Heroes – Hilary Shuard

Hilary Shuard was a giant of mathematical education.  To generations of teachers “Williams and Shuard” was mandatory reading, she was a member of the committee that created the Cockcroft Report of 1982 and an important part of the working group that created the National Curriculum in 1989 – as an obituary said “Indeed, it would be unthinkable to have had a national committee concerned with mathematics education on which she did not sit.”

I’d never claim to have known Hilary well, but we served together on a number of working groups and we did meet on dozens of occasions.  I was proud to claim after one meeting that it was the only time in my life when a member of the opposite sex plied me with strong drink, pinned me against the wall, and refused to take no for an answer.  The result of this meeting was that in Hertfordshire we introduced a project built on one of Hilary’s most dramatic innovations, the Calculator Aware Number curriculum.

As the 1980s progressed and the electronic calculator became widely available and easily affordable Hilary saw earlier than anyone its potential for helping children learn.  “For the first time we have a toy that contains the whole number system”, she said.  One 6-year-old told me he “Did experiments with my calculator, like see what happens when I multiply numbers by 99”.

Before Paul – whose teacher felt he was not of exceptional ability – no child in history had the opportunity to play with numbers in this way.  Hilary maintained passionately that if children were allowed to use calculators they would understand numbers better.  For many people this was controversial, even though the CAN results, and indeed the findings of our own Hertfordshire project, gave dramatic support to her view.  A group of our own teachers gave a presentation at a national conference and people flatly refused to believe their findings, and of course even today our new National Curriculum refuses to see the calculator as having anything to offer other than as a short-cut to getting sums right.

Tragically, Hilary was prevented from bringing CAN to full fruition.  A horrific road accident, where a dislodged cats-eye hit her in the head, caused her to spend many months in hospital.  Amazingly she returned to work, but died in 1992 aged just 64.

I can’t believe we’ve ever had someone with such a breadth of expert knowledge as Hilary Shuard.  She was as at home in an Early Years class as she was working with A level students; what she wrote for teachers of both groups was recognised as being the state of the art; she also wrote authoritatively on the use of Logo at a time when computers were just being introduced to classrooms.

When I went to her memorial service at Cambridge I learned she’d been just as prominent in a totally different walk of life, and she’d been active in women’s sport at a high level.  I’ve a feeling she played top-class hockey, and I know for sure she played cricket at county level and was good enough to be selected to play against touring teams from Australia and New Zealand.

Like many of the great people, Hilary would be happy to treat you as an equal even when it was patently obvious that this wasn’t remotely true.  I remember with great pride the evening the phone went; Hilary said she’d more engagements than she could handle and would I mind deputising for her to speak at the National Association of Head Teachers conference?  No of course I didn’t mind, though I doubt the NAHT were half as thrilled as I was.  A few years later my wife and I were on holiday in Italy and we shared a table one night with a couple.  During our conversation we learned that the woman was a teacher and Hilary’s name came up.  I mentioned the NAHT story and she couldn’t have been more impressed if I’d told her it was the Prime Minister himself I’d been asked to deputise for.  It seems a pretty good reflection of the love that teachers had for Hilary that ten years after she died our new friend couldn’t wait to get back to school to tell her colleagues she’d met someone who just once was the next best thing to Hilary Shuard.

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