This much I know about…witnessing all the vulnerabilities of our health service up close, first-hand

I have been a teacher for 30 years, a Headteacher for 15 years and, at the age of 54, this much I know about witnessing all the vulnerabilities of our health service up close, first-hand.

 

It began with a tick bite. I never gave it much thought; insect bites are, after all, an occupational hazard for any angler. But a few days later my wife said I should keep an eye on it. That was on the Tuesday. By Thursday morning the redness had begun to spread.

“Well, my wife drew around it with a pen this morning and now the infection is an inch beyond that.” It was late afternoon and I was speaking to the Priory Medical Centre’s switchboard.
“I’m really sorry, but we have no emergency appointments across the whole of York. Try 111. They might have some advice.”
“I rang them before I rang you. I was in a queue for ages.”
“Well, you could ring us tomorrow morning at 8 o’ clock and see if you can get an emergency GP appointment.”
I maintained my courteous tone. “OK. I’ll do that. Thanks very much. Bye.”

The next day I secured a 4.00 pm appointment at my GP’s. I had never met her before. She was clearly concerned. She donned some gloves. The infection had spread in a perfect 4 inch diameter circle across my ribcage. She packed me off with a prescription for Flucloxacillin, but warned me that should the infection continue to grow I should contact 111.

I rang 111 on Sunday morning. By now the infection was angry and the size of side plate. I was in A&E by noon with an appointment to see the out of hours GP. Just after 1.00 pm I was in Tesco’s with a prescription for Clarithromycin.

Late morning on Tuesday I asked our finance manager to join me in the toilet. When I pulled up my shirt he was shocked. The infection was the diameter of a large dinner plate. From its epicentre in the middle of the right hand side of my rib cage it had spread to the edge of my armpit, across my sternum and below my navel. He suggested I went to A&E, as did the woman on the 111 line. I had rung my GP earlier, but by 10.30 am the city’s emergency GP appointments had all been taken.

Initially A&E was quite civilised. After three hours of waiting, it was chaotic and undignified for so many patients. At one point I asked reception if I had been forgotten. I was my politest best, because there is no other way to be. No-one was choosing to make me wait. There was a sense of anxiety in the room that grew tangibly as every single seat was taken. By the time my name was called it was standing room only. On a Tuesday, at 3.00 pm.

The A&E doctor was concerned. He rang through to the Acute Medical Unit. He wanted them to admit me. He feared cellulitis. “There are no beds free at the moment, but they are sure there will be one soon.” He smiled. I smiled back. On the walk to the AMU, I googled cellulitis. I wished I hadn’t.

It was busy in the AMU. I walked past a consultant briefing five young trainees in the corridor. It took the receptionist a few minutes to find my details. There was nowhere to put me except for the “Quiet Room”. Except it wasn’t very quiet. Every few minutes came the agonising howls of a patient. It was the sound of pure fear, laced with intense pain. I just read my book intently.

One other patient was in the “Quiet Room” with me. He was worried. His legs felt odd. He had been a Physics teacher but had a stroke and lost his ability to compute numbers. He took early retirement on health grounds thirty years ago. He now had prostate cancer which had spread and the cancer was embedding itself in his spine. He had trouble with his bowel movements and excreting could be painful. He queried whether the pins and needles in his legs were due to some odd quirk or whether they were the harbinger of something much worse. His wife was at home.

You might wonder how I knew so much about my fellow teacher. Well, the admissions procedure was conducted in the “Quiet Room” because there was nowhere else for the nurse to hold the interview with him. At one point I went out into the corridor, only to find a woman weeping, and three ambulance personnel tending to a man wearing an oxygen mask on a trolley.

After two hours it was my turn to be admitted. The doctor was hassled and apologetic. She was embarrassed to have to check my vital signs, take my blood and fit my cannula in the “Quiet Room”. She tried to lock the door, but it was broken. I reassured her that I wasn’t bothered. That I understood.

