Improving inclusivity at Kew Gardens with Julia Willison

In this Skip the Queue podcast episode, I speak with Julia Willison, Head of Learning and Participation at Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew.

“Kew is primarily a scientific and horticultural organisation, and we struggle sometimes that many people see Kew Gardens as the gardens and don’t see the science behind the gardens.”

Julia Willison is Head of Learning and Participation for the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew.  She is passionate about engaging people – young and old and from all walks of life – in learning about the importance of plants and fungi and the need for sustainable development.  Julia is responsible for schools, communities and access, families and early years, outreach, youth and volunteers at Kew Gardens.  She previously worked with botanic gardens internationally to advocate for and establish education programmes for the benefit of local communities and the environment.

What will you learn from this podcast?

  • Kew’s inspiring manifesto – their 10 year strategy to end extinction crisis and protect nature
  • The 5 key priorities
  • Kew’s desire to improve inclusivity
  • What initiatives have been formed to support the organisations manifesto success

Skip the Queue Julia Willison

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You can also read the full transcript below.


The interview

Your host, Kelly Molson

Our guest, Julia Willison




Kelly Molson: Julia, it’s really lovely to have you on the podcast today. Thank you for joining me. 

Julia Willison: My pleasure, Kelly. Thank you for inviting me. 

Kelly Molson: So we’re recording this right at the beginning of January. It’s the 9 January that we’re recording it. So icebreakers have got a new year’s resolution theme because I thought we should talk about this. I want to know, do you set them? If so, what have you set yourself for this year? 

Julia Willison: I do tend to set them in my own mind. I don’t often share them, but I do set them. And this year I’ve set the resolution. I want to start learning to play the piano and I’ve actually had my first lesson. I’m really pleased with that. 

Kelly Molson: I love this. So we just had a little chat about this off air, because that was one of the other icebreaker questions I was going to ask you is, what’s the one thing that you’ve always wanted to learn? And then we had this conversation and you’re doing it already, and I was like, “Oh, this is great.” So you’ve had your first lesson and how did it go? 

Julia Willison: Well, I found myself apologising to the teacher profusely because of my lack of ability to play the piano, but it went really well and he was absolutely delightful, very supportive, and I learned quite a lot in the first lesson, so I’m looking forward to the second lesson now. I’ve got a lot start playing and practising every day, which I’m enjoying doing. 

Kelly Molson: That’s the thing about learning something new is that you’ve got to make it a habit, haven’t you? So you need to kind of. This is the thing that I did about the gym, is that I had to diarize it, so I had to make sure that it was like in red in my diary, immovable. At the same time, on those days, that I could go so that you could do it. Are you going to do that with your lessons and your training? 

Julia Willison: Well, the lessons obviously will have to be in my calendar, but I have almost crossed the threshold where I made a decision to play the piano. I’ve got a long term goal that in maybe ten years time, I’ll be able to play in a group or something like this. So I’m really committed to wanting to learn. So we’ll see. You have to revisit this space. Maybe in five years time. See if I’m still doing it.

Kelly Molson: Right. I’m popping you on the list for five years to make sure that I check in with you, that you’ve achieved your goals. Okay. What is the worst thing that you’ve ever eaten or drunk? 

Julia Willison: Well, eaten for me is mussels, because I’m allergic to them. 

Kelly Molson: Oh, wow. 

Julia Willison: I only learned that through, obviously, eating mussels and even just a small piece just made me incredibly sick. Drinking advocaat. How do you say it. Advocaat? 

Kelly Molson: Is that what goes into snowballs? 

Julia Willison: Yes. I can’t think of anything worse actually.  

Kelly Molson: I love snowballs. I had one over Christmas. 

Julia Willison: You can have mine. 

Kelly Molson: I’ll have your mussels. And your advocaat. What a mixture. And probably not at the same time either. 

Julia Willison: No. 

Kelly Molson: Yeah. My friends did a Christmas party and we had a snowball and it was, “This is so retro.” I can remember my grandparents drinking these when I was a child. I remember if you ever come to my house for a Christmas party that you are not to have snowballs.

Julia Willison: I’ll bring my own, Kelly. 

Kelly Molson: Okay. Right. What’s your unpopular opinion, Julia? 

