Does reliving history improve learning? Sarah Farley steps back in time in Norfolk in a project tested for its results. There is an unusually reassuring quality in the screech of the jets over Holt Hall in Norfolk. It is the only indication that the year is not 1870 and we're not really caught up in some Dr Who-like time travel back to the Victorian era, from which there is no escape except via the trusty old Tardis.
This is Living History. Holt Hall, Norfolk County Council's Residential and Field Centre, has had all trace of 1994 removed, replacing items with Victorian furniture and paintings. The warden, George Carrick, and deputy Theo Fanshawe, have adopted the personae of Sir George, landowner, magistrate and philanthropist, and Mr Fanshawe, ex-Crimea, now deputy to a fraudulent Dickensian headmaster, Mr Sharp, played with sinister ease by Mike Shimmin, a Living History specialist. All the centre's staff are garbed in mob caps and breeches according to their station.
Not a trace of today can pass before the eyes of the visiting 50 children. If the staff want to fill the electric kettle, they have to wait until the visitors are safely out of the way. "We make everything as authentic as possible," says George Carrick. "Our aim is to offer children and their teachers the opportunity to experience life as it might have been in Victorian times, or, in the period our other course deals with, the 1940s."
To this end, the children and accompanying teachers take an active part in a story devised with Norfolk Teacher's Living History Group. For two-and-a-half days they role-play the parts of workhouse children, brought in as a result of Sir George's interest in the new Elementary Education Act. Their teachers play the parts of workhouse teachers working on a contract that can be terminated at the first sign of trouble.
Over the period of their stay, the children stay in role for the whole time, apart from in their bedrooms. Even mealtimes are conducted in Victorian style with Victorian catering. A story unfolds around them: Mr Sharp changes gradually from being a kindly, radical educationist to a grasping, unenlightened imposter. The children witness his fawning misrepresentations to Sir George, the Doctor and the Vicar, but are unable to tell Sir George the real nature of the man because Victorian children are meant to be seen and not heard.
By the end of the visit, Mr Sharp's true nature is exposed through his own actions as Sir George sees through his web of lies, aided by the children who daringly send him secret letters. Parallel with the central story are two others that demonstrate the moral dilemmas of the time: a poacher who is caught in Mr Sharp's illegal man trap, and an escapee from the workhouse who the children befriend and hide.
"It has really taken us 24 hours to get into it," says Rob Crawford-Condie, headteacher at Aslacton County Primary School, Norfolk, who has brought a group of Year 5 and 6 pupils. "They are certainly taking in a good deal about what did and did not exist in Victorian times, and about the complexities of the class structure. I think they are finding it difficult to adapt to the classroom style of not thinking for themselves because it goes against all we do in our real school."
The expressions on the children's faces when they see Mr Sharp preparing to send one of the boys up a chimney with a lighted fire are at once incredulous, excited and slightly worried. The intervention of their workhouse teacher-cum-real headteacher saves the boy but brings a deluge of invective down on the poor teacher.
The atmosphere is reinforced by the talk between the Living History team. Asides about Penny Farthings, the death of Dickens, and the scandal surrounding the Prince of Wales are picked up by the children, while a more local flavour is given in references to the poor harvest in East Anglia and the subsequent reduction in farm labourers' wages.
There is an element of unpredictability in role play that some might feel would distress the children. Certainly the atmosphere at Holt Hall becomes strained on occasion, although no child is picked out without their prior knowledge and consent. Alan Child and Mike Pond, who have been involved with Living History since its inception five years ago, maintain that the children respond enthusiastically because they have been well prepared.
"Each child researches his or her own character and background, why they are in the workhouse and what their circumstances are. They are not playing themselves: they are acting the part of a child in 1870. This helps them not to feel personally threatened," says Mike Pond, a headteacher and psychologist. "We also make sure there is emotional support for them through their teachers, who, being from the workhouse, are able to talk to them and reassure them and stay in role."
wo-and-a-half residential days for teachers and children, plus at least two days' briefing, a great deal of preparation, and yet more time devoted to follow-up activities, might seem a rather time-consuming and expensive way to convey a feeling of the Victorian era. But Alan Childs and Mike Ponds firmly believe that it is worthwhile and have carried out research, sponsored by the Cambridge Institute of Education, to prove it.
"We are not merely creating a tableau for the children to observe; the children are part of something they are creating, and their learning is far more effective," says Alan Child. "We showed this by taking two groups of children from the same schools, bringing one group from each school here, and providing the school group with equivalent activities at school. They had the same preliminary work, including visits from us.
"Taking the 1940s period we tested them using photographs which were non-specific to the project. We asked them such questions as 'What is happening here?' and analysed their responses. We did not know whose were whose when they were marked. It emerged that those who came here were able to interpret the pictures better by, for example, knowing the significance of an air-raid warden, or by explaining that children were filling sand bags, and why. The school group might say they were unloading food."
There do not seem to be many critics of the concept of living history, when it is done well. Tim Lomas, history inspector for Lincolnshire local education authority, is a keen supporter but he has some reservations.
"I am slightly concerned that children always seem to have the workhouse or servant jobs, there doesn't seem to be a big enough range of roles," he says.
"On the time factor, although a residential course must cut into the curriculum, it does provide personal-development opportunities for a child, and there are often several curriculum links available.
"It does seem to generate an interest in history generally - I have heard of several cases where children have taken their parents back to a house or castle."
Sitting in their ranks, learning The Charge of the Light Brigade by rote, the children seem to slip into their roles with ease, some relishing chanting the verse. "This is underlining the work we have done at school about what life was like for Victorians," says Rob Crawford-Condie. "After a while, you can see the penny drop." A Victorian penny, of course.
* Primary and Middle School, Key Stage 2, Living History. George Carrick, Warden, Holt Hall, Holt, Norfolk, NR25 7DU, tel: 0263 713117