When she had finished, I asked her whether it might be an idea to look at my infection. When she did she expressed surprise. She admitted that it didn’t look that serious and that I probably didn’t need to be in there at all. “I did wonder why you fitted the cannula before you had looked at my chest.”
“It’s just the pressure,” she replied sadly. “Look”, she went on, “I am pretty sure you don’t need to stay here tonight. I think we can send you home with some antibiotics, but I need a consultant to clear that. I’ll go and find one and be back soon”. That was 5.00 pm. I never saw her again.

At 6.00 pm I sidled down to reception and enquired as to whether the doctor had found a consultant. The woman I spoke to was nonplussed. “Your bed is nearly ready”, she said. My claim to be on the verge of going home fell on deaf ears. I was told that I would be seen by a consultant soon. Apparently a couple of them were on the wards.

Half-way through the evening my wife texted me: Dad says ask them whether it is Lyme disease. NHS 111 Online’s Lyme disease page described my symptoms precisely: the bullseye pattern; the delayed onset; headaches. I put that to the consultant when she arrived just before midnight. “I’m a head teacher. I get tired of people telling me how to do my job. I’m sure you do too, what with the internet and self-diagnoses. And I don’t want to be rude, but my father-in-law says it might be Lyme disease.”
She raised her eyebrows. “Maybe we’ll get you to see a dermatologist. In the meantime, we’ll put you on intravenous Fluloxacillin.”

I changed into the night clothes my wife had popped over to me earlier in the evening. The intravenous drugs were administered. Afterwards sleep was all but impossible. My bed was next to the ward toilet. The walls were wafer thin. Cecil in the bed opposite was having shouty nightmares about being killed. The poor man next to me had trouble breathing; the sound of him drawing breath was like someone blowing through a straw into a bucket of water. At 3.00 am a nurse helped him to cough up whatever it was deep in his lungs, with the aid of a tube. By 6.30 am I was having my second lot of intravenous antibiotics.

For the umpteenth time I explained my case to a new consultant. It was 9.00 am. The spread of the infection appeared to have been arrested. I was immediately transferred to the ambulatory wing of the AMU, called the Acute Medical Centre. I was going home. I was to have a new antibiotic – an intravenous double-dose of Teicoplanin – and then I would be discharged.

I arrived in the AMC and they took my blood again. At one point, around 11.00 am, the doctor had my discharge letter in her hand. But, she remembered, they had been in contact with Dermatology, and the dermatologist would be up to see me after they had finished their morning surgery. Better not go home right now, just in case. They had told them about my notion that it might be Lyme disease.

So I waited. And I waited. And I waited.

At 4.00 pm the dermatologist arrived. Probably my age, he wandered in unassumingly, nodded, read my notes and said, “Well, you’ve got Lyme disease”.
“That’s what I think it is, having read about it.”
“Pull your jumper up…yes, look at it. Almost certain. The antibiotics you’ve had won’t touch that. You need Doxycycline. The key thing is to stop it getting into your system.”
“How do you do that?” I asked. I had read about what can happen if Lyme disease takes hold. It’s not good.
“Catch it quickly and take the antibiotics. All of them. For three weeks.” He smiled. I reciprocated, feeling, for the first time since Friday, reassured that what had been prescribed would treat my condition successfully.

He left. The ward doctor explained it would be 30 minutes or so before the drugs would be ready. At 5.45 pm, I tentatively asked if there was any news. She looked embarrassed. It transpired that the ward pharmacy hadn’t enough doses for three weeks. She was sorry, it was her mistake. She should have chased it up an hour ago. She would ring down to the pharmacy in the main building. I finally left with sufficient drugs at 6.40 pm.

It took five days to diagnose me successfully. Now, as I write this, a further five days on, the infection has all but gone.

I am not critical. At every step of the way I was greeted with a smile. Even the AMU doctor who went missing whilst in search of a consultant, was kind and sincere. She was just under intense pressure. The beds in the corridors, the dying patients, the post-bank holiday A&E mayhem, the uncertain diagnoses and erroneous prescriptions – all manifestations of an NHS under impossible strain.

I saw all the vulnerabilities of our health service up close, first-hand. If I was so minded, I could complain about aspects of what I experienced. The truth is, I am in awe of the considerate, selfless dedication of everyone working in the NHS: our consultants, doctors, GPs, nurses, porters, receptionists, and 111 call-centre workers.

