Jayne Dowle: Opening eyes to history at home and away

MICHAEL Gove has come up with a scheme to create a “must-see” list of historical sites for kids so they can learn about how Great Britain became great. It is one of his more inspired ideas. The list so far, compiled by English Heritage, includes York Minster and the Shambles, the Free Trade Hall in Manchester and one of my own personal favourites, the tomb of Bess of Hardwick – that most influential of Elizabethan women – in Derby Cathedral.

Do you know why I love Bess of Hardwick? Because I discovered her on a school trip to Hardwick Hall when I was 10. It was a long way – geographically and culturally – from Doncaster Road Junior and Infants School in Barnsley to the Tudor splendour of Hardwick Hall, but something about this independent, wealthy and several-times-married property developer caught my young imagination. I’ve never forgotten her.

And I still love school trips. If there’s a chance to act as a chaperone, I’m the first with my hand up. That’s how I visited Shibden Hall near Halifax, the former home of the Lister family, who made their fortune in wool. Try talking about sheep to a bunch of Year Twos, and you’ll get at best a stare of blank concentration.

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Take them and show them what the money made off the backs of sheep could buy, play with them with the wooden toys in the nursery and sit in the carriages the Lister family might have ridden in, and it all comes alive.

But the children who go on school trips to such places are the lucky ones. I think this £2.7m Heritage Schools initiative is a fantastic idea, but I fear it could be only for the fortunate few. I can’t find any recent official data, but anecdotally, the average cost of a primary school day trip seems to be around £11.

I know, from the conversations I have at the school gate, that this is beyond the means of many parents. And I know of teachers who have slipped trip money in anonymously to cover the cost of certain kids in their class. I know this too, because when my dad was on strike from the steelworks in 1981, my English teacher paid for me to go to Stratford-on-Avon. I didn’t find out for ages afterwards that the cash hadn’t come out of some special “grant”.

So I don’t think it would be right for this splendid scheme to end up something that only affluent children could benefit from. Sure, it would be mind-blowing if every child in the country could go to London for a long weekend, but that’s just not going to happen. There are plenty of children in Barnsley who have never even travelled from one side of the borough to the other. And the sad thing is, some of them never will.

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If this scheme is going to work, we need to embrace it on a truly local level, and this is where schools, museums, community groups and parents could really get involved. And, while no-one would ever wish to put a child in danger, I think we need to embrace the very spirit of adventure that characterised our nation.

If I was in charge, I’d take kids from the age of nine or 10 to the old Barnsley Main pit-head, for example, because you can’t understand much about Barnsley unless you understand the impact of the mining industry.

I don’t think the health-and-safety police would be overjoyed – it’s not exactly signposted and sanitised – but it’s proper industrial stuff. And then down the hill, pausing to inspect the monument to the 1866 Oaks Colliery Disaster, in which 361 men and boys were killed, for a walk round Barnsley Cemetery. The school groups who visit this amazing place already learn more about social history in a couple of hours poring over the gravestones than in any classroom.

And then of course, we’ve got the Town Hall. It will be open to the public soon as a new museum telling the story of Barnsley – but you only have to stand outside and look up at it to learn something. And pupils only have to do a bit of research to uncover the controversy over its expensive construction in the Depression years of the 1930s, chronicled by George Orwell in The Road To Wigan Pier.

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In Barnsley, as in all our towns and cities, it only takes a bit of imagination and open eyes to find somewhere to take children which shows how people used to live and how our country came to be. And sometimes, the most memorable bits are not always the most obvious. A row of terraced houses can tell many a tale if you look close enough.

As you might have gathered, I’ll be the first with my hand up if they’re looking for volunteers to help on this particular school trip. It really is a clever idea.

But if we want all our children to benefit, we must not forget what we can find on our own doorsteps.