Face to face with the past

13th April 2001 at 01:00
Myths and misconceptions fall by the way as young and old work together on an inter-generational history project. Elaine Williams reports

John Halliday-Smith leans tentatively forward in his chair, lifts the teacup slowly with frail hand, resting between sips, eyes reflecting the inner man as if deep in thought. This simple picture of old age is recorded on video tape for the scrutiny of Year 9s at St Thomas More Roman Catholic high school, North Shields. They gaze intently at footage of this solitary figure, trying to imagine a life's journey that has spanned 100 years.

What does this image of Mr Halliday-Smith make them think about old age? The pupils are ready with their answers. Old people are lonely; tired; beset by memories; peaceful; loving; sad; grumpy; selfish ("They stop young ones playing football in the street," grumbles a boy); victims of discrimination ("My grandad was in hospital and all the younger people were being treated before the older people," another boy adds).

This is a warm-up lesson for a project called Trench Warfare, when pupils will try to imagine what it was like to be a child during the First World War. As part of this introduction they will get to know Mr Halliday-Smith and Alice Miller, aged 101, through recordings and visits.

It is all part of an an "inter-generational" initiative from North Tyneside council called Bridging the Gap, which involves partnerships with Age Concern day centres, museums across the north-east, care in the community services and schools. The initiative recently won an award for its plans to design a "curriculum on ageing", and was a runner-up in the Government's Best Practice awards for tackling social exclusion.

Pip Tench, co-ordinator of Bridging the Gap, has come to St Thomas More to lead this introductory session. When she asks the pupils whether they think old people are more likely to be victims of crime than young people, they say yes, when the reverse is true. They also underestimate the proportion of old people in the population. Lewis Nicholson explains that people lived longer in the days before coalmines and industrialisation "because they didn't have diseases such as Aids and foot and mouth".

Ged Stanton, head of humanities at the school, believes the association with Bridging the Gap helps to bring history alive, making it more accessible to a group in need of learning support. He also sees it as a cance to dispel the misconceptions young and old have of each other, to bring the generations closer together.

St Thomas More is a beacon school that attracts a social mix from a wide area, most of it devastated by deindustrialisation. "Working with old people has an enormous maturing effect on pupils as well as stimulating their academic work," says Mr Stanton. "They get answers and insights into things they will not find in their school books."

Pip Tench also brings older people to the school to work with gifted and talented Year 10s on a personal and social education project. This involves young and old working together to "design" a community of the future, creating timelines for imaginary characters.

Freda Miller, 65, and Helen Bates, 70, who volunteered to work with this latter group, say many of their own misconceptions about young people have been dispelled by coming into the school. "I thought boys would be loudmouthed and rough," says Ms Bates. "But they were really polite to me. They were so surprised that I was still doing such a lot of things with my life (she has recently been on holiday to India). I think they thought that when you retire you just go into a corner and die. I believe it made them realise that getting older is not so bad; it made them more optimistic about their own lifespan."

Ben Turner, aged 14, was surprised that when it came to creating a character for the new community, one of the older women had chosen to be a young girl who loved to dance, and who continued to be active into old age. "We all learnt that we had a lot more in common than we originally thought," he says.

Bridging the Gap was set up in 1994, as part of the European Year of Solidarity Between Generations, to address the council's concerns about age segregation; increased social mobility has meant that fewer children are in close, regular contact with grandparents, losing the benefits of their company and an understanding what older people are really like. Ms Tench initially spent just four hours a week with a primary and secondary school and a day centre. Now she has a full-time project officer, Jan Milner, and is involved with many more schools and agencies.

She believes the service is an invaluable way of preserving and utilising the experience of elderly people. "These life skills should not be wasted but seen as an investment for future generations," she says.

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