Images from the front

18th October 1996 at 01:00
HISTORY FILE: THE FIRST WORLD WAR BBC2 Mondays 1-1.20pm From September 16 - October 21 John D Clare assesses the BBC's series on the First World War as part of a new approach to the study of history

The First World War is the subject of an interesting series of five history programmes in the reliable History File series, but I have doubts about whether it really is the "new and exciting" resource the programme guide claims it to be.

When I started teaching, television in the classroom was still a novelty. Pupils would sit glued to the screen - no matter what the programme! But things are different now. Few pupils sit entranced through any video. Indeed, I do not see how any educational programme, no matter how well presented, can ever hope to compete with the visual images which fill pupils' lives.

This has led to an improvement in the way films are used in the classroom. Nowadays, we require the pupils to tackle related tasks and discussion points. We use primary footage in the same way you would use a document - as a basis for source work exercises. We show clips from two videos, and ask the pupils to compare them.

Within these lessons, the video itself has slid back to become like the textbook - simply one more tool; a resource around which you construct your lesson.

History File: The First World War shows some movement towards this approach. Each 20-minute programme forms a continuous narrative, but all the programmes have been split into four short sections, each dealing with a discrete issue or aspect of the war. Teachers will be able to take one of these sections and use it as the basis of a lesson. Some of the issues (for instance war propaganda) are fascinating subjects.

Language is very simple throughout. Even low-ability key stage 3 pupils should be able to understand the story, and, at key stage 4, some of the more simplistic statements would make good discussion or research questions.

Content is interesting, although not always strictly relevant. The section on "Changing roles for women", for instance, includes a description of force-feeding of suffragettes from before 1914. As part of a lesson on how the war changed the status of women, however, this section would support a useful comparison of the treatment of women before and during the war.

The series does have weaknesses. There are no teacher's notes to accompany the series, and although the programme guide claims that the series "can be used flexibly to support different approaches and teaching strategies", it does not even suggest "questions for discussion" at the end of each section.

My chief reservation is that the programmes, as indeed most educational videos, rarely get beyond the level of a narrative, albeit one enhanced by music and moving pictures. The film images - although they include good primary newsreel material - are used merely as illustrations accompanying the narrative.

This is an opportunity wasted. The film record of the First World War is among the most remarkable footage ever taken. The Somme film (with its famous faked scenes) was seminal - and deserves more than a sentence or two dismissing it as a propaganda failure (which is arguable). The war itself is one of the most heart-tearing tragedies of all history. Some of its images are more shocking than you can bear.

History File: The First World War has its moments: I was quite moved by the section which recounts Vera Brittain's successive loss of each of the three men in her life. But the narration is not vigorous, and I found the programmes bland. The series did not overwhelm me, and I wanted my pupils to be overwhelmed.

John D Clare is head of history at Greenfield Comprehensive School in County Durham.

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