A measure of improvement
When Clive Belgeonne asks his Year 7 pupils what makes a good and comfortable life, the answers come thick and fast and are dominated by a desire for easy money. "A lottery win, in a rollover week - no, no, after six rollover weeks," says one, to roars of approval. But what about the problem of having to hide from your friends and the constant fear of burglary? "Easy," says 12-year-old Lee Oversby, "if you're that rich you can buy the best home security system going."
It might seem an odd way to start a history lesson, but teachers at Royton and Crompton school in Oldham are trying to introduce children to the concept of sustainable development and have found quality of life indicators in history topics an ideal vehicle.
These pupils will go on to compare aspects of life in the middle ages, the civil war period and their own years, using indicators such as public health, job opportunities, security and environment to start discussions and stimulate children's independent research.
Pupils will keep their projects to compare with the next period studied. By the end of key stage 3 they should be able to assess quality of life, or at least one or two aspects of it, across ages and between cultures.
"At the end of Year 9 we look at indigenous peoples of north America - how they lived together, how the individual was almost subsumed by the community, " Mr Belgeonne says. "We can then compare that with our individualistic society. "
Such comparisons should add a vivid splash of interest to work on the concept of change, and challenge the idea that history is necessarily a straightforward upward and onward path of progress. Other subjects, such as geography and the humanities as well as the social sciences, should feel some benefit.
"Children have the feeling that life just gets better," John Egan, head of history, explains. "We want them to look at how life was - whether diet has improved, whether there is a feeling of community. We have only just begun but the children have come up with some very sophisticated questions. One boy asked if people in the middle ages ever wondered about life - were they content?" The work is part of the school's commitment to Education for Sustainability, a cross-curricular whole-school initiative that Mr Belgeonne is responsible for co-ordinating.
"We are still trying out the concept of quality of life," Mr Egan explains. "But in a short time it has made our pupils question the idea that history is all progress. It allows them to explore issues that interest them, encourages independence in learning and creates a more empathetic view. Children like to get to grips with a period rather than settling for a snapshot, then they can make comparisons."
Mr Belgeonne's class seizes on punishment as a subject providing stark contrasts over time. Pupils are attracted by the thought of criminals being hung or mutilated for the pettiest of crimes and are wholly in favour of such punishments being adopted by the 1990s judiciary.
One small group dismisses education in the middle ages as shambolic. They talk about the morality of stealing when there was no social security system and peasants might be starving. How was law and order maintained? "Fear of God," says Louise Hill. "Most people were far more religious than we are now, and would fear going to Hell."
She suggests lords and masters might have used religion to keep order - no need for a police force. Everyone in the group seems to agree with her. They have an impressive awareness of power and its use.
Mr Belgeonne often quotes the Index of Sustainable Economic Welfare (ISEW), a quality of life measure that takes into account not only economic factors but also social and environmental measurements, and includes areas such as unpaid and voluntary labour. Over the past 50 years the UK's gross national product, the traditional, wealth-oriented indicator of quality of life, has been rising continually. But over the past 20 years the ISEW has shown a noticeable decline.
In Mr Egan's classroom, another Year 7 class shows some sharp and incisive thinking, with Mr Egan encouraging independence, and never saying: "No, you're wrong."
Kaal Payton tentatively suggests people in the middle ages might have eaten better than today's population, with simple food rather than a packaged mass full of additives. He had found out that the poorer classes were almost wholly vegetarians.
Mr Egan closes his lesson, one of the last of the summer term, with an exciting preview of what independent learning will mean in future history classes. He wants his pupils to put questions into their projects, questions coming wholly from children and not necessarily having an answer everyone will agree with.
"Remember," he says, "next year I want to see more of you in your work - and less of your teacher."
Details of the Index of Sustainable Welfare can be obtained from the New Economics Foundation, 1st Floor, Vine Court, 112-116 Whitechapel Road, London E1 1JE. Tel: 0171 377 5696.
Clive Belgeonne can be contacted at Royton and Crompton School, Blackshaw Lane, Royton, Oldham OL2 6NT. Tel: 01706 846474