Julia Willison: What I do feel, I suppose, strongly about is that, and I arrived at this opinion after talking to my children, after I had done this. And it says, I don’t think that people should post pictures of their children and friends on social media without their consent. 

Kelly Molson: Yes. Yeah. This is an interesting one, isn’t? Oh, ok. And actually, at what point do you ask their consent? Because I post pictures of my daughter. She might not be comfortable with me, she might not be happy with me, her face being over my Twitter account or my Instagram account. So, yeah, I guess at some point we’ll have that conversation. If she says no, that’s it. No more pictures go up.   

Julia Willison: Oh, sad. And the thing is, you can’t take down the ones that you’ve already put up, can you? 

Kelly Molson: No. Well, I guess you can go back and delete them from an Instagram account or delete them from your Twitter account. So you could go back and delete, but then they’re out there, so that doesn’t mean that they’re not elsewhere in the ether. 

Julia Willison: Interesting. 

Kelly Molson: It is interesting, yeah. But I think you’re right, I think. Absolutely, for other people. I’ve definitely had this conversation with a friend of mine about. We’ve been out together with our children and we’ve both taken pictures and she’s actually asked my permission if she can post the pictures on her social media, but her platforms are quite. Her Instagram is a private Instagram account, for example, so she’s happy to post pictures of her daughter on that, but she’s not happy for other people to post those pictures if they’re not private account. It is a huge debate, isn’t it? Well, it’ll be interesting to see what people think. How do you feel about this? 

People on Twitter, which is where we do a lot of our talking about this podcast, how do you feel about posting pictures of your children or your friends and your family on social media without having their consent? Let us know. Could start a little Twitter debate there. 

Julia Willison: I’d be interested to read it. 

Kelly Molson: Right, Julia, tell us about your role at Kew and what a typical day looks like for you. 

Julia Willison: So, I’m Head of Learning and Participation at Kew Gardens and what I’m responsible for is providing leadership in this particular area at Kew and wanting to position Kew as a centre for excellence in plant and fungal science education. And under my remit comes formal learning. That’s all the schools programmes and teacher training. So we’ve got about 90,000 school pupils that come on site each year and we engage with about 200,000 online. We have a youth programme which is growing. There’s a lot of demand there for young people to get involved environmentally as well. Families, in early years, we run programmes for families, but up to seven year olds, specific sessions.  

We run community engagement, and that includes community horticulture. I’m responsible for the access programmes across the site as well. That’s for people who may have sensory needs or different access needs. We have a national outreach learning programme and then slight anomaly is that the volunteers also sit with me. So we’ve got 800 volunteers across Kew Gardens and Wakehurst, and the central function of that sits with my remit. So looking at some of the strategies around what we’re doing with volunteers and diversifying our volunteers, et cetera, that’s my remit.

Kelly Molson: They’re quite a bit. 

Julia Willison: Yeah. No, it’s fantastic. I’m very lucky. And there’s no one typical day, but you can imagine. Well, I get going with a cup of coffee every day and sometimes I’ll spend one day a week working from home. 

But the rest of the time, I like to be on site. Kew has got to be one of the most beautiful locations to work. Kew has got to be one of the most beautiful locations to work. I am so lucky. I know that.

And I’ve probably got the best office in Kew. If you come and visit Kelly, you’ll see that the office I have looks out over the Palm House of Kew, which is the most iconic glass house. It was a glass house that was built between 1844 and 48 and it houses the tropical plants, so it is just the most amazing place to work. I attend a lot of meetings, as you can imagine, with my teams and staff across the organisation about operations sometimes, and strategy and new and exciting projects that we’re looking at what we can do. I sit on cross organisational steering groups and committees that focus on public programmes. 

We have a strong focus on equality, diversity and inclusion across the organisation. And safeguarding. Well, I still am the designated safeguarding lead for Kew, so I’m involved in that still. And I also lead the steering group for Kew on the outreach strategy and the schools learning strategy. And then, as well, I often work on preparing project proposals, because funding is a major issue for our organisation, and so funding and reporting and then talking to potential donors. So that’s my sort of typical day, really. 

