Sunday, 19 September 2010

How teaching went back to cool...

Hello. On Friday I had a piece in the Times about a remarkable woman called Kate Campion-Smith. She is a "Teach First" teacher (she came to the profession via the charity Teach First) so I also looked at that organisation.
You can see the piece (with a nice pic of Kate) on the Times website (subscription required).

Here is my original piece, which is a little longer.

By Sarah Ebner

Despite her modesty, charm and friendly manner, Kate Campion-Smith is clearly a winner. The 25-year-old science graduate, recently named best new teacher in London and the South East at the Teaching Awards, is now favourite to win the nationwide prize at the end of October. But she’s not just a poster girl for good teaching – Campion-Smith represents something new in the education world.
What’s particularly special about Campion-Smith is that she came to the profession via the education charity, Teach First. And she epitomises the organisation’s vision.
“I never intended to teach,” she says, “but I was looking for something I agreed with. The principles behind Teach First are fantastic. I wanted to be useful.”
Teach First was set up in 2002 by Brett Wigdortz, an American working in London for management consultant McKinsey’s. While looking at how business could help education, Wigdortz was struck by the idea that disadvantaged children might benefit by placing top graduates into their schools. He was told by that his plan would never work, but has proved the doubters wrong. Teach First had 5,000 applications for 560 positions this year and is now the biggest recruiter of Oxbridge graduates – around eight percent of final year students.
“I always thought it would be as successful as it is,” says Wigdortz nonchalantly. “People want to make an impact with their lives and we have a mission – to eradicate educational disadvantage.”
Campion-Smith is a typical recruit (although she balks a bit when it comes to talking about the very-American sounding “mission”). Unsure of what to do after university (a first in Natural Sciences from Cambridge), she was attracted by the charity’s uncompromising belief that graduates want to “make a difference.”
It’s not surprising that Campion-Smith was attracted by the idea of helping others. It may sound a little clich├ęd, but she comes across as a “good person. She is a regular Church-goer and even runs her own charity, Esuubi, which she set up after travelling to Uganda in her gap year. In fact, Campion-Smith even talks of emigrating to Uganda in the future.
“The girls I teach here aren’t starving” she says succinctly.
Campion-Smith grew up in Eastbourne and attended a local comprehensive where she was a star pupil. The school didn’t have a sixth form, so she joined the private Eastbourne College for her A levels. But her time at the college didn’t change her view that private education was “unfair”. Now Campion-Smith is determined that all children should have the same opportunities, and that educational achievements shouldn’t be dependent on parental income.
She joined Cator Park School in Bromley, Kent, three years ago. Meryl Davies, the head teacher of the 1200 strong comprehensive (all girls except for a mixed sixth form) is a big Teach First fan, but Campion-Smith made a particularly strong impression.
“Kate’s been outstanding since her first lesson,” says Davies enthusiastically. “Not all Teach First graduate have perfect classroom management skills when they arrive; that comes with experience. But Kate had it straight away. She’s gives the girls real self-belief.”
Campion-Smith would probably be embarrassed to hear her head teacher’s effusive endorsement, but seems to deserve it. She not only teaches science at the school (a petition was circulated by one GCSE group demanding that she should teach them), but runs the Gifted and Talented programme, Duke of Edinburgh award scheme, debating club as well as mentoring those looking to go to university.
“Kate’s enthusiasm led to the school’s largest ever uptake for triple science,” says Davies. “She even organised master-classes, involving exploding jelly babies, rocket launching and dissecting mice.”
But Campion-Smith arrived, as all Teach First graduates do, with little classroom experience. She had taken part in the organisation’s intensive six week summer scheme and was launched into the classroom soon afterwards.
