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Bombs and battalions

Local history projects on the Second World War won English Heritage prizes for primary and secondary schools. Sue Jones explains

Re-enacting a Second World War battle has won a primary school a competition run by English Heritage and the History Channel.

Stephenson Way Primary School in Newton Aycliffe, County Durham, restaged an attack by the local Durham Light Infantry on Primosole Bridge during the Allied invasion of Sicily in 1943. The research they did for their project won the school a camcorder in the Our History My Heritage competition.

The organisers invited schools to research an aspect of their local history. The 43-members of the after-school history club hit on their topic for the competition after a visit to the Durham Light Infantry museum. They extended their research by reading, interviewing families and getting first-hand accounts of some of the realities of war from veterans of the Normandy landings and the Gulf War, who taught them about marching and hiding.

They made some of the equipment they would need, such as gas mask boxes, dog tags and flour bombs. They were divided into battalions of soldiers and medics where they developed team work and leadership.

Teaching assistant Linda Hatfield emphasises how important it was that the adults, who included a teacher, a parent and the chair of governors, also got into role and accepted the leadership of the pupil in charge. This helped them experience relationships very different from the classroom. They also worked across the age range, with the older children helping the younger, and built up the relationship with the secondary school for which they are a feeder.

The event was videoed by teachers, enabling the children to see how their group work fitted together. Finally, they worked on their literacy skills by writing letters about the battle in role.

Stephenson Way's weekly history club allows pupils to broaden their knowledge in a cross-curricular approach, especially through drama, art and design and technology. A topic is developed over about a term and each child is allocated a character to build up through research, writing and role-play.

Linda Hatfield reflects on the children's ability to discuss complicated citizenship issues when in role. "During our exploration of pre-Roman Celts the children found the women to be strong and in many cases powerful. When we introduced a Roman ambassador to try to encourage the tribes to become client kingdoms, we found that although some of the boys would be happy with the Roman way of life, not one girl was prepared to alter their own status," she says.

There is a waiting list of people wanting to join the history club. It promotes the status of the subject and provides another opportunity to engage their interest. Jamie Williams Hudson started to go because "I am not very good at history and I wanted to know more". Chanelle Whithorn says: "history was one of my worst topics but now it is my favourite."

At first sight, the secondary school winning entry was very different from Stephenson Way's. Girls from Weatherhead High School in Wallasey, Merseyside, produced a much more academic study of their school during the Second World War, but many of the benefits resembled those of the primary children.

Teacher Nichola Boughey was used to using the school building as living history - it still bears shrapnel marks from the night it was damaged by a Luftwaffe bomb. But she had no idea they would end up with a pile of research documents four inches thick.

Like the primary pupils, the students built up community links through their research. A short article in a local paper brought a deluge of information and invaluable help came from the school's old girls' network. The girls not only learned to relate to much older members of the community, they had to work as a team. With different academic abilities and ages ranging from 12 to 15, they made their decisions on research and presentation democratically. Like the students, Nichola Boughey had only one vote, a factor that attracted at least one girl to the project. Although their final work was a printed booklet, they also had to make presentations to assemblies.

As a media arts college, Weatherhead encouraged the girls to develop their ICT skills. They learned to use a digital camera, record interviews and make transcripts and put all their work on disc. The school had their final booklet professionally printed and copies will be sold with other memorabilia when the school moves to new premises next year.

Chris Appleyard of English Heritage was impressed to see how much schools were using ICT. Many had put their work on disc, used video and sound recordings and set up websites to display their work, she says.

Nichola Boughey, who oversaw her school's entry as an newly qualified teacher, was particularly impressed by the personal development of the girls in her team. They entered the competition on the back of her enthusiasm and were initially shy of each other. But they quickly learned to work together, build up their workload, take charge of the project and carry it out to the community. "They were stars," she says.

Stephenson Way Primary School Email:

Weatherhead Media Arts College Email: English Heritage The History Channel programmes will be repeated next year: Stephenson Way, January 15, Weatherhead, January 16, both at 8.55pm

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