The first website Tony Blair visited when he launched the National Grid for Learning last November was the Public Record Office's Learning Curve. This ambitious project aims to make some of the fascinating items that are held in the national archives available on the Internet.
At its Kew headquarters, the PRO has millions of documents relating both to matters of national policy and the minutiae of everyday life over several centuries. Dispatches from the British Embassy describing the Russian Revolution, Jane Austen's will, Bligh's account of the mutiny on The Bounty in 1789, Shakespeare's will, the Magna Carta and the Domesday Book are all housed on 97 miles of shelving.
Clearly it would be a herculean task to put all the archives on the Internet, but the education office at the PRO has made a start with its schools' website. The site offers more than 120 pages of documents, photographs, posters and film and video clips, covering an array of historical subjects and periods. It has been specifically tailored to meet the demands of the history curriculum, with background information explaining the material and copious suggestions for tasks and activities.
Ysanne Stiell-McNeill, education officer at the PRO, says that the section of the site which has proved most popular so far is the Snapshots area, which has 22 pages of images and activities that have been designed for key stages 2 and 3. For example, facsimile pages from the Domesday Book can be investigated: unfamiliar words can be clicked on and explained and there is background information on the period and how the book was compiled. Teachers' notes suggest follow-up activities, including comparing entries with Victorian census returns or making diagrams of medieval villages.
Another Snapshot is about Guy Fawkes. Examples of his signature before and after being tortured can be compared, and there is also a note sent by James I to his guards at the Tower of London.
Another mystery to be investigated is that of Mary, Queen of Scots' complicity in the murder of her estranged second husband, Lord Darnley. Sources include witness statements from two servants living near the scene of the crime and a plan of the area drawn up for Lord Cecil, the chief secretary of state, shortly after the murder.
Other topics include what Victorian photographs can tell us about 19th-century life and what census returns reveal about the structure of households at the time.
All the text can be downloaded and used off-line, which helps teachers whose school Internet connections are not always as extensive as they would like.
For older pupils, the interactive exhibition Power, Politics and Protest investigates the period 1800 to the present, from various points of view - radicalism, the Luddites, the Suffragettes, the 1819 Peterloo massacre - and invites comparison of political rights then and now. This gallery is more challenging technically (schools will probably need to download additional software to run it to maximum effect) and it includes so much information it is well worth looking at the "getting started" area first to find out everything that is available.
As with Snapshots, there are images, tasks and activities, which can be performed on-line or downloaded, and links to further information. They are targeted at key stages 3 and 4. A timeline places the events in context, and there are copious teachers' notes.
Learning Curve is certainly going to be one of the must successful of the National Grid for Learning sites and sets a high standard for future providers.
* Learning Curve: www.pro.gov.uklearningcurve Or contact Ysanne Stiell-McNeill, at the Public Records Office education department. Tel: 0181 392 5298