Kelly Molson: I feel quite privileged that I get to speak to so many incredible women that have these hugely varied roles and do so much in a day. Very capable people that I get to speak to. It’s quite humbling. We’re going to talk quite a lot today about a manifesto that Kew implemented. I’m just going to take you back. So I think it was in March 2021, Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew launched a ten year strategy to end extinction crisis and protect nature. And it’s a really bold and incredibly inspiring manifesto. I’m just going to read out the ethos of it. 

So, the mission of Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew is to understand and protect plants and fungi for the well being of people and the future of all life on earth. Our aspiration is to end the extinction crisis and to help create a world where nature is protected, valued by all and managed sustainably. So this was back in 2021. How has the manifesto been implemented within the organisation? How did it get created in the first place, and how does that kind of get explained and put into practise? 

Julia Willison: Good question. We started in the pandemic, looking at the need to build a new strategy, because our older strategy was coming to the end, and over the years has been a building of staff in Kew, talking about wanting to see more urgency in the work that we do, or to describe it in a more urgent terms, what we’re trying to do at Kew. And so the pandemic, while it was a terrible time, it was a time that Kew took to step back and look at the bigger picture and then come together around this urgency of climate change and biodiversity loss. And there was a lot of consultation, a lot of iterations of the strategy that went out to staff to feed into this. 

It was a significant job, and there was a team, a small team of people that were working on it, taking the consultation back in centrally. And then what emerged through the consultation were five key priorities that we then agreed, or was agreed then for the next ten years. And that was agreed then by the executive board and signed off by the board of trustees.

I’ll mention the five priorities, and I can give a few bits of examples of some of the work we do around those. The first priority is deliver science based knowledge and solutions to protect biodiversity and use natural resources sustainably. Kew is primarily a scientific and horticultural organisation, and we struggle sometimes that many people see Kew Gardens as the gardens and don’t see the science behind the gardens. 

The gardens are essential and they contain precious plant collections. There is also science and research behind that. We’ve got over 400 scientists and about 150 horticulturalists. And so it’s the bedrock accused contribution to ending biodiversity and maintaining sort of healthy ecosystems. So there are lots of examples that I could give. People probably don’t know this. We have a resource centre in Madagascar, scientific resource centre, and scientists there are working with the rural Malagasy people on food security and particularly on conserving yams that are native to Madagascar. We work in over 120 countries, working with partners in Ethiopia to reduce biodiversity loss. 

The Ethiopian economy depends very much on coffee, and something like 25% of the population rely directly or indirectly on coffee for their livelihood. And so Kew is working with partners to maintain traditional forest based areas where coffee grows natively. 

Julia Willison: And that is proving vital for sustainability, for livelihoods and also for biodiversity. Close to home. We have scientists here at Kew working on the chemistry of nectar and pollen, because many bee species in the UK, there are around 240 different species of bees in the UK. So honey bees are just one species. There’s lots of different bumblebees, lots of different native bee species, and they’re under threat because of climate change from disease and parasites.

So what scientists here are identifying plants that have compounds in the nectar and pollen that could help bees themselves manage their own diseases more sustainably. So that’s an important area of research. Kew is also, as part of manifesto, we’re digitising our collections. We’ve got a wrap quarter a way through digitising 8.25 million preserved plants and fungal specimens. So it’s an enormous task. And 200,000 botanical illustrations. What else we’re doing? 

We have a sister site. I don’t know if you know this, Kelly. We have a sister site at Wakehurst. It’s our wild botanic garden in West Sussex and it’s a site of excellence, really, in conservation and science. It’s home to the Millennium Seed Bank, where we’ve banked something like 2.4 billion seeds from more than 40,000 plant species. And so there’s the project being run at Wakehurst called Nature Unlocked, and that’s using the landscape of Wakehurst, which is about two kilometres squared, as a living laboratory.

And the idea is to collect high quality scientific evidence of the value of biodiversity in the soil as well as in the landscape. This evidence to inform land management policies and practises, so that can then key develop. Decision makers can then use this evidence to make informed decisions about what they do around the land. 

Kelly Molson: That’s just one point. 

Julia Willison: I’ll be quicker with the other. 

Kelly Molson: Please feel free to share. Don’t hold back. But it’s quite mind blowing, isn’t it, how much that you do that people just aren’t aware of? 

Julia Willison: Yeah, this is just a very small snapshot. I mean, I could have taken any one of hundreds of examples of what scientists here at Kew are doing. The second priority is inspire people to protect the natural world, and that really is threaded through all our public engagement work. And that’s going from our festivals, our exhibitions, all the interpretive panels we do, the website, our social media, all the learning and participation programmes we do.

