. Les responsables de l’éducation des Palais Royaux Historiques et de Kew (HRP) ont travaillé avec plusieurs groupes proches pour développer et concevoir un programme d’exposition célébrant l’héritage historique et environnemental dans les zones protégées du Royaume Uni et le territoire du Queen Cottage. Les productions exposées comprenaient des sujets liés à l’art et à la science au moyen d’artéfacts tels que des modèles en 3D, des sculptures montrant la biodiversité locale, des poèmes et des peintures. Développer un projet collectif impliquant un grand nombre de personnes pose un certain nombre de problèmes, en particulier au cours de la programmation initiale et de la mise en place des différentes étapes d’objectifs. Quoi qu’il en soit, les bénéfices d’un tel programme sont immenses, que ce soit pour les groupes locaux ou pour l’équipe de Kew et du HRP, en particulier la création de partenariats forts et durables. Pour celui qui souhaite mettre en place un tel projet, un certain nombre de conseils et de suggestions sur la façon de gérer le développement du programme sont donnés.