Skip to main content

Two of the right kind

Like my father and grandfather, I went to Bootham School, a Quaker secondary boys' boarding school in York. Michael Allen and Peter Braggins taught me history there with great enthusiasm and passion. Both could tell a good story, were quick-witted, had a keen sense of humour, kept good order in class and, like all good teachers, knew when to relax and make a joke and when to take things seriously. Both men influenced my own teaching style.

Mr Allen taught me on and off throughout my seven years at the school, but Mr Braggins didn't arrive until I was in my second year of the sixth form. So he only taught me for a year.

Mr Allen was very well organised. He was probably in his 30s then. He was always well turned out in typical schoolmaster tweeds. He was quick to smile and there was always a sparkle about his face. Like Mr Braggins, he wasn't a Quaker himself, but he reflected the Quaker philosophy.

The 250 to 300 pupils were encouraged to discuss their views and to develop a dialogue with teachers. There was no corporal punishment and it was a very orderly community. I was sent there just as my parents were moving house from Aughton, near Liverpool, to Henley-on-Thames, Oxfordshire. My family were Quakers and my father worked for Jacobs Biscuits.

Some of the teachers had taught my father; and my grandfather was well known because he had organised the school's football and cricket.

Mr Allen captured his classes' imagination and attention with his narrative style of teaching. I remember an awful lot about the USA in the 1920s. For example, Mr Allen described President Coolidge as "Deckchair Coolidge", because he sat back and did nothing. At some point in the lower school he taught me English but his passion for history came through.

He knew I was a fervent footbal fan so he suggested a mnemonic aid to remember Marlborough's battles in the War of Spanish Succession (Blenheim, Ramillies, Oudenarde and Malplaquet) spelling BROM, as in West Brom. He didn't like football himself, cricket was his big interest. He was a good bowler and he ran the school team, of which I was a member. We spent a lot of time discussing cricket.

I'd be about 15 when Mr Allen answered the telephone scandalously late one night. It was my girlfriend, Karen. Mr Allen didn't call me but took a message and the next morning after breakfast asked me to go to see him. He passed on Karen's number saying: "Do ask her not to ring quite so late in future. " Years later, when Karen and I were married, he met her and recalled the incident, which I think had outraged him at the time.

He was a private man. Apart from his enthusiasm for cricket, I knew little about his life outside school. He married quite late, long after I'd left, and is now deputy head. I saw him last summer when I went back. He is still amazingly young in spirit. He's one of those people a school absolutely revolves around.

Mr Allen enthused me with his own enthusiasm for history and cricket and I did well in O-level history. But in my first year of A-levels I was taught by someone who didn't inspire me. Then along came Mr Braggins. He was in his late 20s, his hair flopped over his face and he continually pushed it back. I think it was only his second job, and to us sixth-formers he seemed like one of our generation. He was also very enthusiastic about his subject and was very witty and a wonderful narrator.

He taught us lots of interesting, though useless, historical facts: such as George Washington had wooden teeth and Anne Boleyn had six fingers on one hand, and four nipples. But the crucial thing I learned from Mr Braggins was how to write. My essays were competent, but lacked style. He showed me how to construct an argument. He was also terrific on feedback and put style into my prose. Another big influence on my writing was A J P Taylor, the great historian of that era (the 1960s and 1970s). He was an old boy of the school and, like me, had been brought up in Lancashire. He was my hero and I suspect he was my teacher's inspiration too.

Mr Braggins taught me A-level politics. This was in 1972-3, the period of the Watergate affair and the run-up to the three-day week in Britain, and he was very good at interpreting what was going on day by day. He encouraged us to read newspapers, pointing out that textbooks would always be out of date. He didn't colour my politics, I was already committed to Labour, but he informed and refined my views. It was a very interesting period: Edward Heath was Prime Minister and Harold Wilson came to power just after I left school.

There was a scholarship to Queen's College, Oxford, for northern schools and Mr Braggins encouraged me to apply for it. I went on to study history at university and then to teach it. Mr Braggins became a headmaster in Tonbridge, Kent. My younger brothers, Tom and David, followed me to Bootham. Three or four years after I left, when I went back to visit, I met Mr Braggins and he told me everything had changed since my day. He'd detected a shift in pupils' attitudes, which I guess has to do with the change in the economic climate. He described the boys in my year at the school as "the last of the idealists". We'd argued about everything and we wanted to change the world.

Professor Michael Barber was a history teacher for six years and is now an adviser on education to Tony Blair. He is professor of education and dean of new initiatives at the University of London Institute of Education

Log in or register for FREE to continue reading.

It only takes a moment and you'll get access to more news, plus courses, jobs and teaching resources tailored to you