I grew up in a suburb of Tauranga where the Mongrel Mob and Black Power had pads across the road and around the corner from our house. A mere five-minute walk away, I had friends with swimming pools and boats. My primary school was a veritable melting pot of rich, poor and very poor. It was the 90s, and the new subdivisions that brought the onset of the middle-class had not yet reached the streets of Welcome Bay.
In a school with inequality this conspicuous, school trips would inevitably mean that kids were grouped into those who got to go, and those who were left behind. We’d see them as we returned, giddy from wherever we’d been; they’d be sitting in a classroom, happy to be at school on a day where schoolwork wasn’t expected. No matter how great the day had been, it always killed the buzz to walk past the kids who’d had to stay behind. For the most part the teachers directed us away from the classroom they were in; stealth tactics that shielded us from the stark reality that some kids have and some kids have not.
At school I was blessed with two teachers who spurred me on during formative learning years of my life: Mr Brian Dey in Standard Four and Pā (Jack Te Moana) in Form Two Bilingual class. Their inspired teaching practices included field trips to the Elms Mission Station, Pukehinahina (site of the Battle of Gate Pā), Mission Cemetery, walks up Mauao, and over to Matakana Island to visit the school and stay at Opureora Marae. In the absence of any public art gallery or museum in Tauranga, these trips were invaluable for learning about the history of the area, and the success of these trips was due to one key factor: being there.
Reading about the Battle of Te Ranga (a pivotal loss for Tauranga iwi Ngāti Ranginui and Ngāi Te Rangi in the New Zealand Wars) in a stuffy classroom is completely different to standing on site. For an intermediate bilingual unit to stand on the side of a rural road and see the hills still carved with the trenches in which Māori fought, died and were buried provided a lasting, more visceral learning experience, especially as many of those kids were from local iwi.
For many taking school trips these days, this experience wouldn’t be possible without state-funded initiatives like the Ministry of Education’s Learning Experiences Outside of the Classroom (LEOTC) programme, which aims to provide students with the opportunity to engage with cultural and heritage institutions as part of their curriculum. Recognising the importance of on-site learning experiences, these programmes provide easy avenues for accessing the wealth of information held within places like museums, galleries, science centres and heritage sites. In showcasing the successes of LEOTC, the Ministry of Education (MOE) provides school case studies that illustrate the ways in which it offers “rich learning experiences that add realism to the skills and ideas they are trying to grasp.” The benefits for students are undeniable. But Wellington in 2015 is a world away from mid-90s Tauranga and subsequently, the cost that these trips incur can prove prohibitive. Whether the cost is for the programme itself or for transport to the site, it is this financial barrier that continues to be a significant impediment to schools and early childhood centres wishing to take part.
In November 2014, my daughter and the other pre-schoolers at Wellington’s Berhampore Kindergarten stepped through the doors of the national museum, Te Papa, and into the farflung past. Tyrannosaurs – Meet the Family proved incredibly popular with all audiences, and 3 and 4-year-olds are no exception. In the lead-up to the trip, the kids planned dinosaur activities, read dinosaur books, and learnt how to classify dinosaurs and reptiles, all of which came in handy at the museum. From the start of the visit, the children were taken through the exhibition with the help of a museum guide. The kids were each provided with their own vest and led through different parts of the museum, including the outside area where they were given gloves, brushes and spades to dig through the fossil pit in the garden. After they uncovered a Mosasaur, they were taken into a lab and taught the difference between flying and water reptiles. The children were provided with an immersive experience throughout their trip, over and above what they would have encountered had they attended the exhibition privately. The guide utilised the institution to its full abilities and employed a lot of tactile methods to ensure that the trip was exciting and informative at the same time. The memories and knowledge learnt from this trip has remained, my daughter will often bring up facts she learnt or refer back to the trip. Her kindergarten profile book includes a learning story from the trip which she often requests that I read. But the fact remains, this was a stand out experience for her, as it was for all the other children and the learning story ends with the teachers saying that the children were asking when they could return.
Despite the fact that Berhampore Kindergarten is less than 5 kilometres south of the Wellington waterfront, attending the exhibition was made possible only due to a months-long fundraising drive that included the Parents Committee coordinating multiple bake sales and the children selling produce they harvested from the kindergarten vegetable garden. Even with all the funds raised from this effort, the cost was still $3 per child. Head Teacher Margaret Jamieson stated the bulk of cost was in transport with one quote for hiring a bus equalling their yearly budget for excursions. Parent Committee member Jess Matthews further clarifies the budget breakdown stating “The money for the bus hire was raised by the kids alone, through the Koha table out the front which I think is fantastic! But sad at the same time that that's the situation we find ourselves in. The admission to the show per child is subsidised by the museum, fundraising was used to make up part, and kindy decided that $3 per child was a fair amount to ask of the families that wouldn't exclude anyone unfairly.” These children live in a city with a rich and varied amount of museums and galleries, many of which are free to attend, but the worth of free admittance is negligible if the cost to physically get there is inhibitive.
Indeed, $3 may not seem like much but Berhampore is a diverse community with a mixture of high and low-income households including multiple council housing estates. The local school is Decile 4 - where up to 60% of the children come from non-English speaking backgrounds, many of whom have refugee status. Poverty and inequality is a daily reality in our community: last year one of the kindergarten families appealed to the kindergarten for food as they were in dire need. In a social climate where children are attending school without food, the Feed the Kids bill fails to gain traction with the current government, how can the arts and cultural sector ensure that their minds are inspired once they get there? Children going without food is a signifier that they are also missing out on other opportunities whether that be music lessons, dance lessons, playing sport or attending school trips. These are opportunites that no kid should miss out on but the reality is that many do.