I was seen by two GPs, two doctors, three consultants and numerous nurses, and was prescribed a hatful of different, expensive medicines, all within five days, and, bar two prescription fees, all completely free of charge. Any errors or oversights along the way are both explicable and forgivable. I got an expert diagnosis and subsequently a successful treatment to stop the infection spreading across my chest.

The more serious symptoms of Lyme disease can take months to present themselves. There is a good chance, thanks to the NHS, that we have caught it early, that the disease has not entered my system. Here’s hoping.

 

POSTSCRIPT: All’s well that ends well. My blood test for Lyme disease returned negative.

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This much I know about…why OFSTED should stop making 1-4 judgements of schools

I have been a teacher for 30 years, a Headteacher for 15 years and, at the age of 54, this much I know about why OFSTED should stop making 1-4 judgements of schools.

Cartoon by Stan Dupp

“Schools with good judgements can be brave and develop their curriculum in a principled way. If you’re Requiring Improvement you can’t…”
– Colleague head teacher in a conversation with me last week

 

When I talk to interviewees for a vacancy at Huntington at the beginning of the day, I say this, verbatim: ‘I refuse to compete with other schools. If you take pleasure in being “better” than another school, then you are actually taking pleasure in your young people doing better than the young people in another school and I think that, as an educationalist, is morally corrupt.’ When I say those words, I am met with smiles from around the table. My stance is at the heart of our school’s culture. We are not mugs, but we try our damnedest to help other schools perform well, even in a world of normally distributed comparative outcomes which means helping other schools logically disadvantages our school’s outcomes.

And whilst my colleagues in our Research School work tirelessly supporting other colleagues in other schools, there is one thing which makes school improvement so much harder which the DfE could do something about tomorrow: the OFSTED 1-4 grading of schools. If we accept that the quality of teaching and the quality of leadership are the two main factors affecting the quality of education our young people experience, then we have to bring an end to the OFSTED grading system. Once a school is judged to be Requiring Improvement or Inadequate, recruiting and retaining good teachers and school leaders becomes incredibly hard, within a school system which already has a teacher recruitment crisis, where MATs are advertising for teachers from any subject discipline to work in schools located in socio-economically deprived areas, promising to turn PE and Food Technology specialists – as if the MATs are human alchemists – into science teachers.

There is no logic in retaining the OFSTED 1-4 grading system if the DfE wants every school to improve. The threat of being judged Requiring Improvement or Inadequate merely breeds a culture of fear throughout our school system. It means that fear-soaked school leaders do things which make the culture of the school more penal, which, in turn, drives teachers out of the school, and, often, out of the profession all together. School leaders disappear and fearful replacements are installed as though that will be the great panacea to eradicate our schools’ ills.

I argue for the end of the OFSTED 1-4 grading of schools from a position of some strength. In November 2017 we were judged to be an Outstanding school by OFSTED. Our experience of the inspection process enabled us, first-hand, to see how flawed the inspection/judgement process has become. We did not challenge the original judgement of Good, but, after a third day of inspection which the inspectorate itself insisted upon, the final judgement was that Huntington was an Outstanding school. It was not a judgement we pursued at all costs. Rather, when the notification call came at 11.40 am on Tuesday 10 October 2017, I had not uttered the word OFSTED once that term. Since the inspection we have just got on with getting on, knowing that we still have a lot to do to provide the best possible education for our young people; the world is for the discontented.

Indeed, it is rare to find a school which does not strive to be the best it can be, day-in, day-out. An Inspectorate which has school improvement at its heart – and under Amanda Spielman there have been signs that things are moving in that direction – would have the courage to end the 1-4 grading of schools. Such a step would mean OFSTED’s leaders accepting a certain level vulnerability – there is no courage without vulnerability.

School leaders and teachers accept vulnerability on a daily basis, when they walk into their schools and teach. It is about time our colleagues in OFSTED followed suit, embraced vulnerability and did the courageous thing by ending the crass practice of labelling schools with destructive judgements.

Posted in Other stuff, School Leadership | 1 Comment

This much I know about…how to model the answer to an AQA English Language Paper Two, Question 5, 40 marker

I have been a teacher for 30 years, a Headteacher for 15 years and, at the age of 54, this much I know about how to model the answer to an AQA English Language Paper Two, Question 5, 40 marker.

