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Not just any old iron

The 'Iron' borough is a magnet to history students from around the world, reports Phil Revell

Coalbrookdale and Ironbridge C of E primary school must be the best resourced in the UK. On its doorstep it has a brand new pound;7 million design and technology museum, plus nine other museums and the River Severn.

Then it has a Unesco World Heritage site. The Ironbridge Gorge is a magnet for schools, drawing educational visitors from around the country.

The boom in popular history is good news for Telford and Wrekin but the borough, which shares responsibility for managing the heritage site, believes it has much more to offer than a simple picture of the past. It is now working to promote the gorge as a place for studying a range of subjects, including geography, design and, with the shape of industrial society in mind, citizenship.

"The children have a sense that they live somewhere special," says John Holt, the Coalbrookdale headteacher. "And you couldn't wish for a better part of the country to study the Victorians." Or, for that matter, the industrial revolution.

His school stands at the foot of the dale, just below Paradise, a road whose name possibly derives from its position above the smoke and the grime of the area's furnaces. They are still there, minus most of the smoke, in the form of the Aga-Rayburn Coalbrookdale works. And next door to that is the original, the site of Abraham Darby blast furnace, opened in 1709.

The museums dominate the area. The ten sites range from the 50-acre Blists Hill, an open-air re-creation of life at the end of the Victorian era, to the Quaker graveyard where many of the Darbys are buried.

In summer the gorge is thick with tourists from all over the world. School groups compete for space on the narrow pavements and for beds in the area's two youth hostels.

According to the museum's head of education, Michael Vans, between 500 and 600 school groups a year - 50,000 pupils - visit the area.

Often what the museum has to offer is quite specific, says Mr Vans. An art class may drop in to the Museum of Iron to sketch the exhibits or observe a practical session making bricks or decorating tiles.

Coalbrookdale and Ironbridge pupils will have visited most of sites with their families, but that doesn't detract from the school experience in the view of Clare Story, the Year 6 teacher. Class visits focus on different things and they are often treated to special workshops.

"I'm very interested in buildings. I like old buildings," says ten year old Chessie O'Shea. "I knew quite a bit about the Victorians and we'd been to Blists Hill with our parents. But every time you go there's something new."

The latest site to open is the Enginuity design and technology exhibition, backed with money from the local authority as well as central government.

"We worked with the builders," says Ms Story. "They invited us to the project right from the beginning and they talked to the children about how they were using materials to re-create the Victorian styles."

Inside, the atmosphere is anything but Victorian. Groups can generate electricity on a huge model river valley or watch a space shuttle take off, frame by frame on a big projection screen.

Amid all the industry, there is also the environment to be studied. The Severn, increasingly prone to violent flooding, runs through the site and the land is quite unstable thanks to its geology and old mine workings.

Both river transport and coal were crucial to its early success. But the borough now bears responsibility for ensuring that nature does not destroy more than two centuries of history.

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