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HLF Skills for the Future in partnership with the NWFED

Read a transcript of excerpts from this video.

The HLF Skills for the Future programme set up traineeships in Manchester and Salford as a means of diversifying the workforce of the heritage and cultural sector. Trainees worked towards gaining an NVQ qualification while partner institutions have developed an understanding of issues affecting disabled visitors and have improved their offer in their organisations. 

Lessons learnt in the delivery of Positive Action traineeships in North West museums

NWFED, in partnership with five museums across the North West, offered 12 Positive Action traineeships between 2011-2014. All of the placements were 18 months long and based in visitor services, offering a heritage venue specific qualification at level 2 or 3. 

The participating museums were:

  • Manchester Museum (trainee host)
  • National Museums Liverpool (project management)
  • Ordsall Hall, Salford (trainee host)
  • Towneley Hall, Burnley (trainee host)
  • Whitworth Art Gallery (trainee host)

The traineeships were open to people of all ages, with disabilities or from Black and Ethnic Minority groups, as people from those groups are under-represented in museums. 

What does a museum need to run an effective training scheme?

We found that the training was most effective when the venues had already established a successful front of house operation. In particular, each venue needed to provide the following:

  • An adequately resourced staff team - the trainees should be additional to the existing front of house team as they need support and supervision, especially in the first 3-6 months
  • Capacity to provide line management support both to trainees and to staff going through assessor qualifications
  • Ideally, capacity to offer two training placements. Trainees benefited from the relationships they were able to make with other trainees.  

Introducing trainees into a venue which needs to improve its visitor service won’t work, because trainees learn by adopting the habits of other staff. You don’t have to be perfect, but you have to be confident that you have a strong team and set of operational procedures in place. 

Trainees in the NWFED scheme did really well across a variety of venues. There were different benefits and drawbacks of training in large or small venues, in museums or art galleries. Any type of museum, gallery or heritage venue has something to offer a trainee.

Recruiting the trainees

The trainees were recruited in two groups of six, and this offered the partners an opportunity to try out varied recruitment methods. This is what we found out during the recruitment process.

Target specialist agencies who can help to find eligible candidates, but back this up with a variety of other methods to get the word out

The most successful recruitment method involved the museum partners in reaching out to specialist agencies working with disabled people to support them into employment. By working closely with these local providers and briefing them in detail on the traineeships, the visitor services role and the person specification, suitable candidates could be approached and supported through the application process. This approach was supported by other methods including advertising in job centres, forwarding information to the museums’ partner organisations in the local community, and social media promotion via websites and twitter. 

Give candidates as much support as possible to break down the barriers to applying

The venues ran a series of open day sessions for potential applicants. These offered front of house and behind the scenes tours, question and answer sessions with museum staff, the chance to meet previous trainees, and help with completing application forms. These sessions proved to be very valuable in encouraging less confident candidates to apply. They also ensured that people had all the information they needed to make an informed decision not to apply if they felt the traineeship would not be right for them. 

Focus interviews on attitudes, not skills

Interviews were designed around exploring candidates’ interest in the roles and in the heritage sector more widely, and their potential to develop any existing skills or competencies. They were based around a pre-prepared task (talking to the panel about a meaningful object the candidate has brought from home) and an informal, conversational interview. As this was a traineeship and not a job, the selections were made on the basis of who was capable of going through the training and would benefit most from the opportunity, rather than on identifying the candidates who were the most job ready.

The first three months in post

Man giving talk to a group

Image courtesy of the Heritage Lottery Fund

We found that the first three months in post were critical to the success of the overall traineeship and had an immediate positive impact on trainees’ wellbeing. During this time, trainees established a new pattern of getting up and going to work, got over any initial fears about their abilities, formed friendships with other staff and built their confidence. This laid the groundwork for later progress in job related skills and successful achievement of the qualification. 

Some of the ways partner venues successfully carried out induction were:

  • Slowing the pace of induction training compared to a new starter employee
  • Timetabling extended periods of work shadowing in which trainees would accompany an experienced member of staff on gallery
  • Making time for regular formal and informal 'catch ups' for the first few weeks. 

Some challenges emerged in the early days, particularly relating to timekeeping, sickness absence and setting boundaries. The expected standards for trainees should be clear at the start, and any concerns about performance should be addressed through a formal rather than informal process.

Supporting trainees with disabilities

The trainees with disabilities who took part in the programme were a very diverse group. They were diverse in terms of age, previous experience and skills. Some had physical disabilities, some had learning disabilities, and others had health problems including previous mental health issues which had affected their ability to work in the past. We learnt the importance of ‘managing the person, not the disability’ and not making any assumptions. 

