Oblivious to the snow flurries sweeping down on their adolescent heads, the group of Year 9s gamely march to the command of the trenchcoated matron issuing orders at them. This disciplined performance is for their own good. At any moment, they may be required to use the gas masks they have just assembled. Sure enough, the air raid siren pierces the brittle air and they calmly make for the cold, candle-lit cellar.
It may have been late March 1995 in real time, but for this group of 13-year-olds with learning difficulties from Hagley Park High School in Staffordshire, these were the years of the Blitz. The day of role play and experiential learning was planned by special needs support teacher Maggie Sutton, in collaboration with the education department of nearby Shugborough Hall, as a way of making history alive to pupils whose learning difficulties often stand in the way of their understanding of the subject.
The "Blitz" project is being nominated for the first-ever Reed Award, which is open to all Heritage Education Trust Sandford Award-winning museums that run projects for children with special needs.
The programme was no in-and-out museum visit. The day was based on a scenario of the group coming to Shugborough as evacuees from the city, going through an air raid and learning how to help out on the farms to which they were billeted. But the project went far beyond the day itself. Maggie Sutton put in a half term's preparation with the pupils beforehand. She had to work out ways of presenting this part of key stage 3 history with a group of children whose special needs range from underdeveloped literacy skills to hearing impairment, and difficulties in grasping concepts and reasoning. She concentrated on experiences they could go through as a way of making the period understandable.
Pupils produced and filled out their own ID cards, looked at government pamphlets and wartime propoganda and made cardboard boxes for their (paper) gas masks. On the day itself, they worked with various Shugborough guides, all in role and dressed in WVS, ARP and Land Army gear, in different parts of the estate. In the manor house, they learned Morse code and tried it out, prepared for the eventuality of a gas attack by making paper gas masks and were shown how to put out fires with hand pumps.
As evacuees, they were subjected to an initially cringe-making few minutes of dance (the Lambeth Walk and the Hokey Cokey) at the grimly decorated village hall and then had to learn about the less picturesque aspects of the countryside by trying their hand at mucking out and milking Daisy the cow (a wooden one with impressively functioning udders) on the estate's working farm.
Colin Price, the history teacher accompanying his class, watched and marvelled at the children's enthusiasm and enjoyment as he spoke of the difficulties of teaching history to these pupils using traditional classroom approaches: "History and special needs present problems. You're dealing with ideas and concepts they don't understand. A lot of these children find difficulties with tasks and texts. It's also hard to teach in a way so that they can remember the information that they're given."
For the purposes of this project, he and Maggie Sutton adjusted the curriculum, enabling the group to concentrate on focused studies that would capture their attention and imagination. Maggie Sutton says: "We offered a multi-faceted approach to history, suggesting different ways of gaining information." In preparation for the Shugborough visit, the children were asked to research older people's experience of the war. Some recorded interviews with grandparents, others with neighbours.
As far as Colin Price is concerned, the main purpose of the project is "that they enjoy history. A problem for these pupils is the value placed on passing exams. If they want to go ahead and do exams in history, that's fine by me. But our main priority is that during this visit they get an experience of what the Blitz was about and by doing so, that they get an understanding of what the war was about".
Had they succeeded? A man not given to hyperbole, his verdict was that "this day has brought out the best in these kids. They're showing a perceptiveness and are much more forthcoming than I usually see them".