History on your doorstep

12th March 2004 at 00:00
Terry Saunders visits a school that uses its location to teach about the future, as well as the past

The pupils of St Peter's Primary School, in the south Wales town of Blaenavon, are quick to tell you that the historical status of their town is rated alongside such wonders as the Pyramids of Egypt, the Great Wall of China and the Taj Mahal. Teachers are continually finding inspirational ways to respond to the remarkable resource that surrounds them. But when you go to school in a World Heritage area, you expect exciting things to happen.

This landmark valley town is today recognised for the dynamic part it played in establishing the world's first Industrial Revolution. "This town was the powerhouse of the British Empire," says St Peter's history co-ordinator, Pat Lewis, who is also a member of Blaenavon's World Heritage committee. "Before 1798 Blaenavon did not exist - yet within a few short years, the area's rich geological make-up of ironstone, limestone and coal, coupled with the nation's thirst for industry and invention, led to the creation of a frantic, overcrowded and dangerous settlement in the once quiet hillsides.

"It was in Blaenavon that large-scale production of iron was pioneered at the beginning of the Industrial Revolution," says Pat Lewis.

The World Heritage site incorporates all the key industries in the area's history - coal and iron ore mines, quarries, furnaces and a primitive railway system - under the umbrella of Big Pit, an extensive living museum whose structure dominates the town.

Here, you can explore the the lives and feelings of the men, women and children who worked in the mines and foundries; experience their working conditions in narrow tunnels and at the coal face, empathise with their fears and shudder at the dangers they faced. But it isn't just Blaenavon's industrial landscape that makes the town such a unique resource for St Peter's pupils. It's the part they and their families have played, and are still playing, in the life of the town that makes it so special.

Headteacher Ceri Watson explains: "Almost every child's grandfather, great grandfather and great-great grandfather worked in coal or iron or steel, and they have family histories,stories, photographs and artefacts. The terraced houses where the miners lived are still lived in; the roads, churches and schools they built are part of the children's everyday landscape and each year the Christmas concert and Eisteddfod is held in the magnificent Workmen's Hall, built with donations from the town's miners.

"School events reflect this heritage. Recently, as the culmination of a school study project on the iron industry, the children took part in a son et lumiere held throughout the town playing the parts of 19th-century working children. To prepare for the event, the children researched and made costumes for the production and invited historians and archaeologists into school to help them research the history of iron, how it is produced and its importance to the Industrial Revolution.

"Reaching back into their past is vital," says Ceri Watson, "but we also have to look forward. As well as being a heritage site we are part of a large-scale regeneration programme - and we have to make sure that this town provides our children with a positive, productive and viable future."

Terry Saunders is a freelance education journalist and former editor of Junior Education

MY TOUR, MY RESOURCE

The town's rich resources are exploited to enhance all curriculum areas:

* History - investigating social and working lives of children during the Industrial Revolution, the development and decline of the iron and coal industries.

* Science - exploring types of forces and energy.

* Art - making historical costumes, working with artist in residence to produce an industrial backdrop for the school hall, painting landscapes.

* Music - taking part in Eisteddfod.

* Numeracy - problem- solving using measurements, dimensions and statistics from the town's mines and foundries.

* Citizenship - exploring regeneration plans for both their town and their whole region.

* Language - creative writing, poetry, study of brochures and leaflets from Big Pit Museum to look at different genres of writing.

THIS POEM WAS WRITTEN BY PUPILS TO CELEBRATE BLAENAVON'S WORLD HERITAGE STATUS:

Blaenavon Blaenavon is a small town, A peaceful town, A quiet town.

Not much happens here.

But, It used to be a big town, A busy town, A noisy town, An important industrial town with Ironworks Mines Trains Trams Forges Markets Workshops Inns.

Now a World Heritage site.

But Remember the people Who lived in Blaenavon.

Miners Ironworkers Train drivers Blacksmiths.

Learn about Cokers Moulders Ballers Gougers.

Cry for the children Who worked in the mines.

And the men who lost their lives For iron and coal.

Remember the people.

A town is nothing without people.

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