Past players

2nd February 1996 at 00:00
Four National Trust properties in Northern Ireland now hold Sandford Awards for heritage education. Paul McGill takes in the history.

The young lad is worried when he gets his first job. He has worked hard to impress the potential employer but does he really have to turn up at six o' clock the following Monday to begin his duties as a trainee butler?

"Of course you do," says the lady of the house, with a wink to the teacher holding the nervous fellow's hand. Later he is reassured that it really is a role-play and that he can return to his primary school as normal.

He has been taking part in one of the events of the Argory, an early 19th-century National Trust house in Moy, County Tyrone. Key stage two pupils write job applications and then visit the "big house" to discuss the duties of servants and seek job vacancies.

At one level, they are always aware that they live in the 20th century and can go home to watch television, but teachers and education staff find they often have to reassure children that it really is make-believe.

"It brings people back, that is what makes the education programme work. You can't recreate in the classroom the sombre atmosphere of a mansion or the feelings of the people who lived there," says Mary Salter, head of the National Trust's Northern Ireland education service.

It is working in more senses than one because the Argory is one of three Northern Ireland properties to win a Sandford Award four months ago for the quality of its education service, along with Springhill in Moneymore and Florence Court in Enniskillen. Castle Ward, in Strangford, picked up one of the awards, allocated by the Heritage Education Trust, in 1994.

The assessor, Eric Woods, general adviser with the South Eastern Education and Library Board, said he was highly impressed by his day-long visits to the three latest recipients, who will be presented with their awards next month.

He was favourably struck by the authentic rooms, costumes and artefacts, the close links with the common curriculum, especially in history, English and art, and the visiting facilities. "Education and other staff are trained to deal with young people, the programmes were lively and interesting and the reaction of children was tremendous," he said.

It is only in the past few years that the National Trust embarked on a big expansion of its education work, helped by a grant from the European Regional Development Fund to create education centres and appoint specialist staff, mostly former teachers.

The initiative was then picked up by the British Telecom Community Programme, with a grant of Pounds 75,000 over three years and by the Department of Education, which is anxious to promote the cross-community aspects of the work.

Judges and sponsors rate the programme highly, but so do the important people - teachers and pupils. Education visitors last year to all Northern Ireland National Trust properties reached 35,000, an increase of 24 per cent on the year before. Pupils on cross-community visits rose by an impressive 67 per cent and now amount to one third of the total.

Part of the reason is that all the houses place great emphasis on the cross-curricular themes of cultural heritage and education for mutual understanding. There may be a more practical reason as well. It is a lot easier for a school to get funding for educational visits if they are run jointly with a local school from the other tradition under the cross-community contact scheme.

Patricia Law, former teacher and manager of Springhill, which had 7,300 pupils last year, believes that the stimulus of the events really does help promote better understanding. "They find it so fascinating that they really do have things to talk to one another about it afterwards and to follow up in joint activities," she says.

Mary Salter strongly emphasises the importance of this co-operative aspect of the National Trust's work.

"Simply having children go through a house in a group is not enough. We have to have an education centre so that, whenever the tour is over, they come back and start undertaking work together it might be something in small groups, or discussing something in groups, but there always has to be the follow-up to make our visits appropriate."

Springhill is the oldest of the houses, built in 1680 by Goodwill Conyngham from a family of planters earlier in the 17th century. Like the other properties, it offers daily activities on the theme of life in Victorian times, one of the history topics in the common curriculum, but also estate trails, story-telling, role-playing, conservation work and activities for children with special needs and follow-up craft work.

One week each year it runs an interactive educational drama called The House of Good Will, using professional actors. It also mounts a Victorian fair complete with Punch and Judy, magicians, street games, a peddler and traditional stalls; Happy Hallowe'en, where children duck and bob for apples and hear stories about ghosts; and a Christmas panto.

A particular feature of the house is that it has one of the best collections of costumes anywhere in the National Trust. One of the staff makes copies of them for children to dress in, intensifying their visit and giving a useful trigger to discussion of Victorian fashion.

As well as its "job applications", the Argory has a popular programme for key stage 1 children, which portrays life in the house for the gentry and their staff through the eyes of Tommy, the last child actually to live in the house. Also for key stage 2 are corn craft workshops, making some of the artefacts that were common at harvest time in the last century throughout Europe.

In Florence Court, a beautifully located 18th-century mansion, costumed housemaids lead children through rooms above and below stairs. Outside features include an ice house, water-powered sawmill and hydraulic dam.

The Earth Caretakers programme begins with preparation at school, leading to activities such as crawling inside a giant leaf to learn how green plants make oxygen, taking part in a race following the flow of sunlight energy and learning about an unusual food chain.

Although Florence Court is sited in Enniskillen, quite far from Belfast and other large centres, it is close to other attractions, such as the Marble Arch caves and Fermanagh lakes, so a day-long visit is often part of a longer residential course.

Castle Ward, which already holds a Sandford Award, illustrates the self-sufficiency of many big houses. In the Victorian laundry, children learn how clothes were cleaned and pressed without washing machines or electric irons; hot pipes run from the range across the ceiling to dry the clothes.

Another day focuses on science for key stages 2 and 3 through studying how corn was milled and energy generated and put to practical use through gears and levers. There is also a events Victorian art and craft summer school and a competition on the theme of "Rich man, poor man".

Although old houses were not built with the needs of disabled children in mind, the staff have a very positive attitude to access. "We say all children must have access to the house. The ground floor and toilets are accessible to wheelchairs and if they need to go anywhere else, we make sure they do, " said Patricia Law.

Cost is Pounds 1.50-Pounds 2 for a day's programme, but some special events can be up to Pounds 3 per head. None of the houses has catering facilities for school parties, but places are available for eating packed lunches.

For further information and details telephone: Springhill 016487 48210, The Argory 018687 89484, Florence Court 01365 348249 Castle Ward 01396 881204

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