Julie Nightingale sees how role-play investigating social hostility in a historical setting, rather than the present, can be used to explore issues of community tension and attitudes to newcomers
A true tale of friction between two groups of miners in the 19th century, which has been adapted to help primary schools in the North-east explore issues of community identity, offers a good model for projects that teachers can set up themselves with the help of local resources. An influx of Cornish mining families looking for work arrived in the pit village of Cramlington in Northumberland in the late 1800s, but were met with a wave of hostility from locals, who were on strike and feared the newcomers would steal their jobs.
Simon Woolley, keeper of education at Beamish, the North of England Open Air Museum, has woven a programme of activities around the story to support history, literacy and communication skills at key stage 2. It can take half-a-term's topic work for roughly two hours a week and could be adapted, he says, for any community which has had an influx of migrant workers in its history.
The idea was born when he noticed that some of the children he was working with in Cramlington had an antipathy towards "outsiders". "They had negative ideas about 'other people' and there was a bit of racial tension," he says. "I felt it was something I needed to look into and this approach meant I could talk to them about it in an oblique way."
The work focuses on a Cornish miner, James Harris, who died in 1899 and is buried in Cramlington churchyard. Having come across the grave on a school visit, Simon researched Harris in the 1891 census in the local archive. It revealed his Cornish roots and that he had a wife and child. (The 1901 census is now available online and might be a good place to start looking for a character if a trip to the graveyard or archive is not feasible.) The local library yielded more information about the migration from Cornwall and how whole families had upped sticks and left their homes to work in the mines of the North-east, their harsh reception and the tension it generated between the two communities.
Simon introduces James Harris to the children by showing them a rubbing of his gravestone, revealing dates of birth and death and his occupation. Then he gets children to ask questions and imagine what Harris's history might be. In an exercise called Conscience Alley, the children re-enact the arrival of the Cornish newcomers at Cramlington train station. One group plays the Cornish families and another, the hostile Cramlington people; then they swap over. They act in silence so the children focus on looks and body language.
It can help to start things off if the facilitator or teacher takes on the key character role. "When I play Harris, they quite quickly get into giving me dirty looks and generally being nasty," Simon says. Next the children write down how the two sides might express their feelings. "Children say things like 'The Cornish people would have funny accents', which I pounce on and get them to explain - why do they object to accents, why does it make a difference to their view of a person?"
They repeat the arrival scene with the "script" and it's essential that all the children get to play both resident community and newcomers. "The biggest risk with drama is that they focus on what it's like to be the aggressive side and really get into the shouting and name-calling, and don't get under the skin of the side on the receiving end," Simon emphasises.
The character's home life can be explored, too. Harris had a child of primary-school age. Children latch on to this and they are fascinated by old-fashioned household items, such as the tin bath Simon takes into class.
They love to climb into it. Asking pupils to bring in their own objects related to the project brings home their own connection to local history - for the Harris story, many children brought in their grandfathers' mining lamps.
At Scremeston First School in Berwick, pupils have focused on the exercise as an investigation, says headteacher Helen Harrison. "We used a rubbing from a gravestone but only showed parts of it at a time - first the name, then the date and so on, and asked the class to imagine what might lie behind them. Looking for clues is a really good way to focus children's attention."
If you are planning to visit the local graveyard to research a name, contact the vicar first and talk it through with the children, she says.
"Make sure they know it's a quiet place and to treat the area with respect if anyone else is there. We also made sure to use an old part of the graveyard." Using copies of local newspaper reports from the period reinforces the idea that the children are dealing with the history of their area, she adds.
At Woodhouse Close Junior School, Bishop Auckland, Lindsey Burnip's Year 6 class began by looking at pictures from the period. "Everyone is able to get something out of a picture regardless of their reading skills so everyone has a way in."
A good way to start on written work is to get the children to interrogate the gravestone inscription, she says. After some discussion of what it means, they write down on Post-It notes what else they want to know about the person, then put the note on the board. "When we did it, we had 40 or 50 Post-Its on the board with questions such as 'Who was it? Or 'How did he die?'. And it gets the children moving about."
Simon completes his project with a visit to a mining museum to help the children put the Harris story in context, but at no point does he stress the links between the hostility experienced by men like James Harris and the tensions in 21st-century communities. Those connections emerge naturally, he suggests. "Don't make heavy-handed links with present day issues. Children understand. They make the link themselves."
* 1901 census for England and Wales