I know I bang on about modelling the thinking-writing-thinking-writing process, but I have lots of good evidence which strongly suggests that the explicit teaching of the thinking-writing-thinking-writing process through commentary-based modelling is a game-changer for lots of students, especially those from less literate socio-economic backgrounds.

Last Wednesday I spent period 1 and period 3 modelling an answer to the 40 mark question on the AQA English Language Paper 2 to both halves of our Year 11 cohort of students; there are 120 students in each half. I have learnt a lot about how to make such an exercise effective over the last few years and everything I have learnt is outlined below in precise detail. I think it is so important to be as precise as you possibly can be when giving such a demonstration; the precision minimises the risk of error and failure.

I run the sessions during English lessons. The teachers bring the students into the hall in silence. All the students require is a pen. I put out copies of the question 5 section of the examination paper on each desk.  The teachers stay and ensure that student behaviour is impeccable throughout the session. The teachers also hear what I say so that in the very next lesson they can reinforce my messages when the students practise writing an answer to a similar question to embed their learning.

The layout of the room is crucial. Exam desks and chairs are laid out as though for an examination:

Notice that we have quadrophonic sound. I use a wireless speaker clipped on my shirt collar. Sound is crucial. What you say needs to be heard loud and clear by the students.

I begin with the slides below, emphasising two things: Janus-faced sentences and how I write very deliberately. The tips for writing on the eighth slide are referred to at the end of the session when I check my answer; I show how I have deliberately followed my own advice.

I use three desks so that I have lots of space. I layout my materials on my three desks thus:

I practise writing out my answer in full on single-sided paper twice the night before and once early morning on the day. I have a copy of one of those three answers laid out on the desk in case I dry up whilst I am writing. All the students can see is what is on the screen. As far as they can tell, I am writing the whole thing from scratch, in real time.

I love using the visualiser, but you have to practise a lot in order to become a visualiser expert. Here is a checklist for using a visualiser effectively:

  • Check with your ICT technician that the PC you are using in the classroom has the visualiser software loaded and working the day before the lesson.
  • Check that the connection with the visualiser is secure at both ends; have a small piece of blu-tac with you in case you need to secure one of the connections.
  • Use a large desk and clear anything you do not need off the desk.
  • Make sure that you have established exactly where to place the visualiser so that you can write freely without the visualiser/visualiser wire getting in the way.
  • Make sure that the angle of the examination paper on the desk is at the angle at which you find the physical act of writing comfortable.
  • Identify in your mind’s eye a spot on the table that you know correlates with the centre of the screen, so that you can roughly keep your pen at that point whilst you are writing.
  • Check that you can push the paper away from you as you write and that the top of the sheet does not hit the stand of the visualiser and get stuck and make writing awkward.
  • Keep checking the PC screen every 10 seconds or so to ensure the students can see what you are writing.
  • Write legibly in black ink and have a spare pen on your desk.
  • When you need to turn over the page, wait until you can see that the students have caught up.
  • When you read through what you have written out loud, read from the PC screen, not the paper copy, so that you are sure you are reading what the students can see.

Below is one of my answers, with a transcript of some of the commentary I would give as I explain my deliberate thinking whilst I am crafting an answer to the question. I begin by emphasising that they have to write down exactly what I write. I tell them I will talk through what I am thinking as I write. I tell them to be prepared to write at some pace.

“Every word on the paper matters. It is so important that you read the paper thoroughly. They make it clear you need to plan your work. I will make a plan and keep coming back to it. The form, audience and purpose of the piece of writing are key to you being successful. This is a formal letter. The audience is the Minister for Transport, a member of the government. And the purpose is to persuade him or her that you want to ban all cars in town and city centres. I have chosen to argue for a ban, but I could just as easily have argued against a ban – this is not actually about what you think about the issue in question, but a test to see if you can write deliberately, with purpose.

“Now, members of the government usually have a big ego. They like to be praised, and they like to feel powerful, so I am going to make sure that I flatter them. And I will use formal language.

