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Held captive

An abolitionist addresses a hostile audience. Reva Klein reports on a dramatic initiative.

The depths of depravity to which humanity can sink! Torture and beatings! How can this be allowed in a Christian and civilised country?" Booing and hissing punctuate the impassioned speech of the abolitionist addressing a hostile group of lords and gentlemen at the Devonshire Club one cold, miserable day in 1791. The audience may look like a group of Year 9s, but they are playing the part of plantation owners and others with a stake in the slave trade. And while Andrew Wrenn is in real life Cambridgeshire's history and citizenship adviser, this morning he is done up in ruffled shirt and breeches to portray Thomas Clarkson, part of William Wilberforce's abolitionist movement, appealing to his audience's conscience.

He does not succeed. They refute his humanitarian arguments and vivid descriptions of the brutality of the Middle Passage with a spirited defence. When Clarkson asks them to look to revolutionary France as a model of freedom and equality, another young listener retorts: "Would you like England to go the way of France and suffer many deaths in the process?" Yet another throws down the gauntlet: "Many slaves have become Christians, been saved from hell and been fed and clothed properly for the first time in their lives. What do you say to that, sir?" Clarkson replies: "They've been forced into Christianity and been deprived of their freedom."

It is an electrifying exercise that stimulates the intellects and emotions of the students from Chesterton Community College. In preparation for citizenship, coming on stream in September 2002 and being taken into account from next autumn, Mr Wrenn has been looking for themes that can be used in different areas of the curriculum. He is finding that the possibilities are endless. In this example, it was used in a PSHE lesson, after preparatory work in history, as a way of analysing what it means to be British.

"An element of a person's citizenship is an analysis of identity. This particular scenario was triggered by some of the debate raised in the McPherson Committee Report into the death of Stephen Lawrence," says Mr Wrenn. He encourages students to develop their thinking skills by applying knowledge to critical analysis of issues around identity and human rights.

His aim is "to use an active approach to ctizenship in order to motivate children. I want to prevent it becoming like traditional civics".

Andrew Wrenn's challenging interactive approach is worlds away from the boring learning of facts that many associate with civics in its previous incarnations. As part of this project on the slave trade, he has designed a computer program to be used as a follow-up to the presentation. In it, citizenship themes are explored by creating a museum.

Users in groups are presented with 20 artefacts showing aspects of the slave trade, which they lay out on a display board and which they caption themselves. Pupils choose a specific point of view to adopt for the museum. For instance, they can represent an African American Trust that is designing a museum for African American tourists. Or they can become a committee that is establishing a museum in Wisbech, Cambridgeshire. Each will be very different and may involve children having to adopt positions they do not necessarily agree with. "But they all require children to confront contemporary questions," says Mr Wrenn.

The slavery project continues throughout this term as Mr Wrenn simultaneously runs a "thinking citizens project" for Ely St John's primary school using archaeology as a vehicle to look at landscape and legacy, with archaeologists pitched against conservationists.

"If we're expecting children to become citizens, it's reasonable to encourage them to develop their thinking skills. Part of the government agenda is that citizenship requires people to think for themselves."

If proof were needed of the success of such an approach, just listen to some of the "lords and gentlemen" from Chesterton Community College after their session with Thomas Clarkson. One Year 9 girl says: "I'd love to see this kind of work in other subjects. It's great being able to use drama to argue points." And another: "When you just read something, it doesn't stay in your mind. But when you're acting it out, like we've done, you understand it better and it stays with you."

And another: "You can't learn if you've got a closed mind. The whole point of this exercise is that you're put on the spot and you've got to think in ways you are not used to thinking. It helps you to understand history so much more."

And, hopes Mr Wrenn, it will open up possibilities for citizens to take an active part in making history.

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