The importance of conversation

Managers and trainees both stressed the importance of honest and continued conversation about how the trainee prefers to describe their disability or illness, how they wanted to be supported and what kind of help they needed (if any). 

Forward planning

One of the key lessons learned related to the difficulty of drawing down funding to provide for a trainee who required a British SignLanguage (BSL) interpreter to support her on a daily basis. It took a considerable amount of time to research and apply for the funding, and this was complicated by eligibility criteria for support excluding training contracts. Ideally, some scoping research should be undertaken during the recruitment process to speed things up later on. 

Be flexible!

Flexibility was essential in order to support trainees. For example a visually impaired trainee needed to be placed on galleries where light levels were the brightest. Another trainee could not stand for long periods and needed to sit down in the gallery. One trainee with disturbed sleep patterns occasionally needed extended breaks. These small adjustments to standard working practices were easily accommodated but made a big difference to the trainees in terms of job satisfaction and the feeling that their needs were understood.  

Understanding depression and anxiety

Some of the trainees experienced occasional symptoms of depression and/or anxiety, especially in the early months of the traineeship as they adjusted to the lifestyle change of full time work. For people who lacked confidence in their communication skills, dealing with visitors on gallery could be challenging. We found that it was important for line managers to:

  • Talk through experiences the trainees had on gallery and different ways they could have approached them.
  • Address scenarios trainees were concerned might occur (for example one trainee was concerned about how to ask parents to address their children’s behaviour, and spent time observing staff practice at early years learning sessions).
  • Help trainees to find ways of carrying out the role which suited their own temperaments and personalities. There are many ways of providing positive and friendly visitor service.
  • Encourage trainees to engage with visitors rather than hide on the gallery by providing specific tasks, such as approaching visitors to fill in surveys, or tell them about a forthcoming event.
  • Listen to staff when they express feelings of anxiety, and offer practical support. In some cases, trainees were offered time away from the gallery on office based tasks.

Working in partnership

Working with partners was essential to the success of this project. Each partner brought something different to the table. In our project, National Museums Liverpool held the budget and supported the delivery of qualifications. Ordsall Hall, Manchester Museum, Whitworth Art Gallery and Towneley Hall provided placements. NWFED supported the mentoring, evaluation and dissemination aspects of the project. This wasn’t always easy, and we could have done more to enhance the project by drawing on each other’s expertise and resources. However some of the practical ways we were able to work together included:

  • Providing trainees with valuable opportunities to visit other venues and see practice elsewhere.
  • Enabling trainees to experience working in a variety of venues.
  • Opening up opportunities for trainees across the programme to access partners’ staff training programmes, for example in safeguarding, mental health awareness and Welcome Host.
  • Providing internal and external verifiers for qualifications.
  • Providing mentors from other venues as an alternative source of advice and support to line managers.
  • We suggest starting the project by mapping out the roles and responsibilities, and potential support each partner can offer. Regularly scheduled partners meetings helped us to communicate and plan together.

Delivering NVQ qualifications

Both managers and trainees found the prospect of the qualification daunting at the start. The first cohort of trainees were working with assessors who were working towards their assessor qualification and in some cases had little previous experience with NVQ. The following tips might help you in delivering qualifications in your venue.

  • Choose the right time to introduce the qualification to the trainee. If it is too early it can be daunting. Too late, and candidates can become anxious about what’s going to be involved and whether it can be done in time. We found that about three months in, candidates wanted to be briefed on the NVQ and to start work on the compulsory modules.
  • The amount of reading material makes the NVQ look more complicated than it really is. You will find that you are already delivering a lot of the content just through your day to day work with the trainee on gallery.
  • There are a variety of ways in which trainees can evidence their progress, such as witness statements and video or audio recording. Candidates who are concerned about their literacy skills or haven’t studied since school can work in ways which suit them and still achieve the qualification.
  • Offer more than one level of qualification. In our second cohort of trainees, some candidates did level 2 and some level 3.
  • It helps to plan out a timetable at the start and stick to it, to ensure that you don’t have to rush to complete all the modules and files of evidence at the end.
  • Training more than one member of staff as an assessor means that your organisation will have a much higher capacity to roll out qualifications across the staff, and will ensure that you do not lose all of your capacity to deliver qualifications if an assessor leaves the organisation.

Find out more from the Heritage Lottery Fund and NWFED

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