During its 2013 summer activity week Bristol Metropolitan Academy kindly allowed Debbie Pinfold and Mark Allinson to transform a year 7 classroom into a socialist republic for the day. The day was divided into two parts: 1. a short teacher-led introduction, and 2. a more practical session, where the pupils were encouraged to role play key activities (voting and shopping) in either a democratic or a socialist state.
In the introductory session we used various interactive maps to look at the shape of present-day Europe and compare it with the way the continent had looked between 1945 and 1991; we then drew on some of the narratives produced by ‘East meets West’ project participants to give the pupils some impressions of everyday life in various former Eastern Bloc countries.
Having equipped the pupils with this information, Dr Pinfold delivered a passionate manifesto for life in a democratic, capitalist system, which was followed by an equally passionate speech from Comrade Allinson in favour of living in a socialist republic. The pupils were allowed to vote for the system they wished to live in, but a ‘Berlin Wall’ down the centre of the room thwarted some of their intentions. Thereafter, the pupils were given the opportunity to vote and to shop in their respective states before comparing notes on which system they would now prefer to live in if they were given the choice. This developed into a fascinating discussion on a range of issues, including: free speech; the benefits of guaranteed employment even if you could not choose your occupation, compared with a competitive job market; and the availability / price / variety of consumer goods and leisure activities. (The socialist citizens were particularly quick to notice that the capitalist shop had a much larger and more exciting variety of chocolate items for sale, even if, as some of the democrats ruefully pointed out, not everyone had been able to afford them…)
This workshop not only enabled the participants to acquire some new historical knowledge: in addition, the explicit comparison between life in a democracy and life in a one-party state, coupled with a degree of experiential learning, allowed them to engage with the context in which they currently live with a greater degree of critical awareness. There was food for thought as well as chocolate!