Take a magical history tour

24th March 2006 at 00:00
A heritage project turned pupils into explorers who uncovered amazing facts about their town, its past and themselves, writes Douglas Blane.

Memories, history and heritage provide glimpses into a past that many young people know little about. Barrhead High recently set out to change that.

The idea for the history project came from East Renfrewshire's creative links officer, Yvonne Wallace, and her colleague in enterprise development, Lindsey Potter.

"Young people have the feeling that nothing happens in Barrhead, nothing good ever comes out of the town, and they can't wait to get away from it.

So Lindsey and I suggested getting pupils to explore the town's heritage and produce something they could be proud of," she explains.

At the launch of the school exhibition, the grandfather of one pupil is studying the image of an old red tram. "Five o'clock in the morning, whatever the weather, that tram ran from Barrhead to Glasgow," he says. He pauses, lost in memory. "They should have kept the trams. You could depend on them."

On other large, colourful panels around the room, images and words jostle for attention. There are action shots at Arthurlie football club, "one of the oldest clubs in Scotland"; the high school crest with its weaver's shuttle, devil's stones and contented cows; the railway station where a ticket to Glasgow, now pound;2.15, once could be had for a halfpenny in third class.

There is a pupil-compiled newspaper page about John Shanks, who became one of the world's most prominent plumbers, with a name preserved in porcelain.

"Even the Emperor of China requested his skills to create a bathroom suite."

Most dramatic of all is a recording of a play written by some of the pupils about the experiences of a young girl in the local mill. "The rags I wear used to be clothes. Torn and tired by the machines, I have cuts, bruises and burns and I am missing my third finger on my left hand.

"When dad found out he shouted at me and told me I would never get married."

Local history is a great way to relate the subject to pupils, says Colin Brockett, the principal teacher. "What really grabbed the kids' attention was a bus tour by the Barrhead and Neilston Historical Association, which took them around parts of the town they had passed all their lives but never realised their significance."

The starting point for the project, explains Martin Brown, 15, was pupils writing to the National Lottery organisers to raise funding. "When we heard we'd got the money, Mr Brockett asked who would like to go along on Saturday mornings to get lessons from a photographer and a writer.

"That was really good," he says.

The volunteers quickly learned to look at things in a new way, says Michala Bocklach, 15. "We discovered there were lots of things we didn't take notice of but were really interesting.

"We got to study history outside the curriculum and to look at what we wanted to, instead of the Second World War and all the things you have to learn."

Ms Potter explains that once artistphotographer Tim Nunn and writer Viv Graham had been recruited to teach and guide the pupils' creative efforts and investigations, the project took off in unforeseen ways.

"We knew we wanted to do something on Barrhead heritage, but we hadn't any particular approach in mind and we hadn't chosen specific themes. Talking to the local historical society started to bring it alive for the pupils, who came back with a clearer idea of what they wanted to do."

Morag Toundrow, the headteacher, says the pupils involved now have added assurance, an ability to converse comfortably with adults - "One of them, I notice, has just collared our MSP and is talking money to him" - and a willingness to take risks, "first with support, then becoming more independently inventive".

For Martin Brown, the single biggest benefit of the project has been learning how to study photographs and use cameras professionally. "Getting all that from a real photographer was great."

Michala Bocklach selects something less tangible but as enduring. "I now know that I'm capable of finding things out for myself, without relying on teachers or other adults. That feels good."

"Each time you do a project like this, it inspires other teachers and pupils, gets them thinking about what they can do," says Mrs Toundrow. "It teaches them that real learning that will last for life often goes beyond subject boundaries."

Text and images by the pupils, plus a recording of the play The Levern Mill, www.timnunn.comheritageBarrhead history, www.eastrenfrewshire.gov.ukbarrheadheritagetrail

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