“It was a baptism of fire,” she says with a smile. “A lot of people underestimate how hard teaching is, but you learn quickly and I was very fortunate in terms of the support I had.”
All Teach First graduates have mentors, both in school and outside, but it’s still a challenge.
“I knew I would have to find a way to teach the girls who don’t want to learn,” she says. “So I just thought about how I would want to be engaged. I tried to relate things to everyday life – to things they were interested in, such as make-up or fashion.”
Campion-Smith is the first Teach First “alumnus” to win a Teaching Award, but the organisation is hoping she’ll be the first of many. From just two staff in 2002, Brett Wigdortz’s organisation has grown to 140, and also become the darling of the Conservative party.
Michael Gove is a vocal supporter, and although there have been education cuts elsewhere, he recently announced a £4 million grant to expand Teach First recruitment to over 1,000 teachers across England.
It’s an interesting decision because it appears to show the government means business when it talks of addressing educational disadvantage and social mobility.
Wigdortz himself says that he wants to produce the “next generation of head teachers and leaders.”
But Teach First is not without its detractors, particularly from those who point out that academic excellence (around a quarter of this year’s intake graduated with firsts) doesn’t always result in outstanding teaching. Its training is also expensive, while many are unhappy that so many teachers leave after the initial two year programme finishes.
Anastasia de Waal, Head of Education at the think tank Civitas, is one sceptic.
“The very clear message is “teach first before getting a proper job’” she says. “It also assumes that any old graduate with a fairly good degree can teach and as importantly, no teaching practice or interaction with pupils is required before going into the classroom – never mind any pedagogical background. All of these things are terrible for the status of teaching as a profession, but even more importantly, misunderstand what makes a good teacher.”
Such concerns have long been heard across the Atlantic, where Teach For America is also a huge recruiter of top graduates. Teaching unions in the States are often less than complimentary about this scheme, while research seems to show that Teach for America teachers don’t achieve more impressive results than those trained conventionally.
However, Brett Wigdortz has heard these arguments before and is unimpressed. He’s keen to emphasise that Teach First isn’t connected with Teach for America, and convinced that his programme works – and works well.
He’s also not concerned that so many Teach First teachers – around 50 percent - leave the profession after two years.
“I never want anyone to leave our mission,” he says. “They are in education for the long-term, although they may not stay teachers. Our alumni may become businessmen, politicians or civil servants – that’s the way to create systemic change.”
However, Teach First’s biggest effect may not be in its graduates, but in altering the reputation of the profession. Might the charity be responsible for making the public think that teaching is a “good thing”?
“They’ve definitely made it a more glamorous option than it would have been otherwise,” says Campion-Smith, while Lily Eastwood, another Teach First teacher adds that it “does seem to have some kudos now.”
“I can’t think of a more exciting job to do,” adds Eastwood, “but it does make me a bit uncomfortable when people talk to me like I’m a saint.”
Eastwood also mentions the hit American television series, The Wire, which recently introduced a storyline involving an inner city teacher.
“I don’t think any teacher can watch that and not feel the pain,” she says with a laugh. “Maybe teaching is cool now, until you actually try it.”
Brett Wigdortz is not quite as sure about the “cool” tag.
“If people think teaching children from poorer backgrounds is cool – that’s not a bad thing,” he says after some thought. “But my long-term goal isn’t about that at all. What I want is for there to be no correlation between parental income and educational achievement. I’d like to see schools full of teachers with the Teach First ethos.”

