Hilary Wilce visits the Weald andDownland Open Air Museum where vivid recreations of the past introduce pupils with learning difficulties to Shakespeare.. The sun is out, but it is dark inside the tiny cottage where smoke from the open fire fugs the air and the windows let in little light.
Fifteen children are squeezed around a rough-hewn table listening to John Roberts, a Tudor barbersurgeon, talk about his trade. "And of course," he says, lifting a gruesome implement, "if it's a really bad wound, and we have to take a limb off, we have to use the bone saw. We try and do it quickly, because there wouldn't be any painkillers, but we'd give you a bit of leather to put between your teeth."
"Urgh," they groan. Then he lifts an awl and shows them how it was used to make a hole in the skull of a patient to relieve the pressure of evil spirits.
"That's demented!" cries one student.
"The most demented thing is that people survived it," he tells them.
All of them are giving him their full concentration - a testimony to the vividness of the experience these 14-year-olds are getting during their day at the Weald and Downland Open Air Museum in West Sussex. These are the kind of challenging students that might not normally respond readily to a day at a museum. The 50 Year 9 pupils come from three special schools in the South-east and all have moderate learning difficulties. Tomorrow the museum will run the same course for children with low literacy levels from mainstream schools.
"What we can offer is so practical and visual, that for these kids it works beautifully," says Diane Walker, the museum's education officer. She has had a long involvement with special education and feels a deep personal commitment to offering a programme for children with learning difficulties.
The museum has 45 historic buildings spread over a beautiful site just north of Chichester, and from the moment you step into it modern life is left behind. Low wattle fences enclose cottage vegetable gardens; traditional, snub-nosed sheep graze in the fields; and wood smoke scents the air. For the courses, education staff and volunteers wear authentic, hand-spun clothing, and use only historically-correct artefacts, so pupils are plunged into the sights, sounds, tastes and smells of history.
Today's course is "Shakespeare for SATs" - although not all the pupils on it will sit the tests - and during it, they learn about a number of aspects of Elizabethan life. Ian Pearce tells them about the apothecary where you could make potions of gilly flowers, agrimony, nutmeg and ginger. Then they make their own pomander balls of fennel, clove and lavender to mask the bad smells of the times.
"What would the streets have smelled of?" he asks. "Wee! Pooh!" they cry, with relish. In the Tudor kitchen they cook and taste Alexander (a hedgerow plant) fritters and apricot pasties, and hear a little about where food would have come from in Shakespeare's day.
Interwoven with the practical workshops are two sessions working on scenes from Macbeth with members of the Groundlings Theatre Company. The children find these sessions more daunting, as many struggle with basic literacy.
But the suitably-attired Shakespearean actors bring it all to life, and by the end of the day many pupils volunteer to join in a condensed performance of the play put on in the open air for the rest of the children, and for any interested passers-by.
Jamie Swift, 13, from Oxted School, Surrey, who played a convincing drunken porter, said it had been a good day - "and I liked the fight at the end of the play". Stephen Langton, 14, from the same school, also thought it had been good: "We did a lot of different things."
Last year, says Diane Walker, schools reported that pupils who had barely dared open their mouths in public before, stepped up and performed confidently in this different setting. "And there was one boy who was predicted to get level 3 in his SATs test, who got level 7 for understanding Shakespeare. Halfway through the exam he turns round and puts his thumb up and says to his teacher, 'Miss, this is what we did at the museum!'"
The museum piloted the special needs project two years ago, and ran it for the first time last year. "What it offers these children is a hands-on experience in buildings which gives them a real sense of place," says Diane Walker. "And you have to remember, many won't even have seen an open fire before." Last year, 1,000 specialneeds children, from schools as far away as Dorset, joined in. This season, the museum is hoping to hit the same target.
Nine special days have already been planned. As well as Shakespeare and Chaucer days, there will be a day on working animals for children with severe learning difficulties, a day on fire and light, including charcoal burning, bread making and candle dipping, and a day of harvest-related activities. The project is backed by Barclays Bank, which this year will underwrite it by pound;17,000. Education staff at the museum are well-versed in working with special-needs pupils, and know how to pitch their presentations to the needs of individual groups, while Barclays volunteers help the courses run smoothly.
Perhaps not surprisingly, all the programmed days are already fully booked, but Diane Walker says the museum can lay on additional events if schools say that they want them.
Education Office, Weald and Downland Museum, Singleton, Chichester, West Sussex PO18 0EU. Tel: 01243 811459www.wealddown.co.uk