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Wednesday, 27 March, 2002, 00:50 GMT
Tracing ancestors in school history
Dr Andy Bowles
Andy Bowles: Copyright breakthrough
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By Mike Baker
BBC education correspondent

School pupils could soon be able to view original census records of their own family, street, village or town as a classroom aid for the teaching of history.

Children can now do what many university historians have longed to do

Lecturer Andy Bowles
Revolutionary software and a breakthrough in copyright agreement means schools can, for the first time, tailor the data and adapt it to their own software for teaching purposes.

A project developed by a lecturer at Leeds Metropolitan University would allow schools to create a bespoke version of the 1881 British census so pupils can look up their own ancestors or study the residents of a particular neighbourhood in their area.

According to Andy Bowles, the university lecturer who devised the project, it "puts children in touch with the people in the past and promotes lifelong interest in history".

  Click here for a sample

Previously teachers would have to engage in costly and laborious copying and data entry to tailor national census details to local interest, as copyright rules prevented electronic manipulation of the millions of individual entries.

Electronic manipulation

According to Mr Bowles, new software development and a copyright agreement for schools have now opened up "new possibilities for authentic, in-depth and historically valid investigations" using material that has a personal and vivid impact on pupils.

The software allows census information to be electronically sorted and reassembled for school use.

A new copyright agreement, negotiated by Mr Bowles, allows schools to tailor up to 5% of the census information for their own educational use.

He estimates that a local education authority could gain access to this service for a total cost of 50.


Local history studies are given particular emphasis in England's national curriculum for seven to 11-year-olds and the census gives a portrait of everyday life in every street, village and town in Britain.

The 1881 British census records the name, occupation, place of birth, age and relationship to the head of the household for everyone in every home in the land.

Access to records in this detail should allow school pupils to take part in authentic, original research into the history of their own family or locality without having to travel to county records offices.

A further advantage is that the census data can be merged into any other software the pupils are using. So, for example, they could work out average ages, use spreadsheets to tabulate information, or display birthplaces in a graph.

Andy Bowles said this meant "children can now do what many university historians have longed to do but simply could not because of time and sheer effort".

The British census of 1881 covers England, Wales, Scotland - and the Navy.

Andy Bowles believes the census will be a great boon to history teachers as it provides "a snap shot of life at a time when Britain and the Empire dominated geopolitics" and it lists "ordinary people from all over the world whose names, ages, occupations, and birthplaces speak for them and their place in our history and heritage".

This extract from the 1881 census shows two households in the parish of Buckland St Mary, in the county of Somerset.

For each person the information given is the relationship to the head of household, marital status, age, gender and occupation.

BAKER Isaac head M 53 M Agricultural labourer
BAKER Zillah wife M 42 F  
BAKER Mary Ann daughter   10 F Scholar
BAKER Alice daughter   8 F Scholar
BAKER Frank son   4 M  
BAKER Frederic son   1 M  
BILLETT Samuel head M 61 M Farmer of 130 acres
BILLETT Rebecca wife M 50 F  
BILLETT Mary daughter U 21 F  
BILLETT Anna daughter   12 F Scholar
BILLETT Emma daughter   11 F Scholar
BILLETT Fanny daughter   9 F Scholar
SHOWERS John servant   13 F Farmer's boy (indoor)

With thanks to the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints - which has the world's largest genealogy record collection - and to Leeds Metropolitan University's school of education and professional development.

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See also:

22 Sep 01 | Mike Baker
US attacks: Lessons for school history?
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