At English Heritage properties, we offer free access to pre-booked schools on self-led visits, to encourage as many young people to learn about their heritage as possible. We provide teacher training and supporting resources to help teachers plan and lead these visits. Our decision to expand our programme to offer taught sessions to schools, however, brought a new and much more challenging opportunity. These sessions are called Discovery Visits and are delivered at a variety of sites, focussing on Roman, Medieval, Victorian or WW2 history as appropriate. Discovery Visits have clear learning outcomes and links to the curriculum, in order to make them best value for money, as well as being engaging and fun for participants. We charge schools for the Discovery Visits, to cover our costs (currently £100 per session per class).

Education Volunteers in action at Portchester Castle
Education Volunteers in action at Portchester Castle

Initially, the taught sessions were developed and delivered by freelance practitioners, but we needed to look at this model again. Obviously, we had to consider the sustainability of the programme from the perspective of costs, but we also wanted to think about ensuring that local people were involved in engaging school children at their local properties. We began to recruit volunteers to help us continue to develop and deliver our taught sessions at key properties. As our department was fairly new to this, we needed a lot of guidance from our then Education Volunteering Manager, then a new role appointed at English Heritage, to develop our policies and practices.

I learnt as I went along from mistakes, such as being too woolly about the role and what was expected from volunteers in the first place. It was also necessary manage disappointment when new sessions were not as successful as we had hoped. Painful decisions to cut those parts of the programme which did not take off had to be taken and explained to one team.

We now have two teams of volunteers in the South East; one at Portchester Castle and another at Battle Abbey & Battlefield. Both are made up of some wonderful people, from different walks of life and with a variety of experience. They all have a love of heritage in common, and deliver a lot of sessions to our school visitors in a very professional manner, but have great fun too. Between them they help to make the stories of our properties come alive for more than 2000 school children a year. They are a most valuable asset.

English Heritage Volunteer Magazine showing gardening volunteers
English Heritage Volunteer Magazine showing gardening volunteers

Along the way, we have listened to teacher, pupil and volunteer feedback, and made slight changes to our offer. Our Education Volunteer Manager is now Head of Volunteering for English Heritage, and has ensured that our volunteer programme is enshrined in policy, all of which you can find on our webpages. This ensures that all volunteers are treated in a consistent manner and receive the same benefits in return for their commitment to us. We have a lovely Volunteer Magazine, offer free passes to those who have given us over 60 hours of their time, plus lots more, but you don’t have to be part of a large organisation to successfully manage volunteers.

Following are my top 10 tips for Volunteer Management in the Heritage Sector:

  • Be absolutely clear about why you want to use volunteers and what you need them to do. An accurate role description and clear communication of expectations are key.
  • Consult with every stakeholder and ensure that your volunteers will have a person or people to support them in situ.
  • Advertise the role and ask interested parties to complete and return an application form, giving you an idea of their experience and interest in the role.
  • Always take references and check them.
  • Carry out an interview to check they understand what is required from the role and give them a chance to seek clarification – it is just as important for a volunteer as for a paid member of staff.
  • If they are not suitable, do not recruit them. It is not fair on either party, even if you are under pressure to fill the role. Be prepared to give feedback in a helpful and constructive way.
  • Ensure that your volunteer has the tools and the space to fulfil their role, ie, costume that fits and enough (but not too many) props, a desk and or/pc if appropriate, safety clothing, etc.
  • Allow plenty of time for training and induction/shadowing for the volunteer to build up confidence in the role. These all count towards the hours they contribute. Set them up to succeed.
  • Give regular feedback, review performance and, if someone is not fulfilling the role as required, you need to tackle why this may be, ie, training need or change in circumstances and talk to them about it, as you would a member of paid staff. If someone is no longer happy with their role, it is better to agree to part company than continue.
  • Celebrate success and ensure you are offering whatever retention incentives you are able to fairly, across the board. Remember why your volunteers are giving you their precious time, knowledge and commitment!

To find out more about volunteering for English Heritage, visit our website.

Click here for more information on free visits and even free transport to our properties.

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