“Now, planning is key and can be kept relatively simple. But once you have planned an answer, STICK TO YOUR PLAN. Sticking to a plan is one of the key ways to help you become a more DELIBERATE writer. As you can see, I am writing a plan that is only seven paragraphs long. And just a couple of words are required to remind me of what I am going to say, paragraph by paragraph.”

“The exam board do not require that you write a full address. If you feel you want to write an address, that is fine. I want to begin with something which is striking and will get the Minister’s attention. I have deliberately used the Trump phrase about making our country great again, just for a little colour. I will use the word ban in every paragraph, so that I keep in touch with the question at all times.

“To make it easy for the person marking your answer, you should leave a line between every paragraph. You get marks for organising your writing and the main unit of organisation is the paragraph, so make sure that you make your paragraphing absolutely clear by leaving a line.

“So, I have caught the Minister’s interest and he or she feels powerful. Now, for the second paragraph, I need a Janus-faced sentence looking back to the previous opening paragraph and onto the second paragraph which is, checking my pan, about how cars are noisy.

“No Minster is going to make a policy change without some evidence, so I can make up some data which sounds convincing. It does not matter if it is not true, but as long as you name the source of your data, that’s fine.”

“Notice how I have used full stops and apostrophes accurately. A full 16 marks are for technical accuracy. And I have used the word ban in every paragraph so far. And now I am going back to my plan to tick off the paragraph I have just written and think about how to shape a Janus-faced sentence to begin the next one.”

“I want to emphasise in my final paragraph how the ban is what I am after, so I use the word three times in the final paragraph. The mention of votes shows the person marking my script that I have not forgotten that I am writing to the Minister for Transport. And you can see that I repeat make our country great again to bring the letter back to where I began in the first paragraph.

“And I check that I end the letter accurately, with Yours sincerely as I used Dear Minister for Transport at the beginning of the letter. If I had used Dear Sir, I would have finished Yours faithfully.”

At the end of the session I emphasise that the best thing students can do before the examination is to practise writing deliberately-structured paragraphs, not whole examination papers nor even whole answers. Success in this question depends upon the students’ level of control over the writing process. It is not about quantity; deliberate thinking when writing is the mother of precise brevity.

 

POSTSCRIPT: I used the acronym FAP for Form-Audience-Purpose. Best check what FAP means to a street-wise 16 year old before you use it. Some students informed one of my colleagues of my unwittingly embarrassing and, to the students, hilariously entertaining use of FAP; my son confirmed the mistake. The online Urban Dictionary will tell you all you need to know…

 

Posted in Teaching and Learning | 2 Comments

This much I know about…how our school’s values underpin how we all behave

I have been a teacher for 30 years, a Headteacher for 15 years and, at the age of 54, this much I know about how our school’s values underpin how we all behave.

It is hard to find a colleague head teacher who does not think that student behaviour in schools has become more challenging. Indeed, it seemed the only topic up for debate at the recent series of teacher association conferences.

The trouble is, what has become acceptable outside the school walls is, I feel, making it harder for head teachers to hold onto what is acceptable inside their schools.

Recently I spoke in an assembly about how what is acceptable in society is often in direct conflict with what is acceptable in our school. Instead of illustrating my point with examples from British society (and recently there have been many), I used the comparison of Donald Trump and Barack Obama. In one video Trump mocks a disabled reporter. In the other Obama explains to Bear Grylls the simple advice he gives to his daughters about how to live their lives: “Be useful and be kind”.

 

I then talked about this recent gift from my wife Louise: an Anthony Burrill print which is displayed proudly on my office wall.

I finished by telling the assembled students that we will keep Trumpisms outside the school walls.

As Seamus Heaney once said, “we are hunters and gatherers of values”. Instead of Trumpist behaviour, I shared example after example of Respectful, Honest and Kind behaviours I was sent by my colleagues the week before. I wanted to illustrate precisely what we expect to see at all times at Huntington, in every interaction we have we each other.

What happens inside our school walls will always be based on our core values of Respect, Honesty and Kindness. This principle underpins the behaviours of every single one of us in our school: student; teacher; parent; governor. It is our non-negotiable.

