History Strikes a Chord; EDUCATION NOTEBOOK

Article excerpt

Byline: SUSAN ELKIN

ARE YOU a parent or grandparent despairing of children's lack of historical or musical knowledge? Or perhaps a teacher wanting a good way into history and music - among other things?

Try taking children to see Coram Boy which opens tomorrow at London's National Theatre.

Or if that's not convenient, buy or borrow from the library, copies of the prize-winning novel by Jamila Gavin on which Helen Edmundson's play is based, and read it with them.

There's lots for youngsters to learn about.

What happened to the illegitimate babies secretly and shamefully born to girls and women in big houses in 18th-century England?

Some were 'collected' by unscrupulous men who, in return for large sums of money, promised to take the infants to the new, humane orphanage in London founded by Sir Thomas Coram.

But, centuries later, sad little piles of tiny bones are still being found in the woods of Gloucestershire and elsewhere.

Thomas Coram, of course, was real. The charity he started still functions as Coram Family. The Foundling Museum in London is an interesting place to take children who want to know more about Coram's work and how it developed.

The play can also help children learn about citizenship. Few youngsters nowadays can imagine a world in which phenomenal musical talent is not regarded as a precious gift.

But for Alexander Ashbrook's father, musicians are servants and his son and heir must be kept from making music at all costs because he has to run the estate. In general, the only children who got a good music education were those from poor families, spotted by the clergy, and sent as choristers to the cathedral schools which ran as charities.

That's how one character in the play, Thomas, becomes a musician and music teacher.

Meanwhile, Alexander, unwilling to accept the destiny his father has laid down for him, runs away to follow his dream of a career in music. His illegitimate son, Aaron, also grows up at the foundling hospital.

Then there's slavery.

Schoolchildren in the 1950s and 1960s tended not to be told that 18th-century British wealth largely depended on the slave trade and on sugar (the equivalent of oil today) which the slaves produced in the West Indies. …