So we use this as a lens to look through and to make sure that the work we’re doing is all checking ourselves, that we are inspiring people to protect the natural world. I mentioned earlier we have a national outreach programme and this programme is inspiring communities to take action for biodiversity, specifically through transforming their local spaces with UK native plants. 

So community groups we know will grow other plants, but we also encourage them to focus also on UK native plants as well. Another plan in the manifesto is to create a carbon garden, and that’s to communicate stories around how carbon is captured in plants and soil, and how we use this to mitigate climate change, for example, through planting trees and also looking at different carbon related services, such as biofuels. And we have the plans for the garden. It’s in planning permission.

It’s gone for planning permission at the moment and we’re waiting to hear. And as soon as we hear, it’ll probably take us about a year or so to build the garden, but we’ll use it then very much for learning and communicating about the importance of carbon, so people know. So that’s priority two. 

Priority three is train the next generation of experts, new scientists and horticultural is critical to the future of life on earth. And so Kew has accelerated its work in this. And we offer three month PhD placements for anybody across the UK who’s doing a PhD. Part of their PhD often includes a placement. So we offer those placements at Kew and we’re very keen to attract PhD students. We also are working in partnership with a couple of universities, Queen Mary, University of London and the Royal Holloway, University of London, to run in partnership master’s courses. MSc courses. And we’ve got three courses that we run. MSc in biodiversity and conservation, an MSc in plant and fungal taxonomy, diversity and conservation. And then the newest MSc is on global health, food security, sustainability and biodiversity. 

Kelly Molson: I can imagine that the world that we’re in now, there’s actually a lot more demand for those courses as well. I imagine that they’re oversubscribed multiple times. 

Julia Willison: Yes. And they’re open to international students, so we get quite a lot of international students coming. So that’s really good. We had 60 students starting this year on the courses, but on a master’s course, taking 20 students, it’s quite an intense course. And I know that Kew has, like you say, there’s a demand to study further in this area, and so there are still developing the possibility of new courses with universities. That’s good. 

But one of the things for my remit that I’m very keen about is that there’s a pathway and that Kew considers its pathway from very early years, attracting kids to become very interested in nature, and then going through and providing school programmes that then encourage children to then take science as a possible career choice, or be informed about science, which is one of the reasons why we launched the Endeavour Online programme to make our resources that focus on educational resources that focus on Kew, science and horticulture, but make them available to schools across the UK. 

Kelly Molson: That’s phenomenal. And that’s a lot of the things that we’re going to talk about today. What point are we at? We’ve done point 3. 

Julia Willison: Okay. So extend our reach. 

Kelly Molson: Extend reach. That’s right. Point 4. 

Julia Willison: That’s about cubing a go to place for anyone and everyone to explore the importance of plants and fungi and how they add value to our lives. And we’re working hard to expand our digital resources to make sure that we can engage with as many people as possible. But we also recognise that there are large numbers of the population that would love to visit Kew or either have never heard about us or don’t see Kew as a place for them.

So we’ve set down a target to increase tenfold the number of visitors from underrepresented communities to the gardens. And one of the ways that we’ve done this straight away is to introduce a one pound ticket for people who were on universal credit or pension credit, and that’s to remove the economic barrier to visiting. 

To date, around 50 – 60,000 people have taken advantage of the initiative in 18 months. However, we have a very ambitious director and he feels that we should be able to dial this up to about 100,000 per year. So that requires us then to go out specifically targeting people who are on universal credit and pension credit and say, “Look, we want you to come to Kew.” But on top of this, we also run a range of programmes specifically for people who face barriers to Kew. And that’s not only economic, that could be social barriers, psychological or physical barriers. That’s priority four, which I think we’re going to go into more about some of that.  

Kelly Molson: Three and four we’re going to focus on. 

Julia Willison: Yeah. So the fifth one is influencing national and international opinion and policy. So in order to do that, we need to encourage debate and shape decision making. And Kew works with a lot of policymakers. Kew is a large institution.  

