Talk of the town

Aleks Sierz

The countdown to the millennium has begun. Today is the last New Year's Day of the 20th Century and millennial fever will grip our lives in the months to come. Many schools are already committed to exciting ways of celebrating the end of 1,000 years and the beginning of the next 1,000, but, if you are short of ideas, these two pages, with the help of 'The TES'calendar, should start you thinking. Aleks Sierz kicks everything off by looking at how communities from all over the country will be telling their stories in the Dome

Whether dancing in the streets during lantern-lit parades or planting a millennium wood, whether acting in a community play or sailing down the Thames to Greenwich, young people will be busy in 1999.

Last month, every education authority in Britain got a letter from the New Millennium Experience Company (NMEC) telling them about McDonald's Our Town Story. (Those with sponsor fatigue just call it Our Town Story.) The project will be one of the main attractions of the Millennium Dome for school children - mainly because they will have helped create it.

The idea is to allocate one day in the Dome for each community, during which residents can tell the story of their past, present and future. The challenge will be to make the event vibrant enough for people visiting the Dome to want to dip into it and discover images that sum up a whole locality.

Maggie Semple, director of NMEC's Learning Experience, says: "The project is based on education authorities because there are more towns in the UK than there are days in the year. So one day has been allocated to each of the 211 education authorities."

Activities will be closely linked to the national curriculum - especially history, environment and the arts - to avoid overloading teachers. "By February, we will have resources and teaching materials for teachers," says Semple. To help fund this, McDonald's will give at least Pounds 10,000 to each education authority.

Stirling will be the first to perform its town story in the Dome on January 4, 2000. "Headteachers brainstormed months ago," says Alison Sinclair of NMEC Scotland. "Our Town Story is not a bolt-on; it will enhance what teachers do anyway." Stirling's education authority plans to include the project in its three-year school development plans. Prepare for an avalanche of art, poems and songs - including some Gaelic voices.

In Greenwich, near the epicentre of the millennium experience, several projects already relate to Our Town Story.

Emma Tufnell, millennium education co-ordinator, says: "Last summer we did a history and arts project about a slave called Ignatius Sancho, who lived in Blackheath in the 18th century and became a man of letters and composer. It began with history work in schools and culminated in a performance and exhibition in the borough hall; the highlight was a life-size puppet of Sancho."

But cramming your town story into one day is not easy, and many communities are coming up with imaginative solutions. David Fraser, head of lifetime learning in Bedfordshire, says: "In the eastern region, all 10 education authorities have joined together, so rather than having 10 separate days, we will have a two-week block.

"We'll be looking at our area's rich rural heritage," he adds. "One important theme will be sustainability - keeping the land fit for the future." With the area's long coastline, the sea will also be a theme. But, says Fraser, you have to avoid cliches about localities. "East Anglia is definitely not bland and flat."

Wales, with its 22 education authorities, abounds in possibilities. Beth Winkley, of NMEC Wales, says projects may build on existing activities. "One successful project twinned Wales with the southern African country of Lesotho. Many schools in Wales study Lesotho as part of the geography curriculum and collect books to support children there. There's an active exchange of schoolkids between the two."

Some schools might want to do something about the Welsh community in Patagonia. And Swansea has already run a project called Planet Swansea, which looked at all the Swanseas dotted around the world (The Times concise atlas has five). "This was very successful in schools and could be used in some form for the millennium," says Winkley. Time to get your maps out.

As Our Town Story focuses on community, a good topic would be the history of mining in the valleys. Or Nant Gwrtheyrn in north Wales, which was a granite quarry village until road technology changed from cobblestones to tarmac, and the village died. By 1940 it was a ghost town. Now it's been reborn as the National Language Centre for Wales.

Julia Bellanfante, of NMEC Yorkshire and Humberside, says Hull in 1999 will be celebrating 700 years of its bridge, which could be "a fount of stories".

But Our Town Story is not just about history. "One authority is thinking about how to teach maths creatively and will be using the chronology of social development from year dot to now - using the dates to tell the story," says Bellanfante.

York Archaeological Trust will support any LEA in the region which wants to depict its town through the ages. "Some schools might want to participate in a competition to show what their area might look like in the future," says Bellanfante. Local competition may stimulate ideas.

The South-east is a land of diversity, says John Senior of NMEC, "where there's magic in learning". One possibility would be to build up pupils' self-esteem in an education action zone, another to use crafts in the community or, when a school celebrates an anniversary, to create a digital calendar. In Sandwich, local arts group Strange Cargo organised a huge lantern procession last summer. Such events could feed into Our Town Story.

In Northern Ireland, themes will range from the heritage of "saints and scholars" to the age of the Belfast shipyards and scientific innovation. The wealth of creative literary talent will be celebrated and the fact "that Northern Ireland gave the world seven US presidents," says Carmel Heaney of NMEC.

The focus will be on healing the rifts and looking to the future. "In Northern Ireland, one group's fact is another's fiction, so Our Town Story gives the chance for children to work on a common heritage." Belfast may take the lead in optimism.

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