Bones of contention

29th June 2001 at 01:00
Chris Fautley reports on a Year 5 project gathering perspectives on a local issue.

What do a development site, a fashion shop, opinion polls and old bones have in common? All have featured in a project undertaken by Year 5 pupils at St Peter's Methodist Primary School in Canterbury - one of five in the city taking part in a citizenship scheme sponsored by English Heritage, looking at the geographic and historic connotations of town development.

The focus of the scheme was the historic Whitefriars redevelopment site. "Every town has a future," says Jennie Fordham, English Heritage's education officer for the South-east. "We have to ask, 'What do we want from our future?' Children have to understand that they can have a part to play in that."

Whitefriars, which covers a tenth of the area within the city walls, was rebuilt after wartime bombing. Now the developers have moved in again, razing the site in preparation for a new department store. The work has uncovered the remains of a 14th-century church, even older industrial buildings and the course of a 9th-century lane. The area has a bountiful history, which is what appealed to Richard Rogers, a teacher at St Peter's. "I've had to be careful not to skew the whole project towards history and to keep alive the citizenship elements," he says. His main objective was to help his pupils understand how they could influence local decisions when they are older.

Using maps dating back to the 16th century, pupils were able to draw fish-eye views of how the site has looked, and changed, over the years. They conducted classroom opinion polls on what they would like to see there; interviewed visitors to the city; produced illuminated writing; and debated the morality of excavating graves found on the site.

A friar and an archaeologist also visited the school to add new perspectives to the debate. This was particularly useful from the citizenship aspect in helping the pupils understand the views of others, says Mr Rogers. In all, 35 hours spread over three weeks were allocated to the idea. Initially, it seems surprising that a building site should offer so many leads into the national curriculum. Mr Rogers explains: "The history of the site fits in very well with local history studies, map work fits in very well with geography, and the issue of change over a period of time fits in with both."

As for citizenship, he says the discussion surrounding any issue is very good for children in justifying their positions and supporting their opinions. "They have spoken to a lot of people from outside the school," he says.

All schools in the project will shortly have the opportunity to question town planners, developers and councillors at a question and answer session. Additionally, a selection of work from participating schools is being displayed in a city-centre exhibition.

Joe White and Sophie Wilson, two of Mr Rogers's pupils, both thought that a park on the site would be a good idea, although there was also some enthusiasm for a children's leisure centre. They concurred that people cared more about shopping than archaeology.

Mr Rogers has seen some unexpected outcomes. Pupils' confidence in communicating with adults has improved, and there have been benefits in developing ICT skills.

Jo Gunne, a teacher at Diocesan and Payne Smith School in Canterbury, whose school looked at Whitefriars from the geography and RE angles, is writing an overview of all the schools' findings. Have they managed to absorb the citizenship element into their work? "Yes," she says. "But they didn't realise it at the time. We all knew it was a citizenship project, but we didn't actually put that in our planning. When I saw some of the case studies, I was surprised how easy it was to link in the strand."

The archaeology brought unexpected bonuses, not least the moral issues surrounding grave excavation, but the idea could be replicated anywhere there is a building development. The archaeology is not essential, says Richard Rogers. The key citizenship element is understanding all the perspectives that different people have on a particular project.

What would he like to see at Whitefriars? "I'd like a lot of the site to be given over to the archaeological remains," he confesses.


* Should we excavate graves?

1229 pupils said Yes Comments included:"It's interesting."

"Revealing the past might help you appreciate it more."

"It's helping people understand their ancestors, maybe feel sorry or appreciate their own era."

1729 pupils said No

"You should be aware that the site might be a traditional one. Moving the bones might be wrong."

"You wouldn't like it if your ancestor was dug up."

"A foetus might be very fragile."

* Commercial development

1029 wanted more; 1329 wanted less; 629 didn't care "We voted on whether we wanted more or less shops selling what New Look sells."

"New Look sells clothes for teenage girls. We liked the pattern of small and large windows, and the stone corner of the building."

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