We’ve got about 1400 staff that work at Kew and 800 volunteers. We have lots of different teams and departments. We do have a department that focuses specifically on working with government and policy makers. And the idea is to support them, to provide the evidence that Kew brings to the table so that people can make well informed decisions. One example is about Tropical Important Plant Areas, those TIPA for short.

Kew is working with six countries across the globe and the idea is to work with partners in the countries to help them identify important plant areas so that these areas will then be conserved. That involves an enormous amount of negotiation, discussion, and to date there’s three TIPAs that have already been established, so that’s really important for conservation of those areas. 

And, of course, we work closely with Defra, that’s our sponsoring department in the UK government, and they’ve recently asked you to take the leading role as a strategic science lead for a new institution, I suppose, that has been set up. It’s not a physical institution. It’s a consortium. It’s been called the Global Centre on Biodiversity for Climate. So what Kew will do is write the research strategy that will define the key themes for funding calls that will be given money, and then the projects that will then provide the evidence to feed into policies that will then help make decisions about the impact of biodiversity on climate and people’s livelihoods. So that’s a really significant thing that Kew’s done. 

Kelly Molson: This is such an eye opener for myself, having been a visitor to Kew, appreciated the beautiful gardens and the plants that you have there, but actually really having no idea about all of the things that happen in the background. So this is just like you say, the attraction is just one very small part of this huge organisation. There’s so much that you do. I hope this is eye opening for people that are listening to this as well, because there’s a lot going on here. The points from the manifesto, the key priorities for manifesto are, I mean, each one of them you could take and break down into a different podcast episode. What we’re going to talk about is points three and four. We’re going to focus on those today. 

So point 3 was to train the next generation of experts, and point 4 was to extend our reach. We’re going to focus on them because there’s a huge desire at  Kew to improve inclusivity, and so we’re going to kind of break down what is happening within those points to actually help support do that. So you said that one of the key changes that Kew has committed to achieving by 2030, I think this is to increase tenfold the number of visitors from the presently underrepresented communities to the gardens. And obviously the gardens facilitate the start of that learning journey. Right.

That it’s exposing people to, I guess, a world that they might not be familiar with, plants that they definitely won’t be familiar with, or even just certain job roles that they might not have thought was for them. How do you begin to change the kind of views and attitudes from the general public who don’t think that Kew is for them, a place for them in the first place? 

Julia Willison: Well, our aim is to break down that perception. So I think one of the things that has happened to be able to start on this journey is an organisational commitment to include everyone and bringing everybody on board, that we are really intent, we really want to do this. So that’s involved training our visitor facing staff and our volunteers so that they provide a warm welcome to anyone, regardless of their background. We’ve trained our staff in accessibility and safeguarding and then diversity and inclusion. And this year we will roll out more diversity and inclusion training to staff across all areas of the organisation. So when people come here, it’s making sure that they feel safe and they feel represented in the gardens. But just providing a welcome is not going to be sufficient. 

We do need to reach out and connect with different communities to tell them that Kew exists. We have people visiting Kew from our local boroughs that have never heard of us, which is extraordinary, really. So we really try and encourage them to visit. So we have teams of staff who, in different teams, will visit the different groups and they’ll run workshops with the groups at their venues so that groups can find out about Kew before they visit. They realise that the people that come to visit them are really quite friendly and really excited about them coming to Kew. And also, people have said that Kew is a very large place when you come here. I mean, people come and visit Kew, they come for a day, but you never see everything at Kew for a day. 

So people feel that it can be a bit intimidating, especially if they’ve not visited before. So when we bring people on site for the first time, when we’ve made connections with community groups or other teams, what we do is we’ll offer a programme or a tour, so that when they come to visit us, that they make them feel comfortable about returning on their own. 

Kelly Molson: Sure. So it gives them that level of familiarity by doing the tour that they can then come back and explore. They can do that again, or they could go and explore the different areas that were particularly appealing to them. 

Julia Willison: Yeah. So we have all sorts of different programmes and we have a community access scheme as well as the one pound ticket. We have community access scheme. So any groups that provide services to people who face barriers from visiting Kew, which I said earlier, sensory, psychological, social barriers, they can join our community access scheme and they can get 60 tickets for 36 pounds. So that works out about 60 pence a ticket and they can always top up as they go along. And then as part of the scheme, they all receive a newsletter and that informs them about the community activities that we run. So that’s another way of connecting groups to feel that Kew is a place for them to come and visit. 

