I was recently invited by Kate, the Extended Services Coordinator for a Sheffield school, to do an after-school activity as part of the department’s Widening Participation programme.

WP aims to introduce university study to students from secondary schools with a low rate of university enrolments. This school qualified because, as Kate explained to me, its catchment area extends all the way from quite an affluent outer suburb right into the inner city, so the students are a cross-section of Sheffield’s whole demographic. Kate is very active in working with the whole school community, including first-generation immigrant families and working class families with lower rates of university enrolment, to discuss options after high school.

One student who attended our Department’s WP dig last month enjoyed it so much she suggested they have an after-school archaeology club, so Kate contacted Archaeology in the City and we were happy to help.

As some of the students had excavation experience, the next logical step was artefact investigation – what can we learn by looking at artefacts? Why bother digging them up in the first place? How can we tell others what we have learned? Considering it was really warm out, and Kate reminded me some of the students would be pretty tired from fasting all day, I decided a brief slideshow and then a hands-on activity would be best.

It was interesting to compare this group with the primary school I’d worked with a few weeks before. Thanks to the new 2014 UK National Curriculum, the Year 3 kids had more experience with Prehistory: both groups knew the Three Age system (Stone Age, Bronze Age, Iron Age), but the Year 3s could recite the Stone Age subdivisions of Palaeolithic, Mesolithic and Neolithic, while the Year 10s weren’t familiar with those terms (though they figured it out pretty quick!). This was a good reminder for me not to make assumptions about my audience (I have to remember not everyone is as immersed in archaeology as me…).

Having real artefacts to handle kept things fun and grounded. I was able to use basically the same activity I had done with the Year 3s. This worked because you do archaeology according to your abilities, strengths, interests and understanding: so the Year 10s investigated the material to a higher level of detail, had a better understanding of scale, time depth, and the bigger picture of life in the past, but they were using exactly the same equipment and techniques to investigate exactly the same objects.

The archaeology club is visiting the Department in the new term for a practical session in our osteology lab; I hope to see the same faces again and I hope the WP programme makes the university seem a more welcoming and attainable place.

Final thoughts:

I’ll be interested to see how the 2014 UK Curriculum approach to history/archaeology works out for the upcoming generation of students. In a way, I think it should be presented in the opposite direction. The youngest children should start with contemporary history, as it’s the most similar to how they live now. As it’s within living memory they can ask their parents and grandparents about it and relate to it more easily. By the end of secondary school, students could have worked their way up through human evolution and prehistoric archaeology, having learned the scientific and abstract concepts they’d need to understand that less-familiar material.

I will write further about the idea of going on to do archaeology in tertiary education in another post where I can give it more space.

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