School refusers discover a love of learning through mastering ancient building techniques. Jonathan Croall visits a centre where pupils reconstruct the past
Set within the gently rolling fields and ancient woodlands of Cranborne Chase, the Ancient Technology Centre consists of a dozen buildings of different periods, reconstructed over the past 18 years by school children and adult volunteers, using locally harvested materials. Offering an impressive range of activities, the centre aims to develop a practical understanding of how our long-gone ancestors built their homes, made fire and food, fashioned tools and utensils, and generally survived.
On one side of the property, there is an Iron Age earth house built into the hillside. On the other, a low Saxon building with a shingle roof. Walk on past a Stone Age log cabin to the end of the field, and you come across a Roman forge, which is is still under construction - by a workforce consisting of 15-year-old lads from three Dorset learning centres.
This morning, the young builders are working with materials they've made themselves. The idea is to show visitors the range of walling techniques used by the Romans. So on one side they're getting stuck in with wattle and daub, on another they're fitting cob bricks between tiles. Soon they'll be making glass for the windows, and once the forge is finished they'll do a spot of blacksmithing.
"Their motivation over the last few months has been incredible," says Luke Winter, tutor in charge. "Half of them had never used a chisel before, and they had none of the skills needed. Now they're quite skilled craftsmen.
They take a great pride in their work and their enthusiasm is fantastic."
Simon, a student at the Sherborne learning centre says: "I've always liked hands-on work, but at school we just do English, maths and science. I'd never done woodwork before. Now I've learnt a lot of new skills." His commitment and his ability to work with younger children have just won him a year's apprenticeship at the centre when he leaves school.
Close to the forge, its conical shape contrasting with the straight lines of the Roman building, stands a large, circular, thatched Iron Age dwelling, built entirely by school groups. Inside, it's a place of two halves, one bare and spartan, the other more cosy, with cowskin covers on the wooden seats, dried herbs and felt hangings dotted about, and on the wall animal drawings - some realistic, some fantastical - copied from various ancient sites.
Mr Winter explains the contrast: "It's too easy to see the past as a monochrome dullness, with people living in hovels and covered in dust.
People of long ago weren't that different from us, and I think they would have wanted to make their houses comfortable and attractive.'
With an oven and space for an open fire, the house is the focus for many activities, including traditional fire-making, pottery, baking, weaving, basket-making, dyeing and spinning. School groups are given time in the house to relax and imagine how Iron Age people lived.
"They respond amazingly," says tutor Beth Parrott. "We ask them to be quiet for 10 minutes and let their imaginations run riot."
Elsewhere on the site, there is scope for grinding corn, pole lathe turning, iron smelting, crop growing, and much else. One of the many seasonal activities is coppicing. From November to April, school groups are taken to Garston Wood, a nearby reserve run by the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds. After learning about woodland management and the importance of sustainability, they use bow saws and loppers to harvest hazel, which they take back to the site to weave into fences or hurdle gates.
It's a testament to the power of this kind of hands-on journey into the past that some primary teachers who bring groups today still have memories of helping to build the largest house when they were children.
"They remember exactly what they did and how they did it," Mr Winter says.
"It really does make a lasting impact."
Trina Chiverton is a teaching assistant at Wimborne learning centre: "We work with kids excluded from mainstream schools, with school refusers, and others who can't be educated in ordinary schools. Most of the kids find it difficult to work well in the classroom, so this kind of project is brilliant for them.
"They learn a lot of basic skills here and reinforce their literacy and numeracy, almost without realising it. Maths is involved in the timber work - the measurements have to be spot on. Literacy comes in with studying the plans for the buildings.
"They also pick up life skills by working as a team. Learning to take instruction, applying themselves to a task and sticking to it - these are skills they don't have time to develop in a normal learning environment.
"The activities provide an instant visual stimulus: if they're building a wattle and daub wall or weaving on a loom they can quickly see what they're achieving.
"Coming here can also alter their behaviour. One very introverted boy, a school refuser, hardly talked at all before. The change in him has been phenomenal. He's talking much more, developing a sense of humour, and even giving a bit of backchat."
The Ancient Technology Centre co Cranborne middle school, Wimborne, Dorset BH21 5RP. Tel: 01725 517618; Email: email@example.com; www.dorset-cc.gov.ukoutdoored