Education: If it's Monday, it must be the Saxons: Can role-play bring history memorably to life? One primary school thinks it can. Wendy Berliner reports

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Just imagine: 'We have a time machine that will take us wherever we want to go. We are going back to AD 1050. Do you think you would still be wearing the same school uniform? Would you be speaking in the same way? Would you be eating the same things?'

The heads of a group of seven-, eight- and nine-year-olds at Silsoe Lower School in Bedfordshire shake. 'That's right,' says head teacher, Helen Cook. 'Just about every part of your life would change.'

The school was embarking on its first ever history week in which the normal timetable was to go out of the window and children in key stage 2 of the curriculum were to study nearly 1,000 years of British political, economic, social and cultural history

To get to grips with this ambitious concept, the children were to be split every morning into family groups and given names suited to the period. In the afternoon they were to become reporters, with one of them acting as an editor, researching and writing material about the period for a history chronicle.

History in the school is normally tackled through class projects. Mrs Cook, head of the 93-pupil school, conceived the idea for a whole week of history partly as an antidote to some of the history teaching she received at school. 'History at my primary school was delivered in little pouches with no chronology,' she says.

'As a child I never believed what I was being told. I had difficulty finding the difference between fact and fiction. I was very sceptical. It took three or four years of grammar school to really understand about history.'

She does not claim that the children will get in-depth history teaching. Instead, she hopes they will begin to understand history as a continuous process and realise that we might learn from the mistakes of the past.

But would it work? Would the children get a sense of the past? The week did not begin auspiciously. The children howled with laughter at each other's strange Saxon names. After they changed into their Saxon costumes, one little girl, whose feet were planted firmly in the 20th century, confided: 'That's one of the angel's costumes from the nativity play.'

But there was a hopeful sign when the Independent's photographer arrived. He told them to take no notice of his camera. 'What's a camera?' asked eight-year-old Ethelred (aka Michael). 'I know not,' said Helen Cook, now the village reeve - the lord of the manor's agent in the village on the fast-flowing river they now occupied near the woods where a witch had her toft (house).

You knew the experiment was working the following morning, when a normally polite boy shook his fist in anger at his headteacher because the reeve refused to accept that it wasn't the priest who had poisoned the villagers' water.

The scene was a moot (a Saxon village meeting) in the school hall. The reeve had called it to discuss what the villagers could do about the river water that was killing their sheep.

No one was allowed to speak unless they were holding the say stick (the Saxon way of keeping order in meetings). The children were clamouring for the say stick; popular opinion, led by the reeve, blamed the witch in the woods for their misfortune.

Tempers flared as one teacher, Maxine Taylor, cast as Cuthbert, the village priest, said they were to blame for not coming to church. Then came the blasphemous suggestion that perhaps the priest was to blame.

Red-headed Egbert (aka Nick), aged nine, grabbed the say stick to say that he did not believe in God. The reeve got it back to say that she was sure the witch was to blame. 'Prove it,' one girl said.

'Children, children,' said Mrs Cook, bringing them briefly back to the 20th century. 'You would not say you didn't believe in God then. These people would be very, very frightened. Nowadays we think that we all have the right to say what we believe in, but not then. They believed everything they were told by the people in power. They didn't have television or books to give them new ideas.'

Egbert got the idea and the say stick: 'Let's ask the priest to help us,' he said. 'He's so powerful.'

The week swept by like one of those American tours of Europe. If it's Monday and Tuesday, it must be the Saxons. On Wednesday they were persecuted Puritans off to the New World in the Mayflower. On Thursday they were Victorians and coping with a child catching tuberculosis or the bread-winning father having an accident that prevented him from working.

On Friday Florence Nightingale came to visit. A professional actress, she enthralled the children with gory tales of blood and guts in the Crimea.

Teaching history through empathy, bringing the past alive by getting children to imagine they are historical characters, has a mixed reaction from history specialists, particularly from the traditionalists, with their emphasis on the teaching of facts.

Yet there seems little dispute that role-playing has its place. Chris McGovern, a traditionalist who teaches history at a Tunbridge Wells prep school, says: 'There is a danger that it can be confusing, but children like it, they enjoy dressing up.'

Mr McGovern, a member of the history working group in the Dearing review of the national curriculum, caused a furore earlier this year when he attacked the group's findings. He said they included insufficient British history and too much social history. But on role-play he says: 'I don't think I am against it as long as it is just a contributory factor to history teaching.'

Paul Noble, editor of the mainstream Historical Association's journal, Primary History, and a primary headteacher, says: 'I have seen a lot of role-play and it tends to be strong on imagination and not so strong on history.

'But it certainly can give children an unforgettable experience. If that happens, who is to moan about a few historical inaccuracies? It gives another dimension as long as the children study the time-markers, too.'

The history week made its mark on the Silsoe children. By the end, more than a dozen parents had approached Mrs Cook to say that children, who normally said nothing of what went on in school, were coming home full of stories of what had happened.

Most of the children seemed to have enjoyed it, although, oddly, there were a minority who felt they had done no work, even though the high standard of material produced for the history chronicle contradicted this.

'It was different, it made you act differently, it was exciting,' said eight-year-old Louise. Tom, also eight, said: 'I liked it because there were no times tables and spelling tests.'

(Photograph omitted)