A new spirit of Agincourt

Bill Bennett

When an English school chose the site of Henry V's greatest victory for its overseas base, far from creating resentment among the locals, the venture stirred up a new era of co-operation. Bill Bennett reports

The problem with trips abroad is organising them. They are often an admin nightmare: concerns about safety and security, transport and the suitability of premises take up a disproportionate amount of staff time.

Will you be too cut off? What is local traffic like? How long does it take to get to sites you want to visit? And will teachers feel comfortable in the place? So why not buy your own?

Southlands community comprehensive school in New Romney, Kent, has always encouraged residential trips across the Channel to teach children something about our nearest neighbours' culture and language. The headteacher Eamonn Cahill and his assistant head, Siobhan Stevens, discussed the idea of buying somewhere permanent. "What we wanted was a little bit of France, in France," says Cahill. Southlands was grant-maintained status at that time, giving it control of its own finances. With the full support of the governors, Siobhan set about the search. It was to be a long haul, and one which would lead to a remarkable and rewarding partnership with a tiny, but historic, French village.

"It took seven years," says Stevens, "and we saw an awful lot of not-quite right places." Then, two years ago, she heard of a possibility in the commune of Azincourt, only an hour's drive from Calais. Azincourt is the site where, on the October 25, 1415, Henry V, leading his "band of brothers", 6,000 men weakened by illness and hunger, defeated a French army of about 25,000 at the muddy, bloody, battle that we call Agincourt.

Memories of past aggression often incur bitterness which may survive for generations - look at the Balkans - so it was with some curiosity that she visited the local Office de Tourisme to get more information. It helped that she was also a fluent French speaker.

The mayor, Bernard Boulet, was intrigued by an English school wanting to set up a base in France. He suggested that a derelict cafe on the edge of the village would be much more suitable than the place she had her eyes on.

"It needed a lot of work but it clearly had potential," says Stevens.

Moreover, it was and it also happened to look over the site of the English positions on the battlefield. Negotiations started. For many years Azincourt had had a constant stream of interested English visitors trying to trace the battlefield. Robert Hardy, the actor, star of All Creatures Great And Small, is a long-bow expert with an interest in such history who made the trip in vain.

"People in the area 40 years ago claimed not to know of such a place," he says. "They denied all knowledge of the occurrence there with a great deal of shrugging of shoulders."

Then in 1982 a small, non-profit making, museum was opened, staffed by local volunteers. This was so successful that proposals were drawn up 10 years later to replace it with a much larger medieval centre. However, the commune has only 273 inhabitants and the estimated costs were enormous - some pound;1.2 million. A European Union grant was critical to financing the project but this required a "partner" from another EU country. Enter Southlands school and Eamonn Cahill, who supported the application as a gesture of goodwill. He knew that Southlands children would get access to the new Centre Historique Medieval. The school became a formal partner.

Meanwhile, with local support, negotiations on the school property were concluded - among her other attributes, Siobhan Stevens had legal training at the College of Law - and planning work commenced. The architect and interior designers were the same people responsible for the imaginative construction of the Medieval Centre. The result is astonishing: not only is it child-friendly, it's practical, secure and charming. You enter the building into a cloistered interior garden with water features - "It's Eamonn's Jesuit upbringing," says Siobhan Stevens. The kitchen is divided into three small, but fully-equipped, cooking areas, each colour-coded as is the china and cutlery. The children are split into teams, allocated a colour and do all their own cooking, working to French menus and eating in the French manner. They also do the shopping and washing up.

Upstairs, on two floors - one for boys, one for girls - are a series of four-bunk bedrooms, washrooms and shower rooms which can accommodate 30-plus children. All are comfortable, light and airy with windows looking over fields.

Cahill believes that to run such a place efficiently and safely you need a benign bureaucracy, leaving nothing to chance. For example, medical profiles of all pupils attending the centre are lodged with the local doctor in case of emergency. All staff, and back-up staff, who drive the school's 53-seater coach have passed a PSV test and have been trained by both French and English instructors. Local authorities, such as the police, fire brigade and ambulance services are advised when the centre is occupied. French health authorities demanded - and were supplied with - 30 sample menus for their approval. Programmes are designed to keep everyone occupied and are tailored to the year group. Year 9, for example, have a physically active agenda which includes orienteering and kayaking as well as shopping and practical French lessons.

Community activities may involve local French schools and dinner at the Charles VI restaurant in the village where pupils are expected to behave as their local counterparts do and spend a leisurely two or three hours over the meal. And it works. "The children behave the way you expect them to behave," says Siobhan Stevens. Southlands has 1,200 pupils and the intention is that every child will get an opportunity to visit every year.

Staff go on rotation.

A must for all is to visit the Centre Medieval which has had 45,000 visitors since it opened in July 2001. Full of the very latest audiovisual technology it presents, on two floors, the events of 1415 and what happened afterwards in a supremely interesting, informative and even-handed way.

There is no dumbing down but neither is there pedantry.

Many exhibits are interactive: for example, test the strength that is needed to pull a long-bow, feel the weight of a two-handed sword or have your photograph taken in a suit of armour.

So how was this all financed? Southlands has for years run entrepreneurial activities to benefit the school. It has its own catering and maintenance companies, all of which - once the school's needs have been met - can provide services to the community. The building in France was specifically designed to be low-maintenance, and running costs are covered by parents'

contributions to trips. These range between pound;40 and pound;85 depending upon the activities involved, but are waived if parents cannot afford to pay. Power, heating and lighting can all be controlled from the UK by computer.

There is no doubt that Eamonn Cahill is that rare person, a pragmatic visionary. It's also a fact that Siobhan Stevens is a multi-talented, thoroughly charming, human dynamo. They have had full support from their governors - "What a marvellous project," says Doug Green, the chairman - and the Department for Education also appreciates what is being done.

So can other schools follow Southlands' lead? Cahill is in no doubt. "Look at the huge funds controlled by the LEAs," he says. He is prepared to use the centre premises out of term-time to teach other schools how. But let a pupil participant, Tom Burrows aged 14, have the final word: "It's been the best part of my life - so far!"

* Azincourt is just east of the D928, 5km south of Fruges. To cross to Calais by Eurotunnel, look at www.eurotunnel.com, or call 08705 353535. Schools in SE Kent should call 01303 288737 for details of any special offers. To cross by ferry look at www.posl.com, or call Pamp;O Ferries on 087 0600 0611.

The Centre Medieval Historique in Azincourt is open all year every day (except Mons Nov 1-Mar 31). Check opening hours on http:azincourt-medieval.com, or call 00 33 321 47 27 53. Entry is 6.5 euros for adults, 5 euros for children. Reductions for groups. Allow 90 minutes for the tour.

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