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Built to last

Local history is bringing the whole curriculum alive for infants in South Wales. Yolanda Brooks reports

Mention the Gurnos estate to people living in South Wales and there's a sharp intake of breath before they launch into a tale of deprivation and exclusion. On the way from Merthyr Tydfil train station, the taxi driver says bluntly: "We call it the Bronx."

On its western edge sits Goetre infants' school. Of its 150 pupils, around 75 per cent are entitled to free school dinners and half have special educational needs. But step through the front doors and the tough statistics and bleak surroundings are soon forgotten. The walls are alive with displays; classrooms and corridors brim with pupils' work and photographs of their exploits.

Take a closer look and you'll see the displays have a common thread: local history. Teachers at the school mine their local heritage to provide inspiration for the whole curriculum. It's an approach that has won them awards for seven consecutive years from the Welsh Heritage Schools Initiative.

The decision to make local history an integral part of all lessons was influenced by the intake and location of the school, according to headteacher Denise Morgan MBE, who was awarded her honour in 2003 for services to education. "In an area like this, where children perhaps don't get off the estate much, it's important to take them out and let them enjoy what's out there; otherwise their lives would be so enclosed," she says.

Here in the heart of South Wales there's an abundance of stories, themes, places and faces. "The history curriculum encourages you to develop an interest in your local history, and Merthyr is rich in heritage," says Mrs Morgan. "We saw it as a way to develop all sorts of key skills, and the children have become far more motivated."

One of the people making it happen is Year 2 teacher Alison Hocking. Each term she picks a person, a place or an era and sets about creating lesson ideas that will stimulate classwork for several weeks. The history part is easy, but she has become adept at finding innovative and relevant ways to cover all areas of the curriculum.

It sounds an onerous task, but she believes the regular trips make her job easier and classroom life more interesting. "Our approach to teaching is to give pupils a lot of stimulus," she explains. "So it is much easier when you go on a visit because there are real buildings and exhibits and you can see them, touch them and talk about them. It makes a tremendous difference to the children; rather than just sitting in a classroom, it brings things to life for them."

One of her recent projects featured the 19th-century ironmaster, John Josiah Guest, and his wife, Lady Charlotte, who built one of the first works schools (set up during the industrial revolution to educate children who worked in the factories). The pupils visited the school, Ysgol Maestir (schoolmaster), at the Museum of Welsh Life in St Fagans, Cardiff. They put on aprons and flat caps and toured the old classroom before trying out writing with pen and ink at the old-style desks.

Back in their own classroom they continued with the pen and ink line drawings, used an abacus during maths lessons and tried out drills in PE.

They practised their handwriting on mini-blackboards that stood in for slates, wrote a play about the Victorian school day, produced an illustrated book on the life of a Victorian girl and made two life-sized models of Victorian children.

To enhance their understanding of the era, they visited Rhondda Heritage Park and created their own coal mine, which they could crawl into armed with a torch and pencil and paper for a creative writing session.

In another project on castles and cottages, Year 2 pupils visited a typical ironworker's cottage, built in the 1820s, where Wales's best-known composer, Joseph Parry, was born in 1841. They also went to Cyfarthfa Castle, once a Regency mansion, and an impressive monument to the industrial revolution, and compared the two "homes". In literacy sessions they wrote a script based on their visits and later made a video, complete with costumes and location shoots.

When they focused on Goetre farm, which once stood on the current school site, they visited a local museum before setting up their own in-house museum, including exhibits and information panels. They created a farmhouse kitchen and shop, baked bread to investigate the changes in ingredients, made a scarecrow and used K'nex building sets to design and build windmills.

The school has accumulated a stock of dressing-up clothes and props, and created role-play areas that depict scenes from pupils' travels. Recent sets include a Victorian high street and a castle. Regular visits from Val Williams, a local historical dramatist, and pupils' grandparents also help to flesh out the projects.

In a recent report from the Attingham Trust, set up to encourage education about local communities, Goetre's use of historic buildings is described as "outstanding". Opening Doors: learning in the historic environment, offers a wide-ranging overview of learning opportunities at historic sites and provides case studies of schools that have made the most of historic resources. The editor of the report, Giles Waterfield, says: "We did a huge amount of research and we came across some interesting projects, but there are not many schools like Goetre. Visits seem to depend on individuals, and they have teachers who have the enthusiasm and the knowledge to make the best of their historic resources."

With the cost of transport and a busy timetable it's often easier to bring the world to the classroom. But staff at Goetre have shown that taking pupils out into the world can engage them in a way that no book, website or video ever will.

Opening Doors: learning in the historic environment is available at www.attinghamtrust. org. Welsh Heritage Schools Initiative: Look out for school trip ideas in Going Places, published free with the TES next week

Goetre infants' favourite trips

* Museum of Welsh Life, Cardiff: Caerphilly Castle:

www.caerphillycastle.coml Millennium Stadium, Cardiff:

www.millenniumstadium.coml Rhondda Heritage Park:

www.rhonddaheritagepark.coml Cyfarthfa Castle Museum: Morlais Castle: www.castlewales.commorlais.html

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