Kelly Molson: That’s lovely. I was going to ask about the community access scheme and what initiatives have been formed to kind of support the organisations to do that, because I guess it’s one thing the welcome is great, right. But that means that people have to come and get the welcome. So there’s so much outreach that has to be done to bring the people to you in the first place. So the community access scheme, what kind of organisations would that be relevant for? 

Julia Willison: All sorts. We have about 350 members on our access scheme. When I first started at Kew, most of those groups, there were fewer number of groups, but most of those groups were, I would say, for third age people, different groups, but mainly servicing older people. Now we’ve got all sorts of groups, so we’ve got LGBT+ groups, we have deaf groups, asian women’s groups.

We have a whole different range of groups that see Kew as a place that they could join and come and bring with their members. And one of the things that we do run is continuing professional development training for group leaders, specifically for those leaders, so that they then feel confident to come to Kew with their groups on their own and will provide resources for them to use in the landscapes and enjoy with Kew. 

Kelly Molson: And that adds to that, I guess, like what you were saying earlier about, you want this to be the start of the journey. You need it to be the start of the journey for those groups as well, don’t. You don’t want to encourage them to come along once and that’s like a box that they’ve ticked. They’ve done Kew. You want them to come back and keep reengaging with the environment there. So that’s brilliant to then be able to train those leaders to take that bit on themselves. 

Julia Willison: I was just to say, a few years ago, we started a community open week, which is a free week for community groups, any community groups across London. In fact, some groups come from further afield, but we put on a range of workshops and tours during that week for groups to come and just experience Kew and the idea is, if we can, is to try and encourage them to sign up to the access scheme and continue, as you say, the journey and come back and find out more. 

Kelly Molson: I guess that’s the community access scheme. And obviously you’ve got kind of partnerships going ongoing with kind of local community. What about national community groups? So how do you kind of expand your remit into the wider audience of people that aren’t located near Kew?

Julia Willison: Yeah. That’s a good question because that costs money, doesn’t it, for them to come to Kew. So we have had people come from Birmingham and people can join. We’ve initially contained it within the M25, so a lot of people coming within the M25, but we’ve just removed that barrier now, I mean, it didn’t need to be there. And we have seen some people, some groups coming from outside.

We don’t have bursaries to be able to provide, sadly, to groups to come to Kew. They are, of course, very welcome. I think one of the things is that we’ve just brought somebody on board this year who is doing some more community outreach to going out and trying to connect with new groups to visit Kew and part of that will involve producing some marketing materials that can then travel further than just our confines. 

So we’ll see. We may then receive other groups in from much further afield, which would be great. And also Wakehurst, our sister site, has set up a community access scheme as well, so they will hopefully then encourage those organisations and groups in further south of London.

Kelly Molson: Amazing. How is Kew helping to remove barriers and improve access to nature for children and families, both kind of on site and off site? 

Julia Willison: We’ve been running an early years programme since about 2018. Before that, we had a family programme and we’ve made connections with children’s centres in our local boroughs. Every borough, every county in the UK will have a children’s centre or multiple children’s centres. And the aim of the children’s centres is to try and help those families that may slip through the net to be able to ensure that they don’t.

And so what we have done is we have a recent project which is to work with children’s centres in London and we’re working in five boroughs with different about ten children’s centres. And the team is going to the children’s centres running nature based play sessions in the children’s centres. And then over the summer, we invite the families to come to Kew. We give them funding to do that. 

We refund their travel, we run activities on site and then later in the year, we’ve been running training sessions specifically for the children’s centre leaders so that they can then take this work forward when Kew has to step back from going to the children’s centres. And we’ve got this project running for about three or four years now, which is great. But on top of this, we also run on site sessions for early years and half of them are paid for sessions for those families that can afford to pay for earlier sessions.

And then the money that we use from that, we then subsidise those families from children’s centres, community groups that can’t afford to pay. So we try and get a balance, because we don’t ourselves have an endless pot of money and we’re constantly looking for funding to try and support this work. 

Kelly Molson: It’s really hard, isn’t it, to get that balance right. There is a commercial aspect here, right. You have to make money to be able to do all of these incredible projects and initiatives that you have, but you also need the funding to be able to support the incredible initiatives that you’re running, to be able to allow everybody access to it. So it’s like a vicious circle. What about schools outreach? How are you kind of broadening your reach to engage all schools? And how does that become more inclusive against the manifesto?

