Inspiration for young citizens

10th June 2005 at 01:00
Diane Hofkins pays tribute to an extraordinary teacher and passionate learning pioneer

Annabelle Dixon, who died last month, stood up throughout her life for children's right to be treated as individuals. As one of the authors of Learning without Limits - described by London schools commissioner Tim Brighouse in The TES last year as "a book that could change the world" - she explored the work of teachers who do not label children by ability, believing instead in the "transformability" of each individual.

Annabelle, who died aged 65 after a three-year struggle against cancer, was an extraordinary teacher of young children. In her classrooms, children had freedom to develop their special talents, and also learned how to empathise with each other, to negotiate and to find their own solutions. She taught citizenship long before it entered the national curriculum.

Trained at the Froebel Institute in Roehampton, the engine room of child-centred education in the Fifties and Sixties, she believed passionately in educating the whole child, not just intellectually, but socially, emotionally, spiritually, and artistically.

After teaching in infant and primary schools for 32 years (latterly as deputy head of Holdbrook primary in Waltham Cross, Hertfordshire), in 1997 she became the second TES research fellow at Lucy Cavendish college, Cambridge, where she investigated primary citizenship education, and then went on to become a research associate at Cambridge.

She also developed "tool words" for citizenship, which she wrote about in TES Primary magazine in 1999: Young children, she said, could achieve "a manner of debating that is considered, purposeful and respectful - whatever is being discussed. However, they need two things if this is to happen - the ground rules and the language."

The "tool" words included "agree" and "disagree", "problem" and "solve", and "fair" and "unfair". She described how two girls resolved a wrangle over a pair of dressing-up shoes. "It's all right, Miss," said one. "We know we've got a problem but we want to solve it" - which they did by each hobbling on one.

Annabelle used words carefully, herself. If another adult complained that a child who was having difficulties at home was displaying "inappropriate" behaviour at school, Annabelle replied that his behaviour might be "inconvenient" but it was totally appropriate given the circumstances.

The words that Annabelle Dixon brings to mind for Sheila Dainton, who retires today from the Association of Teachers and Lecturers, are "absolute integrity". "She was one of the most courageous, hard-working advocates for children and young people I have ever known," she says.

Of her many accomplishments as an academic, author, gardener, cook, deputy head and editor, it was teaching - enjoying the successes and experiences of individual children in her classes - that gave her the greatest satisfaction. Her fellow Learning without Limits author Mary Jane Drummond describes her as the best teacher she has ever seen.

Although Annabelle took a degree in psychology at Goldsmiths in the Seventies, she preferred to stay in the classroom. She also gained an MSc from Surrey in educational research in 1997.

While at Roehampton in the Sixties, Annabelle became a Quaker. "She believed very much in the God in everybody," says a friend. Her faith linked powerfully with her views on children and teaching, and was reflected in her relationships with everyone.

During her final illness, she continued working, and a book she co-authored, First-Hand Experience: What Matters To Children, is to be launched this month.

The last thing Annabelle wrote was the editorial for Forum, a progressive education journal, which she co-edited. Lambasting the electronic tracking of pupils and teachers, she wrote: "Children and teachers are now effectively electronically tagged. It can tell us that Darren is still confused about colons and semi-colons; but it will never be able to tell us that he knows the names and ways of all the fresh-water fish in the rivers around south London."

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