Critics claim that Scottish primary schools don't teach enough history. But a heritage project near Edinburgh is bringing the subject to life for pupils and public alike, reports Raymond Ross
Heritage'' is a much used and sometimes abused word. But for one primary school close to the city of Edinburgh, it has a particular, and perhaps unique, relevance because the school's annual heritage trail has become an integral part of the local community's celebration of its history.
For the past three years, each June one of Queensferry Primary School's two P7 classes embarks upon a one-hour tour of the town, attracting friends, parents and genuine tourists. The pupils, dressed in historic costumes, introduce dedicated followers and casual onlookers alike to characters and events associated with the historic town, which first came to prominence in the 11th century when Saint Margaret, Queen of Scots, established a ferry across the River Forth, for pilgrims en route to Dunfermline Abbey and St Andrews in the Kingdom of Fife ("The Queen's Ferry").
The trail is the climax of a month-long project in which all P7 pupils learn about local history; and as Queensferry is associated with historical figures from the Maid of Norway to Robert Louis Stevenson (part of whose novel Kidnapped is set at the town's historic Hawes Inn), and boasts landmarks from its two bridges (the Forth Road Bridge and the Forth Rail Bridge) to a 14th-century Carmelite Church, the pupils have much ground to cover.
Dressed as "briggers'' (bridge builders and workers), witches, ministers, lairds, maids, merchants and town criers, the pupils draw a delighted audience. It is serious, hard work, for these pupils rewrite and develop the script every year, help gather and adapt the costumes, learn their lines and, perhaps most daunting of all, face the public.
"There is a great deal of language work involved,'' says headteacher Sheila Jackson. "They have to do research to gain knowledge and understanding, and then they have to write and act. They do the trail three times: one to rehearse, one for the public, and a final one for the P6 class who will take it up next year."
This involves a lot of direct teaching and class work focused on the trail, and the pupils not only interview local historians (one of whom is a special needs auxiliary at the school) but also pass on their knowledge to the next year's actor-guides.
"The project is firmly rooted in the requirements of the 5 to 14 curriculum guidelines," says Ms Jackson. "The message here is to 'audit your local environment'. There's a wealth of knowledge and history around you.'' (Though in some communities it is not as immediately apparent as it is in South Queensferry.) "The project work is integral to 5 to 14, which suggests using the local environment for fieldwork. We get the pupils out of the school to do this fieldwork."
History is introduced to P1 pupils with a "memories'' project entitled "Myself and My Family''. In P3 a "Gran and Grandad'' project extends the notion of history by inviting grandparents, many of whom attended the same school, to come in and share their memories with the pupils.
"These projects give the pupils a notion of 'time past','' says Ms Jackson. "We encourage the pupils to plot events in time to give them a sense of chronology - of 'time lines' - which is something younger children do not always find easy to grasp.
"The Scottish Consultative Council on the Curriculum has claimed recently that there is not enough Scottish history taught in primary schools. We would certainly counter that idea here. I think secondary teachers of history often start S1 pupils with a fresh approach, as if primary pupils do not know the word 'history'. What I'd like to see are more secondary teachers taking an interest in what is actually happening in primary schools."
She says the project, part of "Understanding People in the Past", focuses on the meaning of heritage. "It involves studying people, events and societies of significance in the past in a local context. It develops an understanding of the nature of historical evidence and it refers to important events and the contributions of individual people. These are just some of the ways it utilises the 5 to 14 guidelines. And it's also great fun."
That it is great fun, and that it does bring history to life is perhaps best demonstrated by the tourists who wait behind to be charged a fee.
"We're not enterprising enough to charge them,'' says Ms Jackson. "But it does show they've found it worthwhile and have been truly entertained."
A free Queensferry Heritage Trail leaflet, researched and compiled by the pupils, is available from the Countryside Ranger Service, Hermitage of Braid, 69a Braid Road, Edinburgh EH10 6JF