Julia Willison: So we’ve been very intent on saying that we want to extend our reach to embrace all schools, sort of all schools in different areas, but also, at the moment, we have about 60, 70. Well, it’s now changed to 60% of pupils that come on site are from primary schools. We want to increase the number of secondary school pupils that we engage with. Children make career decisions around their GCSEs and their A levels, and many children from certain schools from more deprived areas will go for general science rather than triple science.

And all the research shows that if children choose triple science, they’re more likely to do science at a levels. So looking to try and influence those children in their career choices is important for us. And that means that we want to increase the number of secondary schools that we engage with. 

And we also have an intent on increasing the number of schools that have higher pupil premium, because in London, pupil premium is, you probably know, is that those children who are generally on those children, on free school meals, the school will receive a bursary from the government to try and reduce the attainment gap between those children on free school meals and those children on not. 

So we have had bursaries, we don’t have any at the moment, but we have had bursaries then to attract specifically those schools on much higher pupil premium, and we’ve shifted the dial on this and we have higher numbers of schools with higher pupil premium students and those schools, then we try to influence and think about science as a possible aspect that they can consider further in their careers. So, in planning permission at the moment, we’re looking at building a new learning centre at Kew, which would be really exciting. And we’re going through ecology reports at the moment before we can get the planning permission through. 

But part of the learning centre will include four science laboratories, and so pupils can come on site to Kew will be able to come on site to queue and do science experiments in the heart of a scientific organisation. And all pupils doing GCSE and A levels have to do practical science experiments. We know from all the research that teachers don’t necessarily feel confident in teaching about plants. So this is something that Kew really can uniquely offer schools to come to Kew and bring their pupils and get hands on with plant and fungal science experiments. 

Kelly Molson: Oh my goodness. That would be incredible. 

Julia Willison: Yes. And also it will provide us with the facilities to be able to do CPD online as well. So that’s something that we’re really keen to do. 

Kelly Molson: That’s a really interesting side of this, is because I know that one of your goals is to engage with all schools. Now, all schools aren’t local to Kew. My school definitely wasn’t local to Kew. So how do you do that? How do you make that jump from engaging with local schools that can actually access the site? What can you do digitally that can engage with more schools and more people, regardless of location? 

Julia Willison: And one of the reasons that we are committed to engaging with all schools is because Kew is a national institution and we are funded partly. About 28% of our funding comes from the government, so it’s paid for by taxes by people all over the country. So our commitment is to make our resources as available as widely as possible. And so we have an online programme called Endeavour, and that’s a bank of resources specifically for teachers on all sorts of different.

It’s strongly linked to the national curriculum, but all sorts of different activities that teachers can use then to teach about plant science and fungi. But it straddles the natural curriculum not only in science, but for the primary ages. It will also look at history, it will look at geography, et cetera, so that we can try and make our resources as relevant as possible to teachers. 

Kelly Molson: Yeah, that is a phenomenal resource that maybe more teachers need to hear about that. I think I would have been really excited. I did do Science at school. I can remember. I’d have been really excited about doing something that was connected to Kew Gardens. There’s quite a big buzz about that, you know what I mean? I don’t know why there’s a connection to that organisation that I think would have been really exciting to know that you were working on something that had been created by Kew.

Julia Willison: That’s nice to hear that. We have a youth programme, which I’m very proud of. I think that the youth team is phenomenal, as are all the teams, but we run a youth explainer programme and that’s on site, and young people come for a training programme every Saturday for six months and they go behind the scenes. They meet the horticulturist scientists and they learn communication skills.

And what they do is we bring a game designer on site and they learn how to design their own game to play with the public about endangered plants or habitats. And the young people have to work together in groups and they produce this game. And then six months after, once they’ve finished their training, they then become explainers in the glass houses. 

And the public, actually, they love interacting with young people and they bring a real buzz about it. So that’s been a very successful programme. And on the back of this, we’ve developed a young environmental leader award. And the idea is that young people will develop their project and they will evidence different dimensions of leadership through their project. So they’ll keep a portfolio and they have to evidence how they’ve developed their leadership skills during this journey. And then we award them with a young environmental leader award, and that’s something that we do in house. But then the possibility is then to scale that, to make that available to young people outside Kew as well. 

