Under-fire teacher says critics aren't Mr Big or Mr Clever

20th June 2014 at 01:00
He hits back at opposition to his `progressive' Mr Men resources

A history teacher whose work has been repeatedly attacked by England's education secretary Michael Gove has hit back, claiming that he has been turned into the "general whipping boy of progressive teaching".

Russel Tarr, head of history at the International School of Toulouse in France, defended himself after Mr Gove again criticised his lesson plans, which use Mr Men characters as part of a wider scheme of work on the rise of Adolf Hitler.

In a speech to right-leaning thinktank Policy Exchange earlier this month, Mr Gove said that Mr Tarr and his resources, which appear on the ActiveHistory.co.uk website, were an example of opposition to the "moral purpose" of his own reform agenda in demanding tougher standards.

Mr Gove made the comments almost exactly a year after he first denounced the materials, describing them as "infantilising" GCSE history. They reduced "the history of Germany's darkest years to a falling out between Mr Tickle and Mr Topsy-Turvy", he claimed. This week, a national newspaper joined Mr Gove in condemning Mr Tarr's lesson plans under the headline "The trendy teaching methods that replace facts with `activities' ".

Mr Tarr told TES that he was "frustrated" by the criticism. "If they looked at the site properly they could see the materials are part of much wider schemes of work; they are interspersed with more traditional activities," he said. "Instead they are cherry-picking them out of these bigger units and creating this impression that all my kids do in lessons is play games.

"All they want to do is paint this caricature of what I stand for. I am being held up as the general whipping boy of progressive teaching and I find it very cynical and very unprofessional."

Before entering teaching, Mr Tarr received a 2:1 in history from Mr Gove's alma mater, Lady Margaret Hall, Oxford. The Mr Men scheme of work is also used by IGCSE students, a qualification the education secretary has praised in the past.

Mr Tarr said the criticisms were made by those with little experience of teaching and were an attempt to reduce the argument to "traditional versus progressive" methods, adding: "I don't understand the debate. I use progressive elements and traditional elements in my teaching. You can't do one or the other. If I'd never taught, I wouldn't have the arrogance to tell someone who has been teaching 15 years how to do their job.

"Those of us who are campaigning for creative and engaging teaching are at the losing end. Gove is obviously an intelligent guy who has his own political ambitions to think of, so he is reducing this to binary opposites, with him as the good guy and us as the hippy nutters just burning joss sticks in class."

The whole picture

Russel Tarr proposed his Mr Men activity as a way of "rounding off" a scheme of work dealing with the rise of Hitler.

The idea is for 16-year-old students to consolidate their learning by simplifying the narrative of Hitler's rise to power, so that the topic can then be concisely taught to younger pupils.

The older students split into groups and work on a simple narrative, which involves attributing Mr Men characters to the key protagonists. They then teach the younger children about Nazi Germany using the picture book characters.

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