Posted in School Leadership | 3 Comments

This much I know about…how the budget squeeze is forcing school leaders to gamble

I have been a teacher for 30 years, a Headteacher for 15 years and, at the age of 54, this much I know about how the budget squeeze is forcing school leaders to gamble.

First, some key data. When I began at Huntington School as head teacher in September 2007 we had 1,526 students on roll. We had 97 full time equivalent teachers. Today we have 1,527 students on roll. We have 86 full time equivalent teachers. Our current annual budget is £7,700,000 p.a.. In 2010 our budget was £7,300,000p.a.. According to the Bank of England Inflation calculator we would have a current budget of £9,194,000 p.a. instead of £7,700,000 p.a. if our budget had just kept up with inflation since 2010. So, compared to 2010, we currently have one more student, 11 fewer classroom teachers and £1,500,000 p.a. less, in real terms, in our budget.

Since 2010 we have managed our budget with some expertise. I am fortunate to work with an expert Finance Manager, a highly efficient curriculum/staffing Assistant Head, a brilliant Human Resources manager, a frugal Premises Manager and a wider staff possessed of limitless generosity of spirit.

The 85% cut in recurrent capital funding implemented in 2011 saw us left with just £29,000 p.a. for the upkeep of our rag-tag, sprawling campus; before 2011 we had £160,000 p.a.. The fabric of the building is fraying at the seams. Literally.

All that said, it is important to make this observation: as our budget has declined in real terms, we have focused relentlessly upon improving the quality of teaching and learning. Despite the funding cuts our outcomes have improved and we are a tangibly better school than we were in 2010.

The trouble is, we have nothing more to cut.

And what is hard to live with is the uncertainty around future budgets as we plan the curriculum and staffing for the next two years. As a Local Authority School we do not know if the increase in employer pension contributions will be funded by the DfE beyond March 2020 (c.£70,000 p.a. at Huntington); nor do we know whether the September 2018 increase in teachers’ pay will be funded beyond March 2020 (c.£55,000 p.a. at Huntington). We will only know whether those increases will be fully funded after the 2019 Spending Review, a date for which I have spent a long time trying to discover, without success.

And post-Brexit economic forecasts suggest things will get worse before they get better. As does the latest budget news, announced on 6 February 2019, the last bullet point on the ESFA’s online update: we have the certainty that the September 2019 2% pay increase will not be funded by the DfE (c.£100,000 p.a. at Huntington); rather, the DfE consider that the 2% can be found within current funding “without placing further pressure on school budgets”.

All this means we are attempting to finalise the curriculum plan whilst unsure whether we will receive continued additional funding to cover the increases in Pensions and Pay. If that £125,000 p.a. is not funded by government from March 2020, by 2024 our budget will be £500,000 worse off.

So, can we afford a Year 7 nurture group for this September? How large are our Year 9 Music classes going to be? How many options groups should we have in Year 10? How many A level classes can we afford? The answers to those questions – answers which directly affect students and staff – will be different depending upon whether that increase in costs of £125,000 p.a. is funded by government or not. But we will not know that budget information before we finalise next year’s curriculum and staffing plans.

We could have more groups than we can afford on our 2019-2020 curriculum plan, only to find that the additional costs are not met, or we could reduce the number of groups, only to find that the additional costs are met. On the other hand, we might reduce the number of groups and find the additional costs are not met, or we could have more groups than we can seemingly afford and find that the additional costs are met.

In essence, do we put our students and staff first and overspend hoping the money works out, or do we tighten our belts to ensure we remain in the budgetary black? Who knows? Amidst a morass of uncertainty and inexorably rising class sizes, school leaders like me are being forced to gamble with students’ futures and teachers’ well-being.

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This much I know about…how we own, we shape and we celebrate our curriculum

I have been a teacher for 30 years, a Headteacher for 15 years and, at the age of 54, this much I know about how we own, we shape and we celebrate our curriculum.

My friend and collaborator, Tom Sherrington, recently said this of a school’s curriculum: “Your curriculum defines your school. Own it. Shape it. Celebrate it.” His sentiments have stuck with me these past 24 hours and prompted me to share a moment of teaching magic which exemplifies why we do what we do at Huