The vision thing

15th August 2003 at 01:00
What started out as an idea for a school musical has turned into a labour of love for pupils in Yorkshire. Harvey McGavin reports on the inspirational power of a blind 17th-century mathematician

The famous sons and daughters of Penistone in south Yorkshire can be counted on the fingers of one hand - with some to spare. So when Andy Platt, deputy head of Springvale primary school, heard the 300-year-old story of a local man who achieved greatness in the face of huge difficulties, he thought it might have the makings of a school project.

What he didn't know was the profound effect this previously unknown man would have on his small village school.

Born in 1682 in the nearby village of Thurlstone, Nicholas Saunderson was blinded by smallpox before his first birthday. Legend has it he learned to read by tracing inscriptions on the gravestones in Penistone churchyard.

But despite this handicap (especially in an era before Braille), his gift for mathematics, allied to ingenuity, determination and a talent for communicating ideas, saw him reach the pinnacle of academic achievement when he became Lucasian professor of mathematics at Cambridge at the age of 29.

Mr Platt heard about Saunderson from a colleague seven or eight years ago.

Having put on several school productions in the past, he filed the information away for future reference. "It was at the back of my mind that it would make a great musical," he says. But when he heard Creative Partnerships, the Arts Council-backed initiative to encourage imaginative ways of teaching, had opened an office in south Yorkshire, he applied for funding.

Since winning a pound;30,000 award, the 203-pupil school has been buzzing with activities, inspired by what they are calling "the spirit of Saunderson". To try to appreciate the difficulties Saunderson faced, one of the first activities Mr Platt organised was a blind awareness workshop for the whole school, organised by Visual Impairment and Special Needs Advice, an organisation devoted to improving public awareness of vision loss, in which pupils wearing blindfolds discovered how even the simplest task was a test of initiative.

The range of Springvale's endeavours would have made Saunderson proud. The great man's likeness now features on the school's letterhead in a logo created by the children and design company SeaMedia with the words: "You don't need eyes to see, you need vision." Class 5 has been on a storytelling tour, letting children in other schools know about their local hero, and dance and drama workshops have culminated in performances for parents and children. A documentary of Saunderson's life made by the Springvale pupils had its premier at Penistone's Paramount cinema, while an animated film was shown at this year's Sheffield film festival. The children have been learning to use a replica of the pegboard Saunderson invented to make calculations and shapes.

Amid all this activity, Mr Platt's musical has had to take a back seat, but is scheduled for next year. A wall display in the school hall, of a road map dotted with signposts - among them dedication, perseverance, honesty, love of learning and big dreams - is a reminder of the qualities Saunderson possessed. "His personality traits seem very much in line with what we try to get through to the children," says Mr Platt. "He had particular difficulties, but he persevered and overcame them - he didn't just sit there and grumble, he did something about it. He had high aspirations and was determined to achieve them."

Apart from his academic achievements, he was a noted flute player and capable horse rider. "He just seemed to throw himself into things. And he got a lot of enjoyment from passing on his knowledge - ultimately, he was a dedicated teacher."

Mr Platt says he couldn't wish for a better role model. He has used Saunderson's example to raise pupils' horizons beyond the beautiful but fairly remote Penine countryside where they are growing up. Local personalities - including Sue Gilroy, a disabled teacher and paralympic gold medal-winning table tennis player, book illustrator Gill Tyler and dancer Shani Mitchell - have been to the school to talk to the children.

"We are trying to help them see the world - or as much of it as we can - and to give them a range of opportunities," says Mr Platt, whose Year 5 class rounded off the summer term with a trip to Christ's College at Cambridge University.

There they came face to face with the statue of Saunderson that stands in the college grounds, and saw the original manuscripts of his book, Elements of Algebra. "It was fantastic for them - it made everything real. They were wowed by it."

The school is now working on a series of maths problems with the university's primary maths group which the Barnsley Chronicle has agreed to publish. And in an unexpected outcome that would test the laws of mathematical probability, it turns out that two pupils, 11-year-old Joe Todd and his brother Alex, eight, are descendants of Saunderson. Their uncle, Jim Milner, made the connection when he researched their family tree. Joe says it felt quite strange to be told the news, but perhaps he has inherited some of his ancestor's talents. "I am quite good at maths," he admits.

The spirit of Saunderson seems to have returned to the village where he was schooled, rekindled by a chance conversation, and nurtured by dedicated teachers and enthusiastic children. "It has been hard work but the kids have loved it," says Mr Platt. "It's what education should be about."

Creative Partnerships: website: Platt, Springvale primary, tel: 01226 763133

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