The Teaching Awards national ceremony takes place on October 31st (

For more on Teach First,

For more information about Esuubi, visit or contact Esuubi, 8 Overbrae, Beckenham, Kent BR3 1SX

Friday, 20 August 2010

Is the summer bad for your child's brain?


I had this article published in the Times earlier this week - it's about the so-called "summer slide" and what you can do about it.
You can see it on the Times site:

However, the article was cut somewhat, so I thought I'd put it on here in all its glory! I really think this is an interesting topic, that there's a danger some parents might try to stuff their children full of lessons all summer, while others (whose children really need to keep up with their reading, for example) do nothing.

Here you are:

By Sarah Ebner

School’s out. The holidays stretch before us and more learning is unlikely to be near the top of your children’s summer to-do list. Well, perhaps it’s time for them –and us - to think again. Don’t you know that the summer can damage your child’s brain?
I write the Times education blog, School Gate, and in the last few weeks I’ve been inundated with suggestions for ways to stop your child falling behind over the summer break. Carol Vorderman has launched her own online maths summer schools, recommending that children (aged five and over) “forge ahead with 15 minutes of fun practice a day”. She’s joined by Maths-Whizz, which offers a similar way to “beat summer learning loss” and education site MyChild, which has its own summer camp. It’s “packed with fun learning activities for each week of the summer holidays” as well as worksheets. It’s enough to make a parent paranoid.
“If you’re not being stimulated, you’re going to forget things,” says Amy Schofield, editor of MyChild. “You need to keep the brain active.”
Summer learning loss is something of a new phenomenon. It hit the headlines last year when Johns Hopkins University in America published research suggesting that schoolchildren lost an average of two months learning over the summer holidays. This was if parents failed to keep them “mentally active.”
Of course the issue does make some sense. If we adults didn’t work for six weeks, we would also probably fall behind. But we are talking about children here. Don’t they need some time off?
“My feeling is that kids do need occupying, but not like this,” says Annie Ashworth, co-author of the Madness of Modern Families. “They have a lot of intensive work throughout the year and I know that mine, for example, are exhausted by the time the summer comes. Perhaps they should read occasionally so they don’t forget how to do it. But I don’t think advanced maths is the way forward.”
Of course it was all very different in our day. Six weeks might have been filled with a short holiday, perhaps a summer camp, and lots of trips to the park and seeing friends. Now parents are being told sternly that this isn’t enough and that we’re failing our kids if we don’t keep the learning going. So should we worry? Annie Ashworth isn’t convinced.
“These stories of summer learning loss just add to parental guilt,” she says.
And even though she’s keen to promote her e-learning summer camp, Amy Schofield admits that the brain drain is new to her.
“We didn’t hear anything about it when we were kids”, she admits. “Now we’re all really child-centred and neurotic. There’s an emphasis on learning, learning, learning all the time.”
Dylan Wiliam [NB: correct spelling of Wiliam] is professor of educational assessment at the Institute of Education. He says that summer learning loss does exist, but that we need to keep it in perspective.
“There is no doubt that children learn stuff in school and forget it when they’re not in school,” he says. “There is a dip. But when it comes to seeing how serious that is and how quickly a child can make it up, then that’s a very difficult question to answer.”
Professor Wiliam also points out that most of the research on this issue is from the United States, where they have much longer summer holidays. “That definitely makes a difference,” he says.
The issue of “summer learning loss” began gathering momentum in 1992 when a group of students at Johns Hopkins tutored pupils from Baltimore public schools during the summer. The project was a great success and boosted the students’ reading scores.
At the same time, numerous academics were writing about the “summer slide” whereby academic skills dropped over the summer months. They discovered that this appeared to affect low-income students disproportionately, so widening the gap between richer and poorer.
“There are some people who allege that almost the entire difference between the performance of disadvantaged and advantaged children aged 18 is down to summer learning loss,” says Professor Wiliam. “But it also depends on the kind of curriculum you follow. If you’re talking about shallow learning, remembering facts and dates, then a child probably will forget those over a long break.”
However, what’s particularly interesting about the research is that reading aptitude seems to drop the most. This is, of course, something which parents could easily address themselves simply by encouraging their children to read over the summer or taking them to the library. It’s not really rocket science….
Tim Gill, author of No Fear: Growing Up in a Risk Averse Society, agrees. He’s horrified by the idea of summer learning and also unhappy because he feels that the issue is tied up with merchandising (Carol Vorderman’s Summer School package, for example costs a minimum of £12,99).
“No one makes money if more kids go to the park and play with other kids,” says Gill. “Children need time for themselves over the summer and especially out of doors. This is just market opportunities – latching onto anxieties and amplifying them.
“I don’t want to tell other parents how to do their job,” adds Gill, “but I just wonder who’s fuelling this. Who is looking at our kids and saying ‘wow they need more worksheets?
“It’s unquestionable that some children need more support for the basics. But the irony is that these online summer schools or worksheets are going to be done by the sharp elbowed middle classes.”
In Newhaven on the South Coast, Christine Terrey [NB: correct spelling of Terrey] runs Grays Nursery and Infant School. It’s a school which has many pupils eligible for free school meals and a high number with special needs. There aren’t many sharp elbowed middle classes to be found here. And yet the school’s learning programme has been a big success.
“I think that most schools are aware that over the summer break, children slip back in their learning,” says Terrey, who’s been headteacher at Grays for the last five years. “We’d just never investigated how much.”
Two years ago, Terrey decided to look into the matter and assessed the children before the school broke up in July and again on their return in September. She was shocked by her findings - twenty two children had a summer learning loss in reading, sixteen in writing and twelve in maths.
Terrey and her staff realised that some children weren’t looking at a book for the entire summer. “We decided we weren’t giving parents enough guidance,” she says. “Things had to change.”
The first innovation was lending school library books over the holidays. The second was to set up the Summer Fun Learning Challenge. This involved putting special pages on the school’s internet learning platform, adding links to other useful sites and recommending that children make their own scrapbooks of what they’d got up to over the break.
“Every child who made a scrapbook got a certificate, as did everyone who logged on,” says Terrey. “I saw a lot of movement on the site in August, which was great. We had no sanctions for those who didn’t get involved, only rewards and praise for those who did.”
The results were impressive. Last September, only seven children had a summer learning loss in reading, eight in writing and five in maths. Terrey is hoping for even better results this year.
“There’s always been an issue with summer learning loss,” she says firmly. “Children fall behind when they’re not doing anything. The problem is that schools didn’t know how to measure it and haven’t always planned good ways of dealing with it.”
So parents, try to make sure your children pick up a book this summer or do something else to stimulate their brains. But don’t worry too much. They’re unlikely to fall disastrously behind if times tables aren’t practised daily.
“I’m very resistant to this idea that, as parents, our job is to expend every last sinew of sweat in getting that extra grade,” says Tim Gill. “Children need time and space on their own. That’s how they are given the chance to become real people.”

