How a battlefields tour helped children with complex needs relate to the First World War

Sidestrand Hall pupil Tristan Hinds at the grave of his relative Private W Weston at the Lijssenthoe

Sidestrand Hall pupil Tristan Hinds at the grave of his relative Private W Weston at the Lijssenthoek Cemetery. Photo: Equity - Credit: Archant

Pupils from five complex needs schools in Norfolk joined a government-funded tour of the First World War battlefields. Martin George joined them.

Parkside School pupils Hannah Howkins and Imogen Tooke handle First World War artifacts. Photo: Equi

Parkside School pupils Hannah Howkins and Imogen Tooke handle First World War artifacts. Photo: Equity - Credit: Archant

It would be hard not to be moved by the First World War battlefields and cemeteries, but if the teenagers from mainstream schools in Norfolk and Suffolk found the experience poignant, the effect on many from special needs schools went even deeper.

The organisers of the government-funded battlefield tours programme, jointly provided by the Institute of Education and Equity, are clear: mainstream and complex needs schools are equal.

• Photo gallery: Battlefield tour brings home reality of the First World War to high school students

Children from Norfolk and Suffolk at the Thiepval Memorial. Photo: Equity

Children from Norfolk and Suffolk at the Thiepval Memorial. Photo: Equity - Credit: Archant


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On the latest trip, the numbers of pupils and staff from each type of school were almost the same, and they visited the same sites and heard the same stories.

For some children, the vast numbers involved in the conflict mean little – the concept of death is hard to grasp, and the descriptions of the war are tricky.

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Walking down the rows of gravestones, seeing the lists of the dead, and handling the artefacts, can bring it home in a way not possible in any classroom.

Those on this trip responded in different ways: some through drawing, some through conversation, some through silent contemplation.

After visiting Lijssenthoek Cemetery, Imogen Tooke, from Parkside School in Norwich, said: 'I enjoyed looking at all the gravestones of all those brave soldiers. The graves make me feel proud because they did it to fight for their country. They did it for their honour. It was quite a sad place.'

The 15-year-old bought a book at the In Flanders Field museum in the re-built Cloth Hall in Ypres, which had information about staff nurse Nellie Spindler, the only woman buried at Lijssenthoek, who was killed by an artillery shell which landed next to the nurses' quarters.

Deborah Wicks, a teacher at Parkside School, said that when teaching pupils about the war, she had focused on issues like how women were affected, rather than dwelling on the horrors.

The experience of visiting the battlefields and graves transformed her pupils' understanding.

She added: 'For Hannah, it was the realisation that if she had been born 100 years ago and a boy, she could have been here and she could have died, and how sad that was.

'She was just so grateful she was born 100 years later, and she agreed that it affected boys and girls, whether they were fighting or left behind. Although they had done it in the classroom, she had not grasped that. It was a light-bulb moment for her. For Imogen, it was the realisation of what death really means. Although we had talked about people dying when people went to war, her comment was that they did not go home. She said that several times.

'In the classroom, I don't think she realised how final death was, but by seeing the graves she realised that.'

Miss Wicks said she now would be helping to make a presentation to the other pupils at school.

Martin Sawyer, a teacher at John Grant School in Caister, said: 'One of our pupils, as the weekend progressed, has become more engaged in everything that goes on, and he is searching for people with the same as him [on the monuments]. He said he might be related to them, so he was relating to what some of the other children were doing.'

He said one boy on the trip started taking a chair outside and sit quietly for several minutes – something he had never seen him do before. When asked what he was thinking about, he said it was a secret.

Mr Sawyer added: 'I think he needed the thinking time to let it sink in, and to categorise what he was experiencing. I think he has identified with the fact that these are people who were lost, and what they gave.'

How your school can take part in the tours

Two pupils and one teacher from every state-funded secondary school in the country are being invited on a free First World War Centenary Battlefield Tour until 2019. The four-day tours aid teaching as part of the government's commemoration of the war's centenary. Go to www.centenarybattlefieldtours.org for further information and how to register.

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