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Work, restore and play

Young historians helped revive their local park as part of their area's heritage. Chris Fautley reports

The Young Historian Project, launched by the Historical Association in 1986, is now freestanding, although it is supported by the Royal Historical Society, the Historical Association and the British Association for Local History. It aims to promote excellence in history and to encourage young people's participation by awarding prizes for project and class work.

This year, categories have been announced for primary, key stage 3, GCSE and A-level work, at both group and individual level. Themes include local history, local history and citizenship, D-Day and the Normandy campaign, and school history magazines.

Winning entries in 2003 included prisoner-of-war experiences, an interview with a Normandy veteran, and projects on the life and context of St Dunstan. Prizes are in the form of cash, books and book tokens, with awards of up to pound;200 on offer. The panel of judges includes teachers, an Ofsted history inspector and the editor of Local History Magazine.

"What we are looking for is real evidence of the children's independence and the fact that they have genuinely done some historical research," says Trevor James, an extramural history lecturer and director of the project.

The awards are intended to celebrate the quality of work already produced in the classroom and after-school clubs. "We don't want people to feel pressured to do extra work because of us," he says.

This means that, to enter, schools only have to bag up a project or, if it is wholly written, send in a photocopy. It's as easy as that.

One school that has found success with the scheme is Cheyne Middle School in Sheerness, on Kent's Isle of Sheppey. Their work focused on the regeneration of the town's Beachfield Park. It's an on-going project and Year 8 students now working on it have been involved since they were in Year 5.

Years of effort have seen a timeline built in the park. Initially it was necessary to build up interest, says assistant headteacher Paul Murray, who has been overseeing the school's involvement, but the students persevered.

The line, which is built of sandstone blocks placed alongside a path, depicts events in Sheppey's history. It starts at 1000bc, with a map of the island, then further stones represent the founding of Minster Abbey, the founding of the Co-operative Society (one of Britain's oldest), the arrival of the railway, the island's connections with the early days of flight, and shipwrecks.

Several stones, notably those inlaid with mosaic tiles, were made by the students themselves, and their ideas were included in the design of the others. In 2000, they buried a time capsule in the park and they have also helped plan other features.

The culmination of their work was the publication, in conjunction with other organisations, of Tales of Beachfield Park, in which local residents recount their memories of the area. Cheyne students undertook all of the groundwork involved in the publication, which included gathering information, interviewing residents and working on the exhibition that accompanied its launch.

Although the project is extracurricular, it did not require extra work to enter the competition. "It was naturally part of the work that we did," says Paul Murray, adding that their entry took the form of a copy of the book and a precis of what they had achieved.

They won pound;100 in book tokens but, as Paul Murray points out, the prestige accompanying the award is equally important, as is achieving outside recognition of students' work. It's all very well for staff to say "that's good", he notes, but students also need somebody from outside to say the same.

He says the work can be valuably linked to areas of the curriculum such as history (particularly local history) and citizenship. It is also part of "caring for your community and caring for the people in that community".

Other benefits include confidence-building and self-esteem. "I think it's made them brilliant people!" he says.

Four lots of class work were sent in for judges to read, not as part of the competition, but simply to have it acknowledged by somebody else.

Having received very positive feedback, he sees it becoming a major feature of work in Years 5 to 8. He commends the Young Historian Project, making special mention of the support that has been received from its organisers.

The benefits are noted by headteacher Peter Woollacott: "The school draws its pupils from a challenging environment," he says. "I'm enormously proud of the pupils and their contribution to life in the community."

Back at Beachfield Park, the timeline ends with "2001: To the Future", which Cheyne students are helping to shape by demonstrating their enthusiasm for history and learning from it.

For more information, write with a self-addressed envelope to Trevor James, The Young Historian Project, 36 Heritage Court, Lichfield, Staffordshire WS14 9ST Tel: 01543 301097

To share ideas with Paul Murray, write to him at Cheyne Middle School, Jefferson Road, Sheerness, Kent. ME12 2PU. If your students would like to correspond with Beachfield students, address your letter to "The Beachfield Project"

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