Wednesday, 16 June 2010

When should children learn to read?

This is a very controversial question - and there is so much to say about it!

I recently wrote about it for Times 2 and you can see that here, or the slightly longer version, below....
The one in the Times, also included two opinion pieces, one in favour of early reading and one against.

By Sarah Ebner

Over the border in Wales, young children are experiencing a different kind of education. Whilst experts here laud Scandinavia for their educational expertise, how many English parents know that in Wales, they are already following a play-based curriculum up until the age of seven? And there haven’t been any riots, yet.
“At the beginning there was a bit of distrust from the parents,” says Sarah Owen, a mother of three (and former teacher) from Welshpool. “We all knew that play was important, but I know that a lot of us were wondering how our children would learn to read if they were playing all the time. After all, it’s drilled into us that the sooner you learn to read, the better.”
Sarah has two children, Meg, 10 and Tom, 8, who are too old to have experienced the new Foundation Phase in Wales. Five-year-old Carys, however, is taking full advantage.
“I think it’s the right way to go,” says Sarah. “She is definitely stimulated, but also seems to have this more joyous feeling about school. They do a lot of outdoor play, but she is reading too – they introduce this at the child’s own level. As long as a child has access to books and enjoys them, reading will come naturally.”
Sarah’s views are relevant as they come in the middle of a heated debate about the value of early schooling and particularly when children should be taught to read. New research published this week was interpreted in two startlingly different ways. Some claimed it showed early teaching had no impact on children at the age of five; others said quite the opposite.
However, David Richardson, co-author of the new study, says it does show that children who attend pre-school before the age of three do better – both educationally and socially -at age five.
“Our evidence suggests that early years do have an impact,” he said.
So when should children learn to read? Can they be damaged (or put off reading) by starting too early or fall behind if they start too late? The problem is that there’s no definitive answer – even though educationalists have very strong opinions.
“Up to the age of six or seven, the true foundations of literacy are caught, not taught. We have to invest in training practitioners in how to help children catch them,” says Sue Palmer, author of Toxic Childhood.
Palmer thinks there’s “no rush” to teach children to read, and is particularly unhappy about the targets set in the English early years curriculum. She points to Finland, with its very high literacy rates. Children there don’t start formal reading until they’re seven.
Palmer also emphasises new research by Sebastian Suggate (NB: see his opinion piece attached) which suggests that there’s no advantage at all in learning to read early.
However, although Palmer seems to be firmly on one side of the argument, much of what she says will ring true with those who support earlier education.
“I think there’s a set of bunker positions put into this,” says John Bangs, head of education for the National Union of Teachers. “It’s really an unfair polarity.
“No one is going to recommend forcing phonics on kids at a very early age, but having fun with words and phonics is exactly right. Picking up reading skills is part of child development, but the key is for the children to have fun.”
However, Bangs also adds:
“There’s this idea that kids are going to be polluted by teaching before a certain age. I don’t believe that. I don’t have a problem with age barriers.”
Those who argue that reading should be taught as early as possible often point to disadvantaged children to make their case. There is an increasing body of research which suggests that children with educated parents have an advantage. However, others can be helped by good pre-school care.
This is shown in particular by the landmark research being carried out by the EPPE (Effective Provision of Pre-school Education) project. It concludes that pre-school does have an impact - as long as it’s of good quality.
“Yes, it benefits children,” says Professor Pamela Sammons, from the Department of Education at Oxford University. “It provides them with a better start to school, with the biggest boost to language development at age five.”
And when it comes to reading, Professor Sammons says you simply need a light touch.
“There’s lot of evidence that if you don’t learn to read, you become demotivated later on,” she says. “But it doesn’t have to be at the expense of having fun. You can play with letter sounds, sing songs and nursery rhymes, at home and at pre-school. We’re not talking about formal teaching behind desks.”
Perhaps this point should be emphasised for those people without young children. The way schools teach their youngest pupils has changed in recent years, with much more of a stress on play. Widespread use of phonics has also made a real difference, and despite the sense of gloom and doom around literacy, England still performs well in international studies.
So there’s no quick answer to when a child should learn to read, except that there is no hard or fast rule! The quality of the teacher is vital as is the recognition that all children are different. Phonics appears to help, and over-prescription doesn’t. And above all, play is vital.

