Volunteers are accusing the National Trust of excluding deprived and minority ethnic schoolchildren from enjoying nature and visiting its properties with the planned sacking of the charity’s education officers.
The number of protests and petitions are growing over the trust’s controversial “reset” involving the proposed loss of 1,200 jobs, including its learning staff, as the charity plans to stop providing any curriculum-based content or learning activities for schools.
Volunteers, parents and children waved banners and cars hooted their horns outside Sheringham Park in north Norfolk on Friday to plead for the retention of one full-time education officer and the 22-strong volunteer team who host 6,000 schoolchildren at the property each year.
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At other National Trust properties serving urban areas including London and Birmingham, there is dismay at the proposed axing of education services, with volunteers accusing the trust of betraying the principles of its founder, Octavia Hill, who sought to help impoverished communities access green spaces and education.
“Equality and inclusion are something I thought the National Trust stood for,” said Sally Chandler, a volunteer at Sheringham Park. “Thousands of schoolchildren use the trust’s facilities all year round nationwide and these are the most important visitors of all, as we get to see children who would otherwise never get the chance to explore and experience the great outdoors.”
“The education team are the only part of Sheringham Park that pull in children from a diverse range of backgrounds,” said another volunteer.
According to a submission to the trust seen by the Guardian, the Sheringham Park education team, which specialises in nature education including bug-hunting, land art, pond-dipping, bat walks and forest schools, makes a small annual profit. “It’s a no-brainer that it will bring more money to the park because you’re bringing more people to the park,” said another volunteer.
Education teams are due to be scrapped at trust properties across the country, including Morden Hall Park, south London, Knole, Kent, Hatfield Forest and Carding Mill Valley, Shropshire, which serves inner-city schools in the Midlands.
John Death, an education volunteer at Knole, said: “I find this quite devastating. The education officers are young, committed people that they really shouldn’t be trying to get rid of. We’ll go back to that sterile 20th-century experience of going round a country house – it’s going to be white, middle-class elderly people going there to have cream teas and stare at the tapestries.”
In a National Trust “reset learning explainer” distributed to volunteers, the trust said it wanted “to broaden access to all of our places, and welcome everyone” and would work with partner organisations to do so. “Learning will increasingly need to be self-led in order to be sustainable,” it said.
A retired teacher who works for the trust at Carding Mill Valley, where one full-time education officer and several dozen volunteers hosted visits for 55,000 schoolchildren in 2019, said their 49,000 self-led school visitors still required assistance from in-house staff.
The volunteer, who preferred to remain anonymous, said his trust team acquired secondhand wellies to kit out visiting children “because welly boots aren’t relevant to the lives of children living in tower blocks”.
He accused the trust of only wanting wealthy schools to visit. “It sounds a bit like Boris [Johnson] – look after the ones that might give you a donation. The trust say they will ‘address unequal access to nature, beauty and history’. But what about ethnic minority groups?”
According to the volunteer, the trust charges £8 a schoolchild at Carding Mill Valley whereas an external charity provider charges £25 a child for the same experience. “When we tell a school in Sandwell [in the inner-city West Midlands] that their £8 trip now costs £25, what are they going to say?” he said.
Carol Cocks, a volunteer at Morden Hall Park, said: “We can’t understand how it can be a financial saving because most of the programmes are run by us retired teachers. We’ve got the expertise, we’ve got the experience and we’re free.
“The park is the heart of Morden. We’ve got children for whom English is a second language coming with their schools. Because our programmes are practical and hands-on, the children can interact without having to know much language. We provide opportunities for young adolescents and help with local mental health issues. It’s a rich source of education across all areas. It just seems such a waste.”
Asked what data the trust used to decide to scrap its education teams, a spokesperson said the charity was facing £200m losses because of the coronavirus crisis, was seeking savings in “almost every activity” and was conducting a 45-day consultation on job losses.
“We aren’t proposing to remove our education provision,” said the spokesperson. “We will still be welcoming schools, community groups and families to our places, our teams will coordinate visits and we will manage local partnerships to ensure children get the best out of their experiences.”
The trust said it was already working with partners to provide education activities, such as the Outward Bound Trust at Ogwen in Snowdonia, and its “emphasis on partnerships will open up opportunities that will help the [charitable] sector as a whole”.
The spokesperson added: “We will continue to work with partners and schools to open up access to the widest possible range of children, and ensure they get the best out of their experiences. Although we’ll be leading fewer of the educational sessions ourselves, by working with partners, who have specialist expertise in this area, it may well be that we can offer even more for children from diverse and less privileged backgrounds.”