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John D Clare's passion is to enliven history for the less able. Elaine Williams meets the charismatic author and head of history.
John Clare is up to his tricks again and his pupils know it. They grin with anticipated pleasure. He draws a boy out from his desk and stands him before a girlsitting at the front of the class. "Now," he says, handing the boy some scissors, "I want you to put her eyes out."
Amid giggles from the class and despite urgings to do the deed from his teacher, the boy eventually says "no".
He is allowed to sit down. "What is the word that encapsulates our political freedom?" Mr Clare asks. Some pupils get the point immediately. "No", they answer. "That's it, we have the right to say 'no'. There are many countries today where people do not have that right, the right to oppose their government, and there were times in history when people did not have the right."
He makes the most of the fact that the school is in the Sedge-field constituency. "I'm a councillor and I have meetings with the Prime Minister. And if I took some sweets to one of those meetings and he asked me for one, I could say 'no'. I would have the right to say 'no'."
This Year 8 history lesson at Greenfield Comprehensive in Newton Aycliffe, County Durham, where Mr Clare is head of history, now steps lively into the early 19th century, the age of the Blanketeers, the Peterloo Massacre and the suspension of Habeas Corpus.
His pupils think history is fun. He brings it into their own lives, starting with their day-to-day and making connections with the past. "The best advice I was ever given," he says, "was to start with where the pupils are and move them on to where they are not. Depending on ability, you can then take them forward at different levels. That's how I structure every lesson."
Mr Clare's passion has always been to enliven history for the less able. He writes in his recent Options in History key stage 3 series that he works in a "happy but normal" comprehensive. What he does not write is that one-quarter of the pupils come to the school with a read-ing age below eight. These books have been written with those children very much in mind.
Newton Aycliffe was a 60s new town, once inhabited by Beveridge, and full of low-quality, local authority housing built by Poulson. In terms of GCSE passes, Greenfield school is at the bottom of county league tables. In terms of value-added, it is at the top and attracts visitors from all over the country to study its achievements.
Mr Clare, 45, an old boy of Bradford Grammar School, was destined for his father's accountancy firm before he realised, as a sixth-former, that teaching was the life for him. He wanted to "thrill" as certain teachers had thrilled him and took a gap year teaching special needs children before going on to read history at Oxford. Having completed his teacher training in County Durham, he has stayed there, mostly at Greenfield.
He uses his infectious, bouncy energy, quick wit and ready response to maximum effect in making history entertaining and meaningful. He believes that whatever their ability, his pupils have a right to top-quality lessons. "History is so loaded towards the written word that the danger is that children are put off," he says. "But they have lively minds and are capable of expressing themselves. Even children labelled as unacademic can handle complex ideas but they often come unstuck with the written word. My job as a history teacher is not to say 'this child cannot read or write', but 'how can I improve on that?'."
Mr Clare is a respected his-tory reviewer and critic and has a rare talent for simplifying historical concepts and narrative while still conveying their complexity. He is currently engaged in writing parallel textbooks for special needs pupils for a mainstream history series by Hodder.
His well-received Options in History series offers clear pro-gression through four periods, starting with The Middle Ages 1066-1500 in Year 7 through to A United Kingdom 1500-1750, The Age of Expansion 1750-1914 and The Twentieth Century by the end of Year 9.
"I am not patronising in these books," he says. "You don't have to address less able children as if they are half-wits. But if you start with basic concepts then you can go further and deeper." The clear, lively narrative of these texts is accompanied by a variety of sources, pictures and illustrations, designed to be thought-provoking and even shocking. "All my nous of 20 years of teaching has gone into this series."
Above all, every lesson is set out in a different way. Some might be based largely on text, others will be based on sources, or pictures, or a poem, or designed to encourage a debate, or a drama.
Mr Clare is critical of formulaic textbooks that offer text, source and activity for every lesson: "Children get bored by doing the same sort of thing. A good teacher will ring the changes. Children have an infinite capacity to learn nothing, but if they are interested, even the most challenged can learn an amazing amount."