Exploring their own neighbourhood can open pupils' eyes to planning issues, says Martin Whittaker
Tony Roberts has been doing a lot of thinking about his neighbourhood in Burnley. The 14-year-old eagerly points to photos he's taken of his area.
Some show what he likes about it - one is a shot of a playground near his home, another his own garden. Others show less desirable parts. "See all this here?" he says, pointing out an area strewn with litter and rubbish left by fly-tippers. "It's not like that any more. Me and my mates cleaned everything up. And we got sponsorship and raised money for Children in Need."
Tony's photos are part of a big display on a corridor wall at Habergham High School in Burnley, East Lancashire - the result of a geography project undertaken last summer by Year 8 pupils, which encouraged them to go walkabout in their own neighbourhoods and to think about where they live.
It got them comparing property prices in Burnley, where you can still buy a terraced house for the price of a secondhand car, with those in the more affluent South-east. It even instilled a sense of pride in their home town and, above all, it brought the subject of geography to life. Pupils who took part still talk about the project enthusiastically. "Usually we just copy out of textbooks about other areas," says 13-year-old Conor Gillen.
"Where Will I Live?" was developed by the Geographical Association in partnership with the Commission for Architecture and the Built Environment (CABE). It was conceived under the GA's "Local Solutions" scheme, which seeks to give geography teachers innovative professional development.
"Where Will I Live?" is particularly interesting in that it pairs up teachers and students from different parts of the country. It has also helped pupils challenge their assumptions and prejudices about their own areas. A project evaluation report cites one striking instance where pupils in East Cambridgeshire assumed that photos of run-down housing had been taken in Lancashire. In fact, they were taken in Cambridge.
The 16 schools taking part in East Lancashire and South Cambridgeshire tackled the project in a range of ways for pupils of different ages. Girls at Westholme School, an independent school in Blackburn, presented "a geographical mystery", with sixth-formers investigating why two similar houses in different areas of town have widely differing values. At Edge End High School, Nelson, Year 7 tutor groups were asked to consider their perceptions of East Lancashire and to compare their area with others.
And Habergham High School dished out disposable cameras. The school is in a suburb of Burnley and takes pupils from a wide area. The project was undertaken by three ability groups in Year 8. It was run by Brian Jeffery, then head of geography, and Claire Willis, head of RE with responsibility also for citizenship and PSHE. It started with pupils using online maps to identify the areas of Burnley that they knew.
They were then asked to make a mental map of their area, including only what was important to them, and sent forth in their own time to snap three things they felt were good in their area and three that were bad. "Bad"
photos included boarded-up shops and back alleys where pupils were afraid to go because of people who hang around there at night. Some young people interpreted "good" with photos of nice cars.
After taking the photos, they talked about issues that concern adults in Burnley - including house prices. Using estate agents' websites, they compared prices between one part of Burnley and another, between Burnley and more up-market Clitheroe, and with the project's partner area in Cambridge.
They discovered that there were instances of houses in run-down parts of Burnley selling for as little as pound;6,000. The average terraced house in the town sells for nearly pound;50,000, whereas in Cambridge the same property costs pound;212,000. This prompted pupils to ask why this was so.
Claire Willis gives examples of some interesting answers from Year 8s, such as "Cambridge has a university, so richer people must live there. We have only schools and colleges," and "Nobody wants to live in Burnley because it's full of drug dealers."
She says: "But some were proud that house prices were lower because it was better for the people who work here. And they felt sorry for the people living in Cambridge who couldn't afford to buy a house."
Finally, pupils were asked to think of ways to improve their home town. The end result was a display that included reports, maps, montages and photos.
Their work, and their views, will go to the office of the Deputy Prime Minister, John Prescott, in a consultation on the regeneration of East Lancashire.
"I think the pupils got an awful lot out of it in the sense that there was no outside pressure," said Brian Jeffery. "They developed ideas themselves, and so they were using their imagination. I thought as an idea we would obviously like to do it again, but there was one big stumbling block - the cost of the disposable cameras. We had a budget of pound;200 for only half of Year 8. To carry that on year on year would probably be impractical from a financial point of view."
Claire Willis says the project has had benefits on many levels. "Changes in behaviour were amazing. There was a class that everyone struggled with, a middle-ability, large class - they started out and it was very difficult to get them focused. By the end, they were focused and settled, with no need for behaviour management. It was a real eye-opener. It just shows what an appropriate curriculum can do; the skills you can take from it and ideas of independent learning you can use from it. I think sometimes we are a bit scared of pupil-led, independent learning, and not sure if it will meet appropriate curriculum outcomes. To me, this did."
* Further details from Diane Swift , senior lecturer at the University of Wolverhampton Email: firstname.lastname@example.org
or Amanda Richardson at CABE Email: Amanda.email@example.com