Whilst out walking this morning, I found myself reflecting on how lucky I am to live near such a lovely country park and nature reserve. It was an absolute lifeline during the lockdowns of 2020 and 2021, when we wanted to have a good long walk and get out into nature, yet only 25 years ago, this site was one of the most polluted in Europe. It housed a former carbonization plant, which we knew as children, as the coke works.
When I was growing up the flame from the plant burned night and day and could be seen for miles around, and if the air was in the wrong (or right) direction we could smell coal tar, which I actually really loved. It took 172million pounds and 15 years to decontaminate the site. You can read more about it here: HUGE DEVELOPMENT: Sprawling site ready for building work after 15-year clean-up | The Star and here Avenue Coking Works remediation: Making the impossible possible – Legal Futures 15 years after the official opening of the country park and nature reserve, it is now home to almost a thousand different species, more than double the number in 2007 when it first opened. Avenue Washlands Nature Reserve 10 Years On is a World Away from Its Former Industrial Self » Good News Shared
This morning as I walked around the nature reserve, I noticed the changing of the seasons, the different plants, and the change in the weather, I heard the sound of the railway workers on the track, which got me thinking about why the plant had been built where it was, close to transport links that used to take coal from the collieries directly to the plant, and then on to the local steelmaking furnaces, and I reflected on the changes which had taken place since I was a child. The impact of the closure of the coal mines where my uncles, cousins, school friends, and Grandad worked, which fed the furnaces at the coking plant, and the demise of heavy industry, leading to a massive change in the economy and demographics in my local area. When the coking plant closed, 500 jobs went with it, when the mines closed, thousands of lives changed forever.
I reflected on the fact that, although humans had wreaked havoc on the ecology of this area in the past, had it not been for the heavy industry in the area, I probably wouldn’t exist. My ancestors who traveled here to find work in the mines, in the coal and steel industry would probably have never made the journey, my grandparents would probably never have met if George Stephenson, father of the railways, hadn’t wanted to drive a tunnel through the local landscape, where he discovered a rich seam of coal, leading him to open the Clay Cross Company and live out the rest of his days in Chesterfield.
Ever the teacher, I started to think about all the different subjects in the curriculum that could be covered just by looking at the Avenue. The geology of the area, that rich seam of coal making it a natural hub during the industrial revolution, which turned several small rural outposts near a market town into a huge sprawling urban landscape, feeding the furnaces of Sheffield with coal to make the world-famous steel. The impact on the local landscape and ecology, the shift from rural, to urban industrial and now to suburban. The new ongoing development; houses are currently being built on the site, which would have seemed impossible even 20 years ago, there will be a new school, sports facilities and a medical centre, the possibilities for exploring with children how communities are built and what makes a community would be brilliant.
Stephenson’s former home is currently up for sale, and the local community isn’t happy, believing the council should keep it and maintain it for posterity. Looking at this current issue with direct links to the industrial past would provide a wealth of opportunities for children to explore local democracy and have their say on local issues. The vast array of wildlife lends itself to learning about the environment, and our impact upon it, conservation, plants, and animals. Older children could find out more about the processes required to clean up the site, including water decontamination. Children could produce art inspired by the beautiful landscape and the few remnants of the industrial past. The cultural capital of mining communities is rich and meaningful to local families, with many traditions still existing decades after the disappearance of the last pit. There’s even the opportunity to incorporate contemporary music as the grave of Phil “Filthy Animal” Taylor, a local lad, is in the cemetery that backs onto the site, and who wouldn’t want to put some Motorhead into the curriculum? (Ok, I admit I’m stretching it a bit, but you get the idea).
During an hour’s walk, I thought of all the different things children could learn from the site and the interconnectedness of the subjects. It’s almost impossible to separate the learning. The Geography is directly linked to the History and the Science. This is the way we work in the Early Years and Primary, learning is interconnected, young children (and I would argue adults too) make sense of the world by seeing the links, and yet all too often in schools I have conversations with leaders who are stressed because they feel that they have to teach subjects in silos so that they can demonstrate subject-specific knowledge, that they must have a book for each subject to make it easier to carry out a “Deep Dive”. It struck me this morning that sometimes we spend so long trying to identify which subject the specific knowledge we’re teaching belongs to and compartmentalize it when it actually makes no difference to the quality of learning for the child. The joy of primary education has always been that we can link the learning to make it meaningful for the children. If a lesson teaches both historical and geographical knowledge, does that make it a weaker lesson than one which focuses purely on the geographical? Or is there space in the curriculum to say “This is a History and Geography lesson, and there’s going to be some Science too”? It might make it easier for external visitors to dive deeply into History if it’s only taught in explicit History lessons and recorded in History books, but are we in the business of making things easy for external visitors or making learning meaningful to children?
On the way home I bumped into my old deputy, who I worked with for 5 years and who is now the Head of a school where I used to be Acting Head some time back in the last century. We put the world to rights for a while and talked about some of the issues currently facing schools. Budgets, DFE and political tinkering, a “one size fits all” type approach when schools are so very different and unique. It struck me that more than 2 decades after I left the school where he’s now Headteacher, we’re still dealing with the same issues we were back then, dressed up in different guises. Budgets and funding, trying to make a curriculum designed by people who don’t work directly in schools work in the real world, (back then it was the Literacy and Numeracy strategies) ‘twas ever thus, and the wheels will no doubt turn again in a few years’ time. In the meantime, we practice creative compliance, as we’ve always done, trying to make the system work for the children we have, the best that we can.
It would be a terrible shame if we lost the interconnected approaches to learning that are at the heart of primary practice in the name of “progress”. Nothing beats the joy of seeing a class joining the dots and making those links and then seeing how they link to their own lives and experiences.
Also, if anyone wants a scheme of work based on the Avenue Coking works, I reckon I can knock one up in a day, I’ve got the bones of it in my head already. Once a primary teacher…