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Imagination on the road from Wigan pier

Dennis Carter samples life at the coalface. One dismal day last month, a Year 6 class in a suburb of Chester sank a mineshaft in the school corridor.

It was the children's idea, the sort of decision that groups of children sitting on garden walls late in the summer holidays used to make. Such unpromising beginnings often resulted in glorious, all-consuming pursuits with learning that lasted a lifetime.

So it was in the juniors' corridor, after one boy had made what seemed a ridiculous suggestion during the morning conference. The teacher was a little anxious, following the call of Chris Woodhead, Her Majesty's Chief Inspector, the previous week for his version of chalk and talk, for telling children facts rather than allowing them to find things out for themselves.

But being a self-confident teacher, who trusts the judgments of children, she allowed the initiative to blossom. After all, she had already prepared the ground with her well-planned and rehearsed readings of Robert Swindells' A Candle in the Dark, which had completely engaged her children's imaginations. That was not all. The children had researched the facts from reference books and had spent the day at Wigan Pier with its exciting, simulated coal mine and other reconstructions of Victorian working life. The coal-mine, as far as the children were concerned, would begin at the classroom door and go as far as the Year 5 room along the corridor. Not only that, but all the windows would be blacked out and, if parents wanted to come in through the back door to the school, they would probably have to wear Davy lamps on the tops of their heads!

The children began to group themselves according to the various tasks that were required. Some thought of the need to simulate the coalface with various papers and fabrics, "all scrinkled up". Others thought of safety, and constructed pit-props out of rolls of corrugated card. Some made relief models and pictures of miners at work. Then, of course, there were the various tools and equipment. The children proved how accurate their observations had been during their researches in the library and their visit to Wigan Pier. Spades and picks were reproduced convincingly; they even made a rolling trolley to carry the coals which they mined, fully reflecting national curriculum technology statements along the way, without even giving a sideways glance to such requirements.

Initiatives were springing up all day long as the coalmine took shape. A simple process emerged: you have an idea, you clear it with the teacher, request the appropriate materials and tools and, sometimes, procedural advice, then get on with the job. The teacher then becomes an adviser, a helpmate, someone to enthuse you into further achievements, a co-ordinator of initiatives.

If this reads rather Sixties and Seventies, then accuse the teacher of being old-fashioned. The reality is that she now has a class of history enthusiasts, who hunger for knowledge about Victorian working life, keep returning to the library, are developing serious heritage skills and are thoroughly enjoying themselves at school. I am sure that when they're older they will remember with a rich and almost painful nostalgia these days of glory! They will remember a great deal about the Victorians, too.

This class teacher has kept her nerve during a decade of educational turmoil. She has withstood a barrage of criticism of her profession and has listened to or read the reams of Government information intended to cure all. But through it all she has kept alive something of immense value to the education of our primary children: the sense of adventure and individual inspiration. She still believes the old Chinese adage, which adorned the front covers of Nuffield Mathematics booklets in the Sixties: "I do I understand."

Dr Dennis Carter is director of Arts Education Services.

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