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A bloke called Mert

An entire Bournemouth secondary spent a whole day out on history activities. Jonathan Croall went with them

Teacher Len Idle looks across at the top-hatted figure in the middle of the museum. "Tuck your shirt in, Sir Merton, you're supposed to be looking proud," he says sternly.

Ricky Cunningham, aged 13, but temporarily posing as the elderly Sir Merton Russell-Cotes - collector, traveller, businessman, entrepreneur and philanthropist - adjusts his dress sheepishly, and assumes a suitably dignified civic stance.

All around him, in this and the other ornate rooms that make up the Russell-Cotes Art Gallery and Museum in Bournemouth, is the astonishing collection of paintings, furniture, sculpture and decorative art brought back by Bournemouth's most eminent Victorian brought from his travels around the world.

Ricky and other boys from Year 9 at Portchester School in Bournemouth are spending the whole morning in this extraordinary Italianate villa on the town's cliff tops. It's part of a bold experiment that has seen almost all the school's 750 pupils leave the school site, and fan out for the day - not just around Bournemouth, but to several different places in Dorset, Wiltshire, Hampshire and Avon.

This exercise is a deliberate attempt to break away for a few hours from the constrictions of a subject-based timetable, to enrich the children's experience by allowing them to tackle a theme in depth, and to give teachers the opportunity to collaborate more closely with each other.

Plans are varied. Year 8 pupils, for example, are embarking on a Shakespeare Day, with groups visiting the historic parts of Poole, studying Tudor technology, and investigating the playwright's life and times. Meanwhile, Year l0 pupils are doing a maths investigation, while Year 11 pupils are engaged in a Futures Day, meeting employers and visiting a local college.

"When you've got a whole day like this, you can pursue a theme to its end, rather than worry whether you're doing history or geography," says Len Idle, the school's head of humanities. "When kids have just an hour a week on a subject, they often find it difficult to keep their interest up between lessons."

One of the reasons for trying out this cross-curricular idea was a feeling among the history teachers that their subject was not getting sufficient space in the timetable. As a result, history is the main hook for cross-curricular work being undertaken by Year 9 and Year 7 pupils.

The latter are embarking on a Roman Day. Groups head off in coaches to a town house in Dorchester, a villa at Fishbourne, and the baths in Bath. Others remain on site to do some art, design and technology activities, building model villas, and working on mosaics and tessellation.

For Year 9 pupils the theme is empire. One group is visiting Bristol to investigate the former port's role in the slave trade; another is responding to technological challenges prompted by a study of the Great Exhibition of 1851; while two other groups are on the Russell-Cotes trail.

In every case, the idea is for the pupils to produce some piece of work at the end of the day, using art, music, poetry, video, print or constructing an object which is related to their theme.

Those in Year 9 investigating the behaviour of Russell-Cotes have come up with some offbeat responses. Out in the gardens of the cliff-top museum, to the mild bewilderment of passing visitors, a small band is rehearsing a self-composed sea-shanty, underlining the experiences of the self-styled king of Bournemouth as a globe-trotter.

Inside, among the stuffed birds, Maori cloaks, lacquered Indian pottery and Japanese sake bottles, the role-playing continues. Pupils ponder on questions raised by the fabulous collection: What were Russell-Cotes's motives for collecting? What about the feelings of the people from whom he "collected" these objects? Why did he have so many female nude statues around the place?

Soon it's time to move on to another Russell-Cotes landmark - his mausoleum and mortuary on the other side of town. As the coach weaves in and out of late-morning traffic, teachers on board talk enthusiastically about the cross-curricular experiment.

"Music is not usually linked with history, so it's been a real challenge to be asked to do something appropriate," says Steve Lloyd-Jones, head of creative arts.

"There are lots of cross-over links," adds Margaret Granger, who is in charge of art and design.

In the spacious cemetery, amid the bright November sun cutting across the Chilean pines, the rows of headstones and carved angels, the boys visit the mausoleum built by Russell-Cotes, and then squeeze into the tiny mortuary, where he is buried with his wife Annie.

But their interest is particularly held when they're let loose to roam among the assortment of graves. They have been asked to look at Victorian attitudes to death, clues to which are often found in the language used in tomb inscriptions. Suddenly there are intimations of mortality.

"That's how I'd like to die, just fall asleep," says one boy, misunderstanding a classic Victorian euphemism. "I'd prefer to be frozen, die of hypothermia, " his friend replies. Another comments: "When my mum goes, I'll spend a good Pounds 10,000 on her."

John Fines, professor of history at the West Sussex Institute of Higher Education is here to give historical back-up. In the final presentation, he takes the role of Sir Merton Russell-Cotes to be "hot-seated" by the pupils. Many questions are lobbed at him, most of them critical, which he answers with solemnity and mock-indignation. "The idea of male nude statues is disgusting"; "If I had to work it would kill me"; "My pocket has been at the service of this town, so how can you say I just want to be important!" The pupils enjoy this glimpse inside a Victorian mind.

In this final session the variety of work undertaken by the pupils is revealed: drawings from the cemetery and the mausoleum, the results of technological experiments, a video of the day's activities, poetry, hornpipe dance, a rap about Russell-Cotes ("This is a song about a bloke called Mert"), and much more.

During the past two years Portchester has gone in for cross-curricular fortnights - though previously only in school - and also activity weeks. Headteacher Michael Haigh believes the present arrangement is the most fruitful one. "I think it's the most effective and manageable way of working in cross-curricular fashion," he says. "The new slimmer curriculum has given us more flexibility to do this kind of thing, and I hope it will be ongoing. But you need a staff who are happy working together; and our modest size certainly helps."

For John Fines, the value lies in the increased time available to the pupils. "They're beginning to tease out ideas about motivation, and explain behaviour. Suddenly, at the end of the morning, their minds were popping open like flowers. That kind of breakthrough is very difficult in normal circumstances. " Or as one boy put it: "History is ace, we should do it every day."

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