The Effective Pre-school and Primary Education (EPPE) project is the largest European study of the impact of early years education and care on children’s developmental outcomes. Early Childhood Matters, edited by Kathy Sylva, Edward Melhuish, Pam Sammons, Iram Siraj-Blatchford, Brenda Taggart has just been published by Routledge.

Horrible historians and writing the books - Terry Deary interview

I also did a lengthy Terry Deary interview - which you can read here or below....

Of horrid historians and terrible teachers

Terry Deary wishes he wasn't best known for writing the Horrible Histories series Sarah Ebner

Terry Deary hates publishing and historians — an interesting combination given that he owes his fame and fortune to both. But Deary, a self-described anarchist, is a rather unusual man.

He is best known as the author of the Horrible Histories series of books, which are much loved by children around the world. Yet the 64-year-old says that he wants to turn his back on writing for children, is hugely critical of publishing (calling it “the seediest profession I’ve worked in”) and reserves his bile for historians, whom he calls “seedy and devious”.

“They pick on a particular angle and they select their facts to prove their case and make a name for themselves,” he says angrily. “They don’t write straight history. They don’t write objective history. Obnoxious people such as Niall Ferguson write a book to prove that the British Empire was a good thing. They use history to make a political point.”

Deary’s grey hair and soft Sunderland accent give the impression that he’s mild-mannered. It’s deceptive. In reality, although he’s friendly and open, he has a huge number of bugbears, including politicians and fellow children’s authors.

But chief among these are historians. Deary says that they’re what stop him loving history and denies, indignantly, that his books are history books at all.“I write about people,” he says firmly. “And that’s the most fascinating subject in the world.”

However, Deary’s success is partly due to the historians he despises. The Horrible Histories, after all, retell historical facts collated from other books, rather than original sources. Deary doesn’t actually do any of the research himself — something I found a little disappointing. Instead, a team of researchers find the quirky facts, all those ancient swear words and toilet practices among them.

“My skill is retelling,” explains Deary, unapologetically. “I’m a writer, not a historian. My job is to re-present what the researchers find and make that information accessible to young readers.”

The books are incredibly popular, appealing to boys and girls, the holy grail of children’s publishing. They have been turned into stage plays, museum exhibitions (one of these, Terrible Trenches, is currently showing at the Imperial War Museum) and a very successful television series, which starts again today.

They are known for history with all the horrible bits left in — the gruesome and disgusting, including snot, bile and blood, wrapped up with cartoon-like illustrations and accurate historical information. Deary writes an introduction to each book, explaining that it will be “full of the sort of facts that teachers never bother to tell you”.

