The Schools Adopt Monuments scheme
What do the Shah Jehan Mosque in Woking, Bexleyheath Clock Tower, Hackney Empire and the Old Sub-Deanery Garden in Lincoln have in common? They have all been adopted by a class of children as part of the English Heritage Schools Adopt Monuments scheme.
Pupils from a Norwich school make a detailed study of West Earlham cemetery. Photo courtesy of Parkside Special School.
We are all concerned about getting young people to value their historic environment, to think about how it has been used in the past, its current use, and what will happen to it in the future. For many young people, and some of their teachers too, the historic environment has been something out there, something you have to get a coach to and visit, something you leave behind at the end of the day when the group returns to school. Yet all of us live in places which are a result of what has happened in the past. The environment where children live and go to school, and where their parents work, is just as much a part of our history as the accepted historic site, such as Dover Castle or Hadrian's Wall. The Schools Adopt Monuments project has aimed to get both teachers and children to look at their local historic environment, the immediate locality of the school, with fresh eyes.

The project began in 1994 as part of a European initiative in which schools 'adopted' a monument near to them, and used it in their curriculum work for a period of three years. A monument was defined as anything which had an architectural or historical interest. The criteria for choice of monument included ease of access and a compliant owner or manager, close proximity to the school, and scope for a wide range of curriculum work in various subjects. The scheme was originally overseen by a European group called the Pegasus Foundation, which consists mainly of MEPs, and whose aim has been to develop opportunities for young people across Europe to communicate and work together. Schools in each of the member states of the European Union participated in this pilot scheme, and in England the project was managed by English Heritage.

The poet Adisa working with pupils from Greenfield School in Woking Park, Photo by Tina Cockett.

The aims of the scheme have been to:

  • Help children value their historic environment;
  • Give teachers expertise in using the local historic environment as a teaching resource;
  • Introduce children to citizenship issues, such as local democracy and the planning process
  • Strengthen schools' links with their local community through contact with owners, residents, and professionals; and
  • Develop communication links with other schools and pupils involved in the project in England and other European countries.

After the three-year pilot phase, where 22 schools worked in Canterbury, the scheme was extended in 1997 for a further three-year period. Eight other towns and boroughs took up the opportunity. In each participating area the project was co-ordinated at a local level by a museum education officer, or an Education Business Partnership organiser, or archaeologist, who worked with the schools, offering advice and helping teachers plan their work. These co-ordinators also formed a network, and liaised with English Heritage education officers, which continued to manage the scheme. Almost 70 schools were involved, in Bexley, Hackney, Woking, Hastings, Greater Manchester, Lincoln, Norwich and Tamworth.

The schools included primary and secondary pupils, as well as several groups of children with learning difficulties. Even children as young as three or four years old were involved. Many teachers looked at their monuments as a resource for teaching the whole curriculum. For example, All Saints Primary School in Lincoln chose to adopt a local park which contained the site of Hartsholme Hall. As very few physical traces of the Hall remain (it was demolished in the 1950s and 1960s), the pupils had to use a variety of skills to find out what it had been like.

Artist Bhajan and pupils from the Marist School, working on the Paradise Garden hanging inspired by the Shah Jehan Mosque. Photo by Tina Cockett.

They visited the site and recorded the few remaining signs of the Hall and formal gardens. They used local archives to find out more about the past owners and what the Hall looked like. The children then realised that there may be people still living in Lincoln who remembered the Hall before it was demolished. They wrote a letter to the local newspaper appealing for help from anyone who had a story to tell. This met with spectacular success, and some of the respondents were invited to the school for an afternoon to be interviewed about their memories of the Hall. The children prepared questions to ask their guests, some of whom had worked at Hartsholme in the 1930s. The discussions gave the children a wider understanding of what life had been like in the past, and also encouraged them to value the contribution of others in the community. The project culminated in the children writing a history trail leaflet for the site of the Hall. With the help of a grant from the Heritage Lottery Fund this has now been produced with help from a local graphic design and printing company. The children have not only found out a great deal about the past of their local environment, they have also contributed to its future and to the community which shares it.

In other schools there has been a great emphasis on the arts. Artist - in- residence schemes enabled young people to work alongside professionals, responding to their monuments in different ways. Pupils from Greenfield School in Woking worked with the poet Adisa, and created their own poetry about Woking Park. Children from The Marist School contributed to a textile panel inspired by the Shah Jelian Mosque, the oldest mosque in Britain and, until the 1960s, the only one.

English Heritage Schools Adopt Monuments, which has until now been a closely managed scheme, will continue in a slightly different form.

Individual schools interested in taking up the idea and 'adopting' a local monument will register with English Heritage education. Schools will be given support in the form of teaching material, guidance and advice, and, where practicable, training courses. Schools may wish to work collaboratively with one or more other local schools, but there will be no requirement to do so. Likewise, teachers may approach local education providers, museum education officers, or conservation officers for advice or support, but there will be no requirement to have a local coordinator in place. However, should anyone from a relevant field wish to work directly with local schools on the Schools Adopt Monuments programme, they are of course welcome to do so. Any support local conservation officers are able to give teachers and children working on the scheme, however small, will be appreciated. Involvement with professionals working in the conservation field has been one of the main assets of the project to date and one we would like to see continue.

For further information about the scheme, please contact the project managers Jennie Fordham (01483 252012) or Liz Hollinshead (020 7973 3676).

Jennie Fordham is education officer, English Heritage