Resurrecting the past

An Engaging Places network 2008/09 case study | 07 September 2009

Key stage 3
ICT, geography, history, citizenship, art and design, design and technology

The Dearne Valley – which sits between Sheffield and Doncaster in South Yorkshire – has been the scene of dramatic environmental, social and economic changes. In the late 1800s coal mining scarred the land but brought employment and prosperity.

What did the teacher want to achieve? To increase students’: engagement with local issues and enthusiasm for the place they live; personal learning and thinking skills; self-esteem and motivation.


A hundred years on, the closure of the collieries had a devastating effect. Thousands of men lost their jobs and the Valley became one of the largest areas of derelict land in Western Europe.

Today most of the brownfield sites have been redeveloped and new businesses have been attracted to the area. However, as St Pius X Catholic High School in Wath upon Dearne found, the legacy of unemployment and depression lived on.

Photo of a crowd of students in uniform on a brownfields site

St Pius students onsite © CABE / Tom Wipperman

Students tended to lack motivation and self-belief. When asked their views on where they lived, most responded unenthusiastically: ‘scruffy streets’, ‘car accidents’, ‘fights’, ‘graffiti’, ‘crime’, ‘drugs’, ‘too dangerous’, ‘no cool stuff’…

What could the school do to challenge these views and encourage students to become more proactive and positive about their home, education and future?

Personal learning, personal geography
The school decided to introduce a new project encouraging the students to consider how the area should change in the future, as well as looking at how it had been shaped by the past.

How was the learning organised? A year 7 class: investigated how historical change in their area has shaped the present; considered how the area should change in the future; produced plans for redeveloping a brownfield site near the school; used a range of new technology, including GIS and hand-held devices.


‘We didn’t just want students to find out about the history of the Dearne Valley’, explains Tony Dodsworth, the school’s community plan manager. ‘We wanted them to use their personal knowledge of the area – their personal geography – to imagine and plan for the future. By making them feel that their views matter we hoped to raise their engagement, self-esteem and enthusiasm.’

The school decided to pilot the project with a mixed-ability year 7 class. From the outset there was a strong emphasis on using ICT – not only to enhance learning, but also to engage and motivate the students.

What was the impact? The students: believe they have a say in the future of their area; are more positive about where they live; have developed new personal learning and thinking skills; are more engaged, enthusiastic and confident.

An introductory activity involved the students using geographic information systems (GIS) to weigh up the pros and cons of possible new locations for Rotherham United’s football ground. Using Google Earth, the students scored different sites against characteristics such as access, flatness and flood risk.

People from the past
With a new awareness of their area’s geography, the class moved on to investigate the Dearne Valley from a historical perspective. Each student was given the name of a real person who had lived in their town at a different time – from an agricultural labourer in the 1820s to a call centre worker today – and was asked to research their life.

Again the school used ICT to motivate the students. The Geographical Association and the Rotherham Investment and Development Office (RIDO) helped Tony Dodsworth set up an area on its website where the class could access photographs, maps, facts and figures about their individuals.

Gradually the students developed a picture of what changes in the area had meant for real people. When would it have been best to live in Wath? The environment was cleaner when land was used for farming, but the coal mines brought jobs and prosperity. When the pits closed down the environment improved, but unemployment became a problem. What about today, with the land redeveloped and new industry growing up?

Photo of a young male, blue jacket, looking at a hand-held GIS

A St Pius student using GIS onsite © CABE / Tom Wipperman

Back to the future
Building on the issue of redevelopment, the students were encouraged to look to the future of the Dearne Valley. Their focus was the Manvers Waterfront – a brownfield site a couple of kilometres from the school that had been landscaped and was now ready for redevelopment. How should it best be used to benefit the local community?

A day spent exploring the site brought classroom research to life. The students used hand-held recording devices to link their fieldwork back to GIS findings in school, recording places visually and orally and establishing GPS locations.

A range of experts – including a developer and representatives from RIDO, the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds, the Geographical Association and the Environment Agency – talked to the class about what they thought should happen to the site.

As Tony Dodsworth explains, this proved empowering: ‘Seeing that the experts didn’t agree, the students began to feel for the first time that their views might be equally valid. They were the people with the biggest stake in the future of the area. Why shouldn’t they become the experts?’

Back in school the students used a specially designed “drag and drop” exercise on Google Earth to experiment with different plans for the Waterfront. What was most needed in the area? Which land uses were complementary and which should be kept apart? They then compared their plans with the plan that has been accepted by the local authority, looking at the proposals with a new understanding and critical eye.

Photo of several school students on the street, standing in front of a green sculpture

St Pius students visiting Sheffield Peace Gardens © St Pius X Catholic High School

As a finishing touch, the students worked with the art and design and technology departments to develop models of their plans and ideas for public art to fill the space. A visit to the exciting new buildings and landscaping in Sheffield inspired their ideas for the Waterfront. It is planned to pass on their drawings, models and written proposals to developers, as well as putting them on display in the local library.

An energising experience
Looking ahead to the future of their area has proved an overwhelmingly positive experience for the students. ‘This project has had a wonderfully energising effect,’ observes Tony Dodsworth. ‘The students have realised for the first time that this is their area and they can have a say in its future. Using ICT has proved motivating and given the project a professional touch.’

With Building Schools for the Future in the offing, the school is now looking forward to harnessing the students’ newfound skills and enthusiasm in planning St Pius’ future.

Want to do something similar with your class?
We have collated a list of activities, organisations and resources that you can use to give your students opportunities to have a say in the future of where they live and learn.

The Engaging Places network
This case study comes from Saint Pius X Catholic High School in Wath upon Dearne near Rotherham, who worked with the Geographical Association through the Engaging Places network for 2008/09.

The Engaging Places programme is run by CABE (Commission for Architecture and the Built Environment) and English Heritage. It supports teaching and learning through buildings and places.

Engaging Places realises that young people identify deeply with where they go to school and live but they are not always able to adequately communicate their sense of place to others. The physical face of many neighbourhoods is changing fast and schools are being transformed at an incredible pace, despite the recession. These dramatic changes will either involve or exclude a whole generation of young people.

Engaging Places is responding to this situation through the Engaging Places network. This is made up of schools and learning providers across England that work together on projects which seek to equip students with the tools to articulate and critically analyse the places where they live and learn.

The schools involved in 2008/09 followed a process of disciplined innovation using the QCA co-development framework – a rigorous approach to curriculum change.

Read more about the and view the Engaging Places videos.

All Engaging Places 2008/09 network case studies

A window on the past – Cardinal Newman Catholic School, key stage 3

Street investigation – Ospringe Primary School, key stage 2

Grounds for improvement - Barmby on the Marsh Primary School, key stage 1, 2

A new view on design - Graveney School, key stage 3

A 360-degree journey - Dover Grammar School for Girls, key stage 4, AS level

Tales from the Palace - St John’s CE Primary School, key stage 2

Libraries by design - Thamesview Vocational Centre and Riverview Junior School, key stage 2, C&BE diploma

Groundbreaking geography - The Royal Grammar School, key stage 5

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