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Archives are a priceless learning resource and their keepers are determined to welcome schools inside, says Susan Williams

The past decade has seen an exciting development in secondary schools - a dramatic increase in the use of archives to teach history. This is a unique way of bringing history to life. For although archives have often been dismissed as collections of dusty old documents, pupils are discovering a vast range of primary evidence: written sources like diaries and letters; sound, such as music and oral testimony; visual sources, such as photographs and maps; and films and newsreels. Footage of the fall of the Berlin Wall is as much of an archival source as a government minute.

The impetus for the use of original sources has been driven forward by the curriculum requirement for pupils to look at history not only as a received body of knowledge, but also as a process of enquiry and interpretation.

Before GCSE, remembers Ben Walsh, a history teacher at Stafford FE College, "there was always the odd enthusiast who took children to archives. But that was it". Today, things are very different: original sources are considered essential for the proper teaching of history. "Archives let pupils find out history for themselves," Ben Walsh believes.

The National Archives has a dedicated education team to support students at key stages 2-4, AS and A level. TNA head of education, Tom O'Leary, as well as several of his staff, are qualified history teachers. Among many other services, TNA organises free visits for schools, each of which involves taught sessions in a dedicated education room, using original material, with up to 30 students at a time.

The Hampshire Record Office is one important example of what can be achieved at a local record office that has its own education room. Pupils are given introductory sessions and then look at original documents - parish records, maps, trade directories and photographs. "Sessions are dedicated to the particular needs of a class," says David Bond, the education officer. "If the students are studying the Tudors, then we give them Tudor documents."

In 2001, the London Metropolitan Archives began to welcome school groups, organising classwork on topics like the Blitz and 20th-century black history. Sessions like these reflect the socially inclusive aims of archive repositories. They also help pupils to understand that archives are just as much about the general public - people like themselves - as about government and national figures. In the words of the slogan for the first ever Archives Awareness Month, which took place in September this year, "Everyone has a bit of history and we've got a bit of yours!"

Trying to find out about the lives of those who might otherwise be hidden from the pages of history is a trend that is not limited to schools. In my own research for a book about the abdication of Edward VIII, The People's King, I unearthed thousands of letters from the public to the king in December 1936, revealing huge popular support for his wish to marry Mrs Simpson. This challenged the usual story, which is often the result of working with archives.

Since 1995, Barry Blades, who is deputy head of Deacon's School, Peterborough, has been using the school's own collection of documents to teach the First World War. Year 9 pupils draw up a list of former pupils who died in the war. They piece together some cameo histories of the boys, even finding out their addresses. "It brings history to life," says Barry Blades. "They suddenly grasp the importance of personal histories behind the statistics." The National Archives has also pioneered a programme in video-conferencing - which can deliver a taught session to KS2-3 and GCSE pupils in their own classroom. For a session on the First World War, for example, a school is sent copies of the service records of a named soldier who fought in the trenches. This soldier is recreated by an actor in a studio at the Archives, and is viewed live on a screen and asked questions by pupils.

The internet is another way of solving the problem of distance. The Learning Curve online teaching resource provided by The National Archives is structured to tie in with KS2-5. It has its own teacher's booklet, which teachers can either download or order free as a printed copy. The site provides a huge range of primary sources and offers a section on "How to Read a Document", taking the user through the process of analysing original source material. A new exhibition on the site is British Empire, which makes use of films, photos, posters, letters and documents.

The Society of Archivists has set up a special group called Archives for Education and Learning. Its website has links to every other key site, offering pathways to a wide range of sources - including video and sound clips - available online. Just one of these is the website of the US national archives, which even has the taped conversations between President Kennedy and his advisers in the Cuban Missile Crisis. Access to sites such as this (which are listed in the box below) may be especially useful to teachers supporting students at AS and A-level. Clearly, there is a bright and expanding future for archives in education. In the words of Tom O'Leary: "This is the raw stuff of history."

Susan Williams is lecturer in history in the School of Educational Foundations and Policy Studies at the Institute of Education University of London. Her new book, The People's King. The True Story of the Abdication, is published by Allen LanePenguin

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