Ed Durbin, Lead Practitioner in History at Yate Academy
May is Local and Community History Month, which aims to increase awareness of local history, promote history in general in people’s local area and encourage communities to participate. To celebrate Local History Month, OCR Subject Advisor Richard Kerridge asked me to explain why I teach the OCR GCSE B Schools History Project specification, and what I like about the History Around Us unit. In fact, one of the main reasons why we switched to the OCR B GCSE course in 2020 was because of the opportunities presented by the History Around Us unit.
I teach in Yate, a town in South Gloucestershire, just north of Bristol. Yate has an interesting history. It grew from a small grouping of medieval manors to a mining and railway hub in the 19th century before being reborn as a New Town in the 1960s. For our History Around Us course, we wanted to explore Yate’s position on the Bristol coal field. South Gloucestershire, like Bristol itself, was once an important mining centre, as the names of local villages like Coalpit Heath and Iron Acton reflect.
Yet this history is actually remarkably hidden away, especially to our young people. The best preserved local coal mine, Brandy Bottom Colliery, lay derelict for decades and has only recently begun to be restored by dedicated volunteers. Visitors can show up for guided tours on Sundays in September, but apart from that the remains are closed off with only a few information panels for reference.
Facing these limitations, we chose the Big Pit National Coal Museum in Blaenavon, South Wales, as our History Around Us site. Blaenavon is not really local to Yate – it takes about an hour by coach to get there – but the site and museum do allow our students to see for themselves the realities of working underground and living in a community reliant on coal. The History Around Us specification asks students to consider the typicality of their chosen site and we teach our students about Brandy Bottom and other local coal mines as points of comparison to Big Pit.
The most pleasing result of the History Around Us unit is that it has allowed students to see the impact of potentially distant and abstract changes on real people’s lives in real places. The history of Big Pit takes us to so many important dynamics in British (and world) history: industrialisation (and deindustrialisation), the changing roles of women, changing attitudes towards childhood, the impact of technology, and – not least - the impact of human activity on the climate. However, by telling these stories in the History Around Us unit, students can perceive them on a human scale, making them easier to understand and more memorable.
This is the approach we take to local history throughout our school curriculum. We don’t want our students to think local history is confined to a particular topic or unit. Rather, we want them to leave school thinking that the events they studied in history lessons mattered in the town they live in. As a result, we try to weave local stories through the curriculum.
In Year 7, we set students the challenge of recreating peasant life in Yate from medieval sources. In Year 8, our students think about the impact of the transatlantic slave trade on our local area as part of a broader enquiry. In Year 9, students learn about Yate’s role in the Second World War, including the impact of bombing raids and evacuation. At GCSE, in addition to the local study on coal mining, students learn about local attempts to improve people’s health or the lives of Elizabethan gentry families who lived in our local area. We hope that these curriculum choices help students link familiar places with unfamiliar times.
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Ed Durbin is a Lead Practitioner in History at Yate Academy in South Gloucestershire and History Subject Network Lead for the Greenshaw Learning Trust. He has also written and edited textbooks, including Hodder’s A New Focus on the British Empire which was published in 2023. Outside of work he is sometimes reading, sometimes cycling but usually building Lego train sets with his son.