The books are not always objective — which is the exact criticism levelled by Deary against historians. The one on the British Empire, for example, is extremely biased against imperialism. But Deary says that this is deliberate. “I’m putting the weight on the other side of the balance, to counteract the lies teachers tell you when you’re at school,” he says gleefully. “Yes, I do write polemics. I write antiestablishment rants. I make no claim at all to be writing objective history. Why I object to history books for adults is that they do claim to be objective.

“Horrible Histories are, from start to finish, a rant against the privileged,” he continues, warming to his theme. “All the posh people, the lords and the nobles, and their lackies, the police, the army and the teachers who purvey what the lords want — they are the enemy. And what makes me especially angry, because I’m not a historian, is when I start to study history and I find out the way in which common people have been manipulated, beaten, bullied and abused down the ages. Someone needs to stand up for them.”

Despite the platform that Horrible Histories has given him, Deary is more than a little grumpy about his strong association with the books. Why? Because the books are more famous than he is. “Horrible Histories is of very little interest to me because I don’t own the brand,” he says, adding that while people have heard of the books, they often haven’t heard of him. “The brand is stronger than me.”

The series began back in the early 1990s when Deary, an actor who had moved into writing children’s books, was commissioned to write a Father Christmas joke book. It sold well, so the publisher (Scholastic) asked him to write a history joke book.

Scholastic then asked Deary to add some interesting facts to the jokes. “When I started to look at the facts, I realised that they were more interesting than the jokes. So instead of a joke book with facts, you had a fact book with jokes. Horrible Histories was born.”

The first two books, Terrible Tudors and Awesome Egyptians, were written to tie in with the National Curriculum (ironic, as Deary hates conventional education). They were moderately successful and more books were commissioned. But it wasn’t until 1995 that they really took off, with Blitzed Brits promoted to tie in with the anniversary of the end of the Second World War.

More than 20 million copies of the books have now been sold worldwide, and children (including my own) can’t get enough of them. Deary has become one of the most popular living authors in the UK and Scholastic is even planning a Horrible Histories virtual online world for next year.

But Deary seems quite under-whelmed by his achievements. “Children’s authors are held in such low esteem, it drags me down,” he says. “You meet strangers and they ask, ‘What do you do?’ You say ‘I’m a writer’ and they reply, ‘Oh, that’s interesting’. Then you tell them you’re a children’s writer — that’s way down the list. And you say ‘my best-known books are non-fiction’. Then you’re somewhere off the bottom of the scale!”

There’s more to Deary than Horrible Histories — which helps to explain the apparent chip on his shoulder. He clearly loved his acting career and has written more than 150 other books — their relatively low profile is an obvious irritation.

He’s also still angry about his education (he says that he hated school and “school hated me”) and resents that his talent as a writer wasn’t nurtured or encouraged. He didn’t go to university (one of the first things he says to me is that he doesn’t have a degree), instead spending a year working for the Electricity Board and then attending drama college. He still loves acting, but admits with a sigh: “I’m not as good an actor as I am a writer.”

Deary’s wife used to be a teacher, and before his writing career took off, he taught drama and English. So it may come as a surprise to find just how much he fumes at the thought that his books might now be recommended by educators. “If my books appear in schools, I get tainted,” he says passionately. “I don’t want to be tarred by schools. I want to be outside the system. I went to school. I was beaten, bullied and abused, by the teachers, not the pupils. I learnt nothing worth learning.”

He thinks that education should change radically, and schools should be closed down. “You give me the £50 billion that we put into the so-called education system and I will come up with an alternative.”

Deary now has a new agent and is keen to turn his back on Horrible Histories and other children’s books. He has already written a few more Horrible Histories (which are yet to be published), but has no plans for any more. His aim is to “diversify” and write adult fiction instead.

“I’m 64 years old. I don’t want to be 74 and still churning out the same thing. It’s time for a new career direction,” he says. “I never wanted to write any in the first place.”

Horrible histories and horrible historians!

I have been a bit lax about posting my articles on here - partly because I post so often on School Gate

But I have had a few pieces of interest in the paper recently....

