Primary – Using Charles Dickens in PSHE

Activity One – Child Poverty
Year 3 to Year 6

Child poverty was a major problem in the Victorian era, something that Charles Dickens knew all too well for himself having been sent to a workhouse after his father was put in a debtor’s prison. Many of his works use his own experience to inform the writing of such characters as David Copperfield, Oliver Twist and Pip. Child poverty is something that still affects Britain and the world today and this activity links the problem of two periods of history through one organisation, Barnado’s.

Gather together resources such as the description of the lives of Pip, David Copperfield and Oliver Twist and details on the lives of poor people in Victorian England including debtor’s prisons and workhouses. Ask the children to read the descriptions and imagine life under those conditions. Now read the history of Barnado’s or better still, invite a local representative into school to talk to the class about their work. You’ll discover the transition over the century and a half of their work in the kind of assistance they give but the underlying problems are the same.

After the presentation, ask the children what they think poverty means in Britain and what the effects of it are? Do a written comparison of the two ages and what the remedies to poverty are under each system.
Ask them to say what the things are that humans need to be able to survive and thrive. How many of those are missing from poor children’s lives? If appropriate you could undertake a fundraising event for Barnado’s.

Activity Two – Doing the Right Thing
Year 1 to Year 6

The thread running through Oliver Twist is of a good boy who is led astray by bad influences and sometimes necessity. Use a synopsis, abridged version or selected parts of the story to illustrate these events. A good plot summary is available in Wikipedia at

When we’ve done this activity in school we highlighted the events and made decision trees from them looking at how the decision Oliver made affected him and discussed what may have happened if he’d made a different decision.

It is interesting to listen to the children’s ideas of how events unfolded and we often have divided opinions on whether what Oliver did was right or wrong.
When you have completed this part of the activity, ask the children to say or anonymously write down examples of where they have been faced with choosing between right and wrong saying what influenced their decision and how it turned out.

Activity Three – Bullying
Year 1 to Year 6

In several of Charles Dickens’ books, characters which include children and adults are bullied by others.
Use examples from Oliver Twist, Nicholas Nickleby or Bob Cratchit in A Christmas Carol to illustrate the effect of bullying. These examples come from books written around 150 years ago but are based on the experiences of Charles Dickens himself or of people he saw in his work.

Ask the children to identify the form of bullying which ranges from belittling someone to making them do something for someone with the threat of violence of they don’t comply or pure physical and mental bullying in the case of Nicholas Nickelby.

Ask the children if they can identify any forms of bullying that they’ve encountered in their lives that compare to some of the examples in Dickens’ work.

Find out from each story what happened to the bullies and what happened to the people being bullied. Did they receive help from anyone to overcome the bully? In each of the Dickens’ tales, the victim was triumphant in the end whilst the bully failed to prosper.

The stories illustrate how bullying is not only destructive for the victim but also for the bully.

Dave Lewis
Primary teacher

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