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Giving voice to a source of learning

Jonathan Croall visits the National Sound Archive and discovers the practical uses of oral history both in and outside the classroom. Some of this stuff is tremendous. But it can be quite overwhelming. The problem is how to make it of practical use."

Rob Perks, curator of oral history at the National Sound Archive (NSA), points across his office to the cardboard boxes piling up in the corner. Crammed inside are the latest oral-history acquisitions of the archive. Among the riches are tapes of fishermen talking during the Cod War, the reminiscences of Methodist missionaries in India and Africa, material from the British Communist Party's archive, and nine hours of a tramp's reminiscences about the workhouses of the 1920s and 1930s.

These items reflect the diversity of the archive's existing collection. As part of the British Library, it is already the main national centre for oral history. But new developments are likely to make it of greater use to those teachers who see a role for oral history in their classroom.

Oral history is, of course, well established in many schools - as a way of looking at the experiences of groups that might otherwise be "hidden from history", as a tool for producing "living history", and as a way of encouraging pupils to develop personal and practical skills. In the past five years it has also become more generally accepted as a concept outside schools, not least because it forms the basis of an increasing number of television and radio programmes.

The original national curriculum gave a helping hand to oral history by including it as a key element in key stages 1 to 4, and making it of relevance to the three attainment targets. Despite the fact that these have now been reduced to one, and history has become optional at key stage 4, the slimmed-down curriculum leaves considerable scope for oral history work - notably in the local history unit within the revised key stage 2.

"I believe oral history is at its best when it's generated by young people themselves," says Rob Perks. "It can teach very valuable skills such as time management, developing self-confidence, and taking responsibility, as well as the practicalities of working tape recorders and video cameras. It can also be used across a whole range of subjects."

He believes there's even a place for such work at key stage 1, where a reference to "adults talking about the past" is included in the history Order. "Children of this age are perfectly capable of collecting evidence from older people, that can help them understand how the world changes," he says.

There appears to be a fresh batch of teachers interested in using oral history now that the curriculum framework is settled for the rest of the century. For them, the new edition of Oral History in Schools by Allan Redfern, due in the spring from the Oral History Society, is likely to prove invaluable. But there is still a paucity of classroom resources.

Producing resources is an expensive business, which, together with uncertainty about the curriculum, is why so few good resources have been produced recently.

But with the new British Library education department up and running, the NSA is better placed to help fill the gap, and it has recently produced oral history packs on the Holocaust and the Steel Industry.

Resources need not be produced centrally. Much invaluable and detailed publishing work has been done at local level. Many teachers who contact the archive are referred to their local project, library, county record office, museum or sound archive, of which NSA holds all the relevant details.

The archive already offers teachers an oral-history reference library and listening facilities, and, at a price, can make copies of tapes in its collection, which comprises a wonderfully varied rage of material, from the seminal work of Charlie Parker and George Ewart Evans onwards.

Early next year it will have a new on-line catalogue for the oral-history collection. It is also opening a visitors' centre at its South Kensington premises, where teachers and others can play items from the collection on a juke box, have access to the catalogue, and buy both audio and printed material.

Some very recent additions to the archive are the winning entries for the National Life Story Awards. The scheme, launched in 1993 by the National Life Story Collection, which is based at the NSA, aims to encourage the recording of the life experiences of ordinary people. It attracted more than 1,000 audio, video and written entries.

The winner in the young interviewer aged 11-16 category was 11-year-old Nicholas Moran, who talked to a 73-year-old man about his war-time experiences as a tank driver.

"Nicholas showed a staggering maturity in the kind of questions he asked, and in his ability to reflect and analyse at the same time," Rob Perks recalls.

* The National Sound Archive is at 29 Exhibition Road, London SW7 2AS, tel: 071 412 7405,fax: 071 412 7441.

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