Firstly, I had a news piece and interview with Terry Deary (author of Horrible Histories) which was great fun. I also did a live chat with him on the blog, which I really enjoyed, partly because so many children came along. You can read it again on the link I've just popped in.

Here's the news story -

Or you can read it below....

Historians are seedy and horrible, says Terry Deary, children’s author

Sarah Ebner
He owes his success to history, but the author Terry Deary has described historians as “seedy and devious”.

The bestselling writer of the Horrible Histories series added that all historians were out to “make a name for themselves”, denied that his books were history books at all and even started a spat with Niall Ferguson, one of Britain’s best-known historians.

“Historians are nearly as seedy and devious as politicians,” Deary, 64, said. “They pick on a particular angle and select the facts to prove their case and make a name for themselves ... They don’t write objective history.”

Deary — whose books have sold more than 20 million copies — does not like any historians. “Eventually you can see through them all,” he said. “They all come with a twist.” However, he reserved his greatest ire for Ferguson, the former Oxford historian who now lectures at Harvard University.

“Obnoxious people like Niall Ferguson write a book to prove that the British Empire was a good thing,” Deary said. “He’s a deeply offensive right-wing man who uses history to get across a political point.”

In response, Ferguson admitted to surprise that Deary was commenting on his work. “It’s a little like asking Rory Bremner for his opinion on George Osborne’s spending cuts or Sacha Baron Cohen to review Simon Schama’s forthcoming history of the Jews,” he said. “I have read some of the Horrible Histories to my children, along with Harry Potter, The Hobbit and many other children’s books. They’re quite funny. And so is this.”

“You say that Terry Deary thinks my book Empire had ‘a political point’. I am not sure what that means. The book argued that there were benefits as well as costs to the British Empire, which is not a political point but a historical judgment. Terry Deary says that he ‘wants to be anti-Establishment’. That sounds more like someone who is trying to get across a political point.”

The Horrible Histories series relates historical events in a way that attracts children — with blood and gore. However, Deary (who got a D in his history A level) said he did not write “history books”, but “about people”. He added that his aim was to “counteract the lies” told by teachers.

“For example, when I went to school, I was told Henry VIII was a bit cruel but that he was a good king because he was strong. That’s what I believed but it’s utter, utter evil to promote that idea. He was a psychopath who should never have been able to rule the country. And that is what the system allows.”

Historians cannot decide whether to be grateful that Deary has attracted more children to the study of history, or angry at his attitude towards them.

“Does this man go to the archive, or is he just a parasite on historians?” asked David Starkey, an expert on Henry VIII. “He does make a real point about a certain type of history, which is designed to put forward a case, but what on earth does ‘objective’ mean? In the reign of Henry VIII, for example, the main archive alone is 244 volumes of about 800 closely written pages each. That’s three million facts, and the historian has to select from them.”

Paula Kitching, of the Historical Association, said: “We don’t want to throw insults backwards and forwards. But I’m surprised that he wants to attack history. There are many different kinds of historians out there and, whether he likes it or not, he’s falling into that category himself now.”

Meanwhile, Catharine Edwards, Professor of Ancient History at Birkbeck, University of London, said that children “absolutely loved” the books. “If it takes toilets to get them interested in history, that’s fine. It’s the most gruesome side of things which attracts the young.”

Deary admitted that he was disappointed to be so closely linked to the Horrible Histories series, because he does not own the brand. He is also keen to turn his back on children’s books and move on to adult fiction. “It’s time for a new career direction,” he said.

Terry Deary will be taking part in a live chat on the Times education blog, School Gate, on Tuesday June 1 at noon.

Horrible histories tour

· During Roman feasts, guests could eat so much that they had to be sick, and a special room was set aside for them called a vomitorium. They would then go back into the dining room to continue eating

· Cures for the plague included shaving a chicken’s bottom and strapping it to the plague sore

· Elizabeth I did not want to have her rotten teeth removed. To show her how easy and painless it was, the Bishop of London had one of his own teeth taken out while she watched

· James I picked his nose and never washed his hands

· Queen Victoria’s son-in-law would have his collection of glass eyes delivered to him at dinner parties

· In the First World War soldiers were told to urinate on a handkerchief and tie it round their face to protect them from a gas attack