The traumatic events of February 1993 are still fresh in the minds of teachers from Bootle, Merseyside. Many still vividly re-call flicking anxiously through school registers to see who was absent on the day toddler James Bulger was murdered, desperately hoping none of their pupils was to blame. And they still shudder at the memory of police poring over children's essays looking for clues about the young killers' identities. For a short while, it seemed, the eyes of the world were focused on Bootle schools, fingers pointing accusingly.
Christ Church C of E Primary is just yards from the shopping centre where two-year-old James was abducted, and teacher Rita Jones is perhaps more conscious than most of the need to rebuild community spirit and self-esteem after the tragedy. "Even though the two boys responsible for James's death lived several miles away, we all tended to get tarred with the same brush. It was a bad time for us."
Partly in a bid to forge better links with local people and improve the image of Bootle's youngsters, Mrs Jones has been involved for more than a year in a project chronicling the history and redevelopment of a nearby plot of land.
In the process, pupils at the 390-strong school have interviewed residents, young and old, and, she believes, created a great deal of much needed goodwill. In March 1994, Mrs Jones, who teaches art, design and technology, undertook a five-day placement in the construction industry organised by Sefton Compact, which manages the local teacher placement service on behalf of Merseyside Training and Enterprise Council.
Her work in using the industry as a context for learning in schools won her the W H Smith Teacher Placement Award, and provided her with lots of ideas for cross-curricular activity.
When she discovered that the 2.5 acre canal side site next to the school was about to be redeveloped, it seemed the perfect opportunity to put her ideas into practice. Year 4 pupils working on The Toffee Works Chronicle, as the project came to be known, were involved from the start.
The derelict land falls within the boundaries of the Bootle Maritime City Challenge, a programme designed to improve conditions in this deprived, post-industrial dockland area where juvenile crime is rife and unemployment runs at 36 per cent. The children walked around the site, took photographs, drew maps, analysed the change of use of buildings, pinpointed the type of materials used and studied the effects of weathering.
They watched an Edwardian toffee factory being demolished - and in the process discovered a long-lost theatre. They spoke to people who used to work at the factory and wrote about their lives. One pupil petitioned local MP Joe Benton asking, unsuccessfully as it turned out, for the tall toffee works chimney not to be pulled down.
As the 35 new housing association homes started to go up, children visited the site, spoke to workers at construction company David McLean Contractors, looked at plans, and researched what was going into the buildings in terms of materials, manpower and money. When the houses were finally complete last March, the children designed a questionnaire for new residents to find out how they liked Pine Grove Estate and invited them to an exhibition of their work in Bootle Public Library.
Many of the youngsters still visit their new-found friends and have clearly found the exercise great fun. Neil Harris, 9, says: "The residents told us they like the new houses because they're comfortable and they like watching us playing at break. Sometimes they wave at us from the window. It's better for us now too because there are no more drug addicts in the empty buildings."
Mrs Jones believes the good relationship established with these new families now overlooking the school has helped cut down on vandalism. People often ring the caretaker if they see anything suspicious. "It's been a lot of hard work. I've worked day and night to organise exhibitions, but it's all been worthwhile. The interest in our work has been phenomenal. We've filled a book full of stories and folklore as well as mounting exhibitions at the local library and teachers' centre. And being out and about in the community has made people feel more favourable towards us."
From now on, she says, if she needs inspiration for an interesting project she will look no further than her own backyard. "There's a wealth of information to be tapped into on your own doorstep and pupils love getting involved in something they can really relate to."