Kelly Molson: That would be incredible, wouldn’t it? Yeah, that would be a really special thing to be involved in. Okay, so we said earlier we’re recording this. It’s January 2024. Wow. How is Kew delivering against the manifesto after its first full two years? 

Julia Willison: Well, Kew is nothing if not ambitious. There is a real strong commitment to ending the extinction crisis. I mean, we can’t do this alone and we have to do it in partnership. But I would say that we’re firmly on the way to achieving many of the deliverables in the manifesto. And there’s a real. People have really bought into. The staff have really bought into the manifesto, and you see that through.

We run a staff survey every year and ask for feedback about whether what people think about the manifesto, do they feel their work is contributing to delivering it? And we get very high scores on that consistently we have since the manifesto was published. One of the deliverables in there is to revision the Palm House that I sit opposite in my office. 

And we want that to become net zero and engage new generations with science and conservation work and make our data available to everyone. So we are moving towards that. And we’ve got some seed funding to be able to do this. I’d say that the bricks are in place and the foundations have been laid, and much of the work requires external funding and partnerships. But we have a vision, and I think people and organisations recognise what Kew’s work is as vital. And I don’t think that’s overstating it, but that helps to open doors for support. So I think we’re moving forwards, and I think there’s a very positive feel about the work that we’re doing. We’re very fortunate. 

Kelly Molson: Yeah, it sounds very positive. And like we said earlier, there’s so much to cover in this, Julia, and thank you for coming on and just talking about a very small element of all of the incredible things that are actually happening at Kew. So we always end our podcast by asking our guests to recommend a book that you love, something that you love personally or something that’s helped shaped your career in some way. What have you chosen for us today? 

Julia Willison: Well, I chose a book that is a phenomenal book and by a woman who is phenomenal, and it is related to my work. But I chose the book because I think it is so inspirational. It’s a book called Finding the Mother Tree: Discovering the Wisdom of the Forest by Suzanne Simard. And we awarded her the 16th Kew International Medal for her work and her devotion to championing biodiversity in forests. She’s worked in British Columbia all her life in Canada, and she was the pioneer of the theory that plants communicate with each other through a huge subterranean fungal network.

And the book reveals how trees connect and cooperate with each other, and that each forest contains hub trees. So mother trees. And that these trees in the forest play a critical role in the flow of information and resources. 

So I feel that the book will change the way people look at forests. They’re not simply a source for timber or pulp, but they are really part of a complex, interdependent circle of life. And I think it’s a magnificent book. Well, if one reader reads it and enjoys it, I think that will be brilliant. 

Kelly Molson: Do you know what? I have to read this book. So this is the second podcast, interestingly, where. Oh, not the book. The book has never been recommended before. No, this is a completely new one. So David Green, Head of Innovation at Blenheim, was on the podcast a couple of episodes ago, and he talked about how trees communicate with each other, and that was a new thing for me. I had no idea that trees talk to each other, and the way that he described it was really interesting. And now this has come up in this as well. And I feel like someone is sending me a message that I need to read this book. So that’s going to go top of my list, right.

Everybody, listeners, you know what to do if you want to win a copy of Julia’s book, then head over to our Twitter account and retweet this episode announcement with the words, I want Julia’s book and you could potentially be learning about how trees communicate with each other and are a vital part of an ecosystem. Thank you. That’s fascinating. Everything that you’ve talked about today is so exciting, and I know that there’s so much work still to be done. Thank you for coming on and sharing about all of the things that you do there and all of the things that you’re hoping to achieve. I have no doubt that you will do them. It’s been an absolute pleasure. 

Julia Willison: Yeah, it’s a real privilege. Thank you very much, Kelly. Thank you. 



Do you know someone we should be talking to?

Do you know someone fascinating we should be talking to?

If so, email us at hello@rubbercheese.com – we’ll get back to you shortly.

Paul Wright.
Kelly Molson Managing Director

Host of the popular Skip the Queue Podcast, for people working in or working with visitor attractions, she regularly delivers workshops and presentations on the sector at various national conferences and universities including The Visitor Attractions Conference, ASVA and Anglia Ruskin University.

Read more about me

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