I feel a bit of a fraud sometimes, strolling into school to do my one or two sessions a week. Clearly, I’m not more than the smallest cog in the machine. However, I get the staff emails, I have the security code for the front door and the photocopier as well, and my photo’s on the board in the entrance and on my staff badge, all of which go to confirm that I am indeed officially part of the staff. I find I’ve been there for five years, which of course is longer than all the pupils and many of the teachers.
But what makes it really special for me is that it’s the same school where I was Deputy Head not far short of 40 years ago, which means that my first pupils there are now fast closing in on their 50th birthdays. Sometimes I’ll stroll through the building calling up memories – I taught there for nearly ten years in the 70s and 80s, so there are plenty of those in every corner and every classroom.
Of course, much is completely different these days, from the moment I drive into the car park and see the new buildings and lots of girls playing football. Perhaps the biggest change is the place of the computer. 35 years ago I had to raise funds to buy our first computer, which was quite likely one of only a few dozen in the whole town, but I’m afraid left most of our staff underwhelmed. Today we have a room full of computers and every child can use a variety of programs and sees nothing remarkable about it.
And to be strictly accurate, it’s not the same school; it’s been reorganised into a different school, with a new organisation and new set of governors, and is now a primary school for 7s to 11s rather than a middle school for 9s to 13s – but they still feel like much the same pupils coming from the same streets as forty years ago. I don’t think the principles guiding what I do, or many of the activities, have changed much over the years, though I was amused when I loaded up my favourite computer adventure game for the first time in a quarter of a century. Its introductory screen says “It is a warm sunny day in 1993”, so what offered children an exploration set ten years in the future has become a trip into the past – but who cares, the program still enthuses today’s children just like those of thirty years ago.
There’s one anecdote no-one will believe. I first came to Berkhamsted in 1971. It was an exciting time and I was delighted to be the first head of mathematics and science in a brand-new middle school. The County Treasurer came to a welcome party for the staff. “We are the richest county in England”, he said. “Anything you ask for you can have!” It was true. Lorries drew up, delivering photographic enlargers and equipment we hadn’t asked for, and woodworking machines that no-one on the staff knew how to use.
Counties, and their advisory staff – and I was later lucky enough to lead the Hertfordshire advisory team for primary maths – were major sources of curriculum development on a scale that’s already just a fading memory. In-service courses, residential centres, and advisory teams all developed innovation and advice. And it wasn’t just the counties, either. The professional associations of the Mathematical Association and the Association of Teachers of Mathematics had a profile that ensured that governments willingly sought their views.
But you’ll be wondering what on earth Leapfrogs have to do with this post. It was during my first period at the school in the late 1970s that I first met some of those at the cutting edge of innovation in mathematics teaching. I joined an ATM spinoff called Leapfrogs and for three years we went to their summer conference. I say “we” because a Leapfrogs summer conference was a combination of workshop, blue-sky thinking, and family holiday for the three of us – at £10 the only one we could afford at the time.
Leapfrogs weeks were probably the most exciting development sessions of my life. Teachers, partners, young children were all involved in informal and exciting sessions which were important enough to attract university lecturers and participants from Europe and the USA. Somebody must have secured some significant funding, because several booklets which were the very antithesis of textbooks were published – you can find the Leapfrogs Link and Action books at http://www.nationalstemcentre.org.uk/elibrary/search?term=leapfrogs&order=score
I remember talking a lot of nonsense at Leapfrogs sessions, but it was an atmosphere where you could say anything and have your opinions respected, and it was a wonderful opportunity for a classroom teacher to mingle with experts and innovators from around the world.
(That’s Jill and myself at the base of the steps, vintage 1977. I can’t recall the woman at the top of the steps, and I’ve no idea who actually took the photograph.)