At The Dowse Art Museum in Lower Hutt, Wellington, this issue of barriers to access has been felt all too keenly by its staff members. Director Courtney Johnston wrote about this very issue for the Museums Aotearoa blog in November 2013, stating that the biggest barrier faced by schools in their community accessing the LEOTC programmes was cost associated with travel. Despite this, for Johnston, the benefits received by the children is undeniable:
The explicit value of the education programmes we run lies in children being nurtured in thinking imaginatively, learning new ways to express themselves, and coming into contact with sights and ideas that might not be part of their everyday life. But there’s also an unexpected value, in that the education visit makes the gallery part of these kids’ lives – a place that belongs to them. In terms of social equity, making civic institutions like art galleries made as accessible to our youngest people as they can be has to be a priority.
Not only are these visits providing valuable learning experiences, children are getting something that is harder to quantify: a sense of belonging and ownership. This sentiment is reiterated by The Dowse’s Learning Programmes Manager, Jennifer Boland, who states that the key to this feeling is sustained contact through multiple visits. Yet again, this comes at a cost. The Dowse have been incredibly determined in this aspect with their free bus campaign: local tertiary provider The Learning Connexion (TLC) have offered their bus and driver at a discounted rate and a local business (currently Steel and Tube) sponsors the cost of the bus for the schools in the vicinity of TLC. For Boland, juggling finances has been an unexpected stress of her work as certain charities sponsor certain aspects of certain school’s visits; it is not a uniform system. For lower deciles, the bulk of costs associated with attending is in the form of transport and in some cases can be rectified by grants or the use of the bus. However, these grants are more difficult for middle deciles to access. Access for higher decile schools were impacted by the change in car seat laws from November 2013, which meant carpooling was no longer an option. What is clear from communication is that all the schools want to be involved – but viritually all, regardless of the decile, have been impacted by cost.
In a similar vein to the sponsorship seen at The Dowse, Te Papa has been sponsored by the Earthquake Commission for the past ten years to bring children into the museum to learn within the Awesome Forces exhibition. Sponsorship partnerships for access to education programmes are also in place with Te Taura Whiri, Air New Zealand and the New Zealand China Friendship Society. This is further evidence of awareness of the value these programmes have in educating children and the amount of work that each site undertakes to ensure that as many children as possible can access them. As with the sponsorship partnerships at The Dowse, not all schools and not all exhibitions are covered via these sponsors: early childhood centres are offered subsidised education programmes that incur a cost of $2 per head. Te Papa’s tagline is “Our Place” and one way they realise this is by making their education programmes and the museum collection accessible to as many students as possible. However, a sense of belonging and ownership comes from more than an online tour, Jennifer Boland mentioned that they try to see schools once a term to maintain their relationship with schools. These institutions clearly put a lot of effort into securing sponsorship to ensure as many children as possible can access their programmes, yet children still miss out. With the amount of evidence there is about how effective and fulfilling the LEOTC programmes are for children, why is it such a constant battle to get them onsite?
Graham Stoop, Head of Student Achievement at MOE, assured me that the Ministry is aware of the barriers faced by lower decile schools in accessing these programmes, stating that this is one of the reasons why these schools are given extra funding: “A Decile 1 school, for example, receives an extra $800 a year per student from the Targeted Fund for Educational Achievement, which can be used for visits of this kind.”
However, this $800 is not explicitly for LEOTC trips, it can be used toward the trip but the decision lay with the school as to how this money is spent. As a further option for schools unable to access these programmes onsite, Stoop mentioned the travelling National Science Roadshow and a virtual site tour offered by Core Education. Admirable though these options are, they lack that visceral reaction I felt almost twenty years ago at Te Ranga, a reaction that I can recall with such clarity to this day. Equally importantly, they lack the rich relationship that can be forged between an LEOTC provider and students such as is seen at The Dowse.
Missing out on galleries and museums can begin to feel like a ‘nice to have’ in the face of children turning up to school without lunch, shoes, or raincoats. Is this an issue that even warrants attention when other situations are more pressing? To paraphrase the attitude toward these learning experiences at The Dowse, it absolutely does. Building a sustained relationship and giving children a sense of belonging and ownership when they have little else is incredibly important for their sense of self. Child poverty is as much a poverty of opportunity as it is a lack of material goods, so if something can be given to these children to close the gap in opportunity, why shouldn’t it be done?
In 2012 I saw Coralie Winn of Gap Filler speak at the Museums Aotearoa Conference about the importance of their work as a “creative urban regeneration initiative” in post-earthquake Christchurch. Winn was making a point about how Gap Filler can assist the city to flourish anew saying “If we give them a seed, they’re going to stick around to watch it grow, right?” I have realised as an adult, and had it reinforced as a mother, that the seed that was planted within me to study and work within a culture and heritage sector was on those school trips around Tauranga Moana. LEOTC experiences are more than just field trips: they collapse the past and spark an interest in the world that will continue to grow through childhood. They expand the present, forging relationships between our children and the region and nation they will come to inhabit. They transport you to rich worlds and histories, and financial barriers should never be a reason for children to miss an opportunity to learn. In this society of rife inequality, let knowledge be the great equaliser, let children gain a sense of ownership within a space that will grow and change with them.