Coming to a school near you

15 November 2006

Digging up the sports field may not be the sort of activity every schoolteacher wants their pupils to be getting involved with, but students from the UCL Institute of Archaeology have been finding that in a handful of schools in North London, it provides a great way of motivating schoolchildren.

At Kingsbury School, UCL archaeologists have been involving students from years 9 and 12 in excavations of a site thought to have been the location of a Tudor cottage. Local tradition has it that the cottage was destroyed some time ago to make way for a more modern home, and the archaeologists on the site tested that theory by digging down to see what they could find of the older dwelling. UCL undergraduate Andrew Agate led the dig and encouraged pupils to join in and get their hands dirty while finding out about local history.

The project at Kingsbury is now in its third year, and a similar project started last year at Hendon School. Sarah Dhanjal, Widening Participation Officer for the UCL Archaeology, explains why school support is proving so successful: “There are parts of the school history curriculum that are often ignored because of a lack of resources to teach them properly. The Indus Valley civilisation is one of these. We can provide many of the resources, such as artefacts and demonstrations of how these are discovered and evaluated, meaning that teachers have the option of teaching it if they want.”

For the school pupils at Kingsbury and Hendon, activities such as the onsite excavation provide a fun, outdoor complement to classroom activities. Working on a dig provides a rare glimpse into the world of archaeology and the thought processes that archaeologists go through in their investigations, while helping the pupils to develop important skills. Sarah Dhanjal explains: “We do an activity with pupils called ‘fishtank archaeology’, where one group buries artefacts in a glass box for another to excavate. It encourages them to think about how they interpret the evidence they uncover. This is a key skill that is vital to subjects like history and science.”

In a typical school-based project, participants from the school come from a range of backgrounds – from the ‘gifted and talented’ to children from care homes and backgrounds that increase their likelihood of being truants or early school-leavers. This diversity underlines the value of the activities, says Sarah Dhanjal: “At Hendon, we had 16 kids start and 16 finish, which the teachers considered an amazing success. For some of them, it provided a reason for being at school and, we hope, will motivate them to go to their lessons and stay on at school.” UCL undergraduates also act as mentors to the pupils for the duration of the project, providing positive academic role models to encourage further study.

Outreach work such as the schools projects run by UCL Archaeology also play a part in raising the profile of archaeology among younger people – often introducing them to the discipline for the first time. While previous generations may have had an inkling of what archaeology was all about from watching Indiana Jones films, today’s school children are more likely to have come across Lara Croft of the ‘Tomb Raider’ films – not an ambassador of the same ilk, says Sarah Dhanjal: “Believe it or not, there are quotes from one of the Indiana Jones films that do crop up in archaeology teaching!”

Strategies for widening participation and making archaeology attractive are difficult because there is no fixed set of A levels that students need to take in order to go into the field. However, interest in archaeology projects is growing among schools – two more have expressed an interest this year – despite the fact that it is a huge undertaking, with all sorts of health and safety issues that the organisers have to work carefully to deal with. UCL Archaeology is involved in a number of other activities with young people, such as summer projects (in association with Camden Council). The UCL Institute of Archaeology also welcomes school trips to the institute, providing unique opportunities to handle artefacts.

There are obviously no guarantees that involvement in a school project will translate into higher student applications. However, because archaeology encompasses scientific elements as well as the arts, if young people know about it there is a chance that they may decide to pursue it later on, whatever their GCSE and A Level choices.

To find out more about UCL Archaeology, follow the link at the bottom of this article.