What do Canterbury Castle and the Hackney Empire have in common? Architecturally not much, although both have had aspirations to grandeur at some stage in their existence, even if they look a little ragged round the edges now. No, after years of popular neglect, both have been revived by schools which have "adopted" them as part of a scheme launched by English Heritage, the national guardian of bricks and mortar.
After a successful two-year trial in Canterbury, involving children aged between seven and 14, English Heritage is hoping that its schools heritage initiative will achieve similar results as it rolls out across England, establishing mutually beneficial relationships between monument and school.
The principal aims of "Schools Adopt Monuments 2000" are twofold: to strengthen school links with monument owners by adopting and studying a monument; and to help children discover shared cultural and historical connections by interacting with other European schools. There are the added benefits for schools of greater inter-departmental co-operation and stronger links with the local community.
The English Heritage scheme is part of a Europe-wide project being promoted by the Pegasus Foundation, a cultural organisation backed by the European Parliament. The Canterbury trial, which involved 20 schools, took place at the same time as similar projects in Amsterdam, Brussels, Copenhagen and 11 other European cities.
The word "adopt" is a little misleading; "attachment" might more accurately describe the link between school and monument in that there is no requirement to do anything to it physically. Rather, it forms the focal point around which a range of studies and activities geared to the national curriculum are based.
The project is open to groups of schools in any English town or city that can provide a co-ordinator to organise activities. Liz Hollinshead, from English Heritage, says this need not necessarily be a teacher, citing both Bexley and Hackney, where the co-ordinator has come from the Education Business Partnership. Museum education officers are also well suited to the role.
It costs nothing to take part, though participating towns are encouraged to seek sponsorship; European funding may be available, and English Heritage is offering "kick-start" grants of Pounds 500 to the first 10 towns (not schools) to sign up. Bexley, Tamworth, Lincoln, Hackney and Woking have already taken up the challenge.
The word "monument" is used loosely. Monuments adopted in Canterbury apart from the castle include alms houses, a synagogue, ancient hedgerows and a hospital.
The staff of Kingsmead County Primary School adopted several monuments, not least of which was their own 94-year-old school building. In so doing they made contact with former pupils and learned how the school had changed.
All of Kingsmead's 280 pupils, 80 per cent of whom have special needs, were involved. Teacher Margaret Cook is delighted with the project. "You can tap resources you didn't know you could tap," she says, adding that the project presented an excellent opportunity to pool resources with other teachers.
Year 3 children adopted an alms house. "It developed into a social exercise to get to know the residents," Margaret Cook explains, adding that some had subsequently attended school assemblies. Another positive knock-on effect was that Kingsmead scored highly in history in its OFSTED report. "I was doubtful when I started, but I got such a lot out of it and so did my colleagues, " says Margaret Cook. A Belgian school even made contact and visited the city.
Internet pages are being developed for the project, which will provide another means of interaction with European children. The scheme in Canterbury also received extensive local press coverage, thus raising the profile of participating schools. "Children like the idea of being noticed. They realise they are valued," Margaret Cook says.
The most spectacular results in the pilot scheme were achieved by Simon Langton Grammar School for Girls, which adopted Canterbury Castle, an obscure local monument that had long been closed to the public. The school's involvement was so successful - it produced a guidebook to the site - that the local council has re-opened the castle.
Curriculum and timetabling constraints meant that time devoted to the project was at a premium. For this reason, the school decided to restrict it to Year 7, says history teacher Jane Addison.
It was, she says, "an eye-opener" for those who took part because most of them did not realise Canterbury had a castle. "Because of our involvement we were able to go inside the castle. I think then they began to appreciate they could investigate a monument for themselves. I would definitely commend the project. " And Jane Addison has a valuable tip: "Try to find a monument that is under-developed."
HOW IT WORKED IN CANTERBURY
* Time allotted
Key stage 1: four afternoons in one month, then one full week
Key stage 2: four half-day visits, then one afternoon each week for two terms
Key stage 3: for two years, two lessons a week for one term, then a one-day field trip
* Cross-curricular benefits
Geography: sites and mapping
Maths: measuring and surveying
Languages: contact with European schools
Art: painting and drawing
English: letter-writing, guide book
History: key events during the monument's life
Music: relevant to the monument from the past
Science: how the monument was built
Drama: presentations linked to the site
* English Heritage is contacting museum education officers and school history advisors direct. Alternatively, write to: English Heritage Education Service, 429 Oxford Street, London WlR 2HD. Tel.: 0171 973 3442