South London pupils are discovering at ground level how their local communities have changed. Harvey McGavin reports
A crowd of curious children is gathered round the trestle table, peering over the edge to examine its contents. The plates spread before them hold what appears to be food, but it looks like nothing they've ever eaten. The white-haired woman standing behind the table holds up a plate and removes the clingfilm, revealing several battered pink slabs of meat arranged underneath. "Spam fritters!," she declares.
A few older members of the audience nod their heads and smile fondly at the memory while the kids at the front pull faces. This Reminiscence day at Keyworth School in Kennington, south London, is a chance for local residents to remember the war years, but for many of the pupils it's their first encounter with spam and the kindly woman who stands before them, Marguerite Patten OBE.
There's no better guide on the subject of food during wartime than Marguerite Patten, the former Ministry of Food adviser whose radio show, The Kitchen Front, helped housewives cope with years of food shortages and rationing. Her good-natured demonstrations of how to make oatmeal sausages ("with a bit of bacon for flavouring if you were lucky") and mock banana (from mashed parsnip) provide a vivid picture of the austerity years. "Meat was the most difficult thing of all to get hold of. We had one egg a week, if we were lucky, and we never ever saw a banana," she recalls. "'We'll eat again', that's what we kept saying to ourselves - that one day we would be able to have all these wonderful things again."
She can recall the details of 14 years of rationing as easily as her two-times table but, she says, "what's so difficult to convey to people is the spirit of Britain at that time". But now a series of National Lottery-funded Local Heritage Initiatives such as Keyworth's Reminiscence day should give a generation of south London schoolchildren a much better appreciation of the past. (see "Hearts and Minds" opposite).
Keyworth already has a strong connection with the past - it is named after Lance Corporal Leonard Keyworth, a Kennington soldier who was awarded the Victoria Cross for leading an assault on German trenches in 1915, and was killed five months later aged just 22. The children have begun designing a Second World War garden - with allotment and Anderson air-raid shelter - and have researched the Second World War bombing of Kennington which destroyed much of the housing and shaped the way it looks today.
Year 6 teacher Juliette Flower says the project has captured the children's imaginations: "On a simple level it's just about where they live, but it's also about developing their skills of researching and questioning, finding out about their past and being connected with their community. It helps them to see how things have changed."
The Reminiscence day has been one of the best attended school events she can remember. Dozens of parents and elderly residents from a local day centre that is involved in the heritage project turned up to meet Marguerite Patten and join in with a 1940s dancing demonstration. The Second World War garden - to be created in conjunction with the school grounds charity Learning through Landscapes - will be a great learning experience for many of these inner-city children. "So many of them don't have gardens so it has been a great thing for them to find out about," says Juliette. "I have had some children who didn't know milk came from cows - they said it comes from the shops in a plastic bottle."
Pupils at Spa school for autistic children in Bermondsey, which is part of the LHI project, are also getting to grips with the unfamiliar. The Victorian-themed garden they have created from a reclaimed corner of the playground with a stream running through it is a little oasis in this built-up area just south of the Thames. "One of the purposes of the garden is for it to be a place of peace and tranquillity," explains headteacher Jude Ragan. A sense of calm is especially important for autistic children, and the garden is proving to be a fertile learning environment.
They have replaced tarmac with turf, and planted beds with flowers and vegetables, all on a Victorian theme, to reflect both the imposing 100-year-old school building beside it and the market gardens that would have been a common feature of the area 100 years ago.
For some of the children with higher-order autism, mastering the basics was a challenge in itself. "Every skill is new for most of them," explains Margaret Dowland, the school's part-time gardener-in-residence, who has overseen its development. "They have quite a lot of difficulty with co-ordination. With the exception of one boy, they all had to learn how to dig."
The beds are planted in the formal patterns typical of Victorian gardens, with unusual varieties like purple-podded peas and white beetroot chosen from specialist seed suppliers. These plants aren't just for decoration though - the differences in colour, shape and texture compared to everyday vegetables are helping to expand the pupils' vocabulary and powers of observation.
"Autistic children are visual learners so it's much better doing something where it's practical and means something, than sitting at a desk and telling them," says speech and language therapist Jenny Thornley. "If it's to do with the real world, it goes in more."
The children have designed the layout of the beds, and some of them have become so involved in caring for the place they have professed ambitions to become gardeners. Each child in the gardening club has a patch of the traditional vegetable garden to call their own, but even those without green fingers are encouraged to join in. "We try to make everything fun and if they make a mistake we learn from it," says Margaret Dowland. "So if a plant dies we ask 'Why did it die?' " The Victorian theme is carried on in miniature topiary figures and a mural in the style of William Morris being painted by some of the more artistically able pupils. Next year all this will be supplemented by a huge Victorian greenhouse, currently under construction, and pupils will help in the restoration of nearby Southwark Park to its original Victorian splendour.
Spa school's garden has already unearthed a rich heritage and made it relevant to 21st century special-needs education, and prepared the ground for years to come. "The way we can use this garden is limited only by our imagination and enthusiasm," says Margaret Dowland. "And the children are really enthusiastic."
* Ask pupils about their favourite local places
* Aim for personal responses, don't impose definitions
* Base activities on their choices - eg, a local park School and student centred:
* Start from students' thoughts and feelings - include everybody
* Focus on the curriculum - but not necessarily obvious areas such as history
* Incorporate heritage ideas into lessons, assemblies, the school council Fostering creativity:
* Think widely about your area - street names, urban art, old photos and so on
* Look beyond the obvious and link up with the local community for inspiration
* Choose creative media - photos, video, sound recordings etc - to express ideas
HEARTS AND MINDS
Everybody and every place has a unique heritage. But when Learning through Landscapes and Groundwork tapped into this potentially rich subject in a three-school pilot project last year, not everyone was keen to explore their own history.
The dictionary defines heritage as "anything that has been transmitted from the past or handed down by tradition". If this sounds a vague, it's because the concept itself is notoriously difficult to pin down. Pupils' own definitiions were revealing: some said it was "significant to self-identity", to do with "my friends, my family", "many cultures in one community", or something "that gives me a clear sense of the past"; but others associated it with "old things, not for us", said they were "interested in the future, not the past" or thought it was "boring".
But the year-long Hearts and Minds project dispelled negative connotations and won converts in the participating schools. Millbrook Community School, Southampton, Greenwood Dale School, Nottingham and Lewis Girls School, Hengoed came up with fresh and complementary approaches - concept driven, school and student-centred and fostering creativity (see box). These led to activities as diverse as visiting the council planning department, creating local history materials, developing school grounds, and large-scale art works.
Sonia Percival, project director at Learning through Landscapes, is now looking for schools to join a new project building on this success.
"Heritage is important because it says a lot about us - where we come from and where we might go to. Some see it as a very dusty thing, but rather than being dead and boring it's very much alive."
For a free booklet, Hearts and Minds, contact Learning through Landscapes, 3rd floor, Southside offices, The Law Courts, Winchester, SO23 9DL www.ltl.org.uk