Recapture the castle

18th November 2005 at 00:00
England's past is less mono-cultural than we think - and definitely more fun, writes Tracy Borman

A group of 12-year-olds is involved in discussions with a 400-year-old cook in the cavernous kitchens of Dover Castle. They take gruesome delight in learning about the "foodstuffs" once prepared here. Then they hear something which makes their jaws drop: "You could get a pretty good curry in medieval England." What's more: "It was Queen Victoria's favourite, too."

In that moment, history is made personal. Names in books become people they identify with.

"Wicked," comes the response.

We have an amazing learning resource all around us. Inspiring, unexpected, often beautiful, always fascinating, this resource is priceless and yet we don't use it nearly enough: our heritage.

I don't just mean castles and grand estates, but the homes we live in, the roads we travel down, the parks we play in and the places we work. It is the physical structure of society that provides the frame for thousands of stories about people just like us.

Heritage tells us about who we are and our place in history, helping to create a sense of shared identity and citizenship.

Many young people feel that "multiculturalism" is a recent phenomenon, and that their experiences and fears are unique. Heritage tells us it's nothing new and that contemporary culture has been shaped by it.

As we enjoy a coffee en route to a football match, we might consider the Arab traders who first brought us the drink, or the Chinese who invented the "beautiful game". And that beer before kick-off comes courtesy of Romans who first got us into the habit.

Stories like these are woven into our landscape. Our job at English Heritage, where I work, is to help people discover them - especially at a young age. To do that we have redefined what we understand by "learning".

We started the process in 2002, when education, events and outreach programmes were first brought together. Last month, we passed another landmark with the publication of our first learning strategy. Although aimed at all age groups, schools are firmly at the heart of our plans.

A recent MPs' report on out-of-classroom teaching said: "Outdoor learning supports academic achievement, for example through fieldwork projects, as well as the development of 'soft' skills and social skills, particularly in hard-to-reach children."

English Heritage facilitates more educational group visits than any other heritage organisation - more than half a million every year. So we shaped our new policy in consultation with teachers. Hearing about the practical difficulties and time-consuming considerations, it became clear what our new strategy had to do: cut the hassle and help teachers to teach.

To that end, we have produced information sheets to help to reduce the administrative burden. We are placing specially trained staff at key sites to support school visits. From 2006, more of our sites will also have access to costumed interpreters.

But banish thoughts of failed actors in cobbled-together costumes. Our explainers are passionate enthusiasts, expert in their subjects, who take visitors "time travelling" as effectively as any Tardis. We are working with teachers to demonstrate the many ways in which heritage relates to subjects across the curriculum.

Earlier this term, pupils from Hounslow were given the chance to explore Chiswick House in west London, and interpret their responses through music, art and food. We are also forming new partnerships, for example with the Natural History Museum at Down House, the home of Charles Darwin, where visitors learn about history and science.

Teachers know entertainment is a powerful tool for learning. We saw this during our Knights' Tournament competition - the first competitive jousting series for more than 500 years. It attracted huge levels of interest from young people and school groups. Some of our knights even had their own online fan clubs.

We are now looking at piloting educational tours to support the competition next year. On a bigger scale, we are looking to harness the power of popular media as a learning tool. Increasingly, we work with programme-makers to link education and events programmes with historical films and TV series. One example is the partnership forged with the BBC in 2004, in which English Heritage supported its Battlefield Britain series with related events.

The power of our heritage is undeniable, as is the value of connecting the various parts of society with our shared environment and history. We can put contemporary issues into context and add richness to learning.

The process starts with engaging young people, but to do that we first have to make life easier for their teachers.

Dr Tracy Borman is learning director of English Heritage

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