From the pit of despair

13th January 2006 at 00:00
An award-winning collaboration between Newport LEA and the National Museum and Galleries of Wales has brought the harsh realities of life in mining towns in the 1860s to the modern-day classroom. Arnold Evans reports

They edge forward, gaze solemnly at the camera and testify. Girls and boys, some as young as seven, some who admit "I don't know how old I am". They work 12-hour shifts, "crawling on knees and belly", in the "absolute blackness" of a coal mine. They lived nearly 200 years ago but their words - verbatim transcripts from a report commissioned by Queen Victoria in 1842 - resonate with a chilling immediacy when you hear them spoken by children of the same age, videoed not on stage or in a classroom but 90 metres below ground at the Big Pit, Blaenavon.

The video (a sequence of short classroom-friendly video clips) was shot especially for Children of the Revolution (CotR), a remarkable piece of courseware which has won the Collaboration category in the 2006 Becta ICT in Practice Awards. It's the result of one of those happy partnerships in which everyone seemed to want to sing from the same hymn sheet.

Over 18 months, a team of ICT advisers and primary teachers in Newport local education authority led by humanities advisory teacher Don Trueman joined forces with the National Museum and Galleries of Wales (NMGW). Or, to be precise with Sharon Ford, education officer for the Big Pit, Blaenavon, winner of the prestigious Gulbenkian prize for Museum of the Year.

"The project worked because everyone recognised the complementary skills that each partner brought to the table," says Don Trueman. NMGW provided the historical expertise. Newport LEA had the teaching experience to know what would work in the classroom and the all important ICT expertise. "We were lucky we didn't have to work with any third parties who might not have quite understood our objectives."

CotR - available free at the website - gives key stage 2 pupils the resources to study what life was like in Blaenavon during the heyday of the Industrial Revolution: a compendium of video clips, photographs, digitised archive material, modelling exercises and interactive pages. Plenty, you might think, to excite the technologically-savvy teacher with a passion for history - and scare off everyone else. But the Newport team has ensured that doesn't happen. Every resource is pinned to a specific pupil activity; any additional background material is contained in the comprehensive teachers' notes. Pupils can work on the tasks independently, in groups or as a class huddled around the whiteboard.

"Some teachers have used it as a sort of electronic textbook to form the basis of a whole term's work, whereas others might simply dip into individual resources or activities. It's what teachers feel comfortable with themselves that counts," says Don. Every activity requires pupils to deduce, hypothesise and draw conclusions by comparing a variety of primary sources. It's the very stuff real historians use but cleverly selected to make it accessible at KS2.

The tasks ensure pupils interact with the data. So, for example, they're given the contemporary prices of household essentials in 1842, told the typical take-home pay of various Blaenavon workers - and an Excel template.

It's up to them to work out how to keep a family clothed and fed. As they juggle the figures they understand why even the pittance paid to a child labourer could be enough to save a family from starvation.

To build up a picture of home life, pupils can take QuickTime virtual tour of a ironworker's cottage. Here, the various artefacts - provided by NMGW - are hotspots that lead to text files, photos and video clips. Studying these reveals the squalor and over-crowded conditions in which children lived. To see the inevitable consequences of this, pupils can study a local church's burial records, feeding the data into a Excel template which automatically creates a bar graph to illustrate the shocking levels of child mortality.

Among dozens of other activities, they can examine the school log for the 1860s, or read the headmaster's punishment book - "two strokes for running after and teasing a donkey". Or reflect on their own educational standards as they hear children admit that they have not heard of Jesus, believe London is "in Bristol" and that there are four pennies in a shilling.

CotR is rich in this sort of detail. It's what makes history fascinating and will have pupils wanting to switch off their computers and go to Blaenavon and find out more for themselves. To prepare for their visit, they couldn't do better than watch Iron Town - a 30-minute video included as one of the CotR resources. In it Don Trueman and Sharon Ford tramp around Blaenavon finding what's left of the old iron works, coalmines, the tramways, canal and even the ironworker's cottage featured in the QuickTime virtual tour.

Of course, teachers who organise a field trip to Blaenavon, won't want to miss the opportunity to go underground at the Big Pit. While they're in this corner of South Wales, they might even be able to squeeze in a visit to the Roman amphitheatre and Roman Legionary Museum at Caerleon. And there's courseware for KS2 on that too - The Caerleon Challenge - another of the Newport team's successful collaborations.



* Children of The Revolution and Caerleon Challenge are available free at www.newportsouthwales.netrevolution


* A VHS version of Iron Town can be ordered at the website (pound;15.00)


* For more on Big Pit and Caerleon visit

* Information on Blaenavon, designated a World Heritage Site in 2000, at

ICT advisers, Chris Price and Steven Singer created Children of the Revolution using Macromedia Dreamweaver, Excel, Flash, QuickTime VR iMovie and Final Cut Pro editing software.

Don Trueman's tips

* Make sure you and your partners have enough common ground to arrive at a mutually agreed agenda.

* Be clear about your objectives, and be realistic about what you can achieve in the given timescale, with the resources available.

* Create a flexible resource, which both provide a structured pathway through the investigation and can be used piecemeal.

* Cater for a variety of different learning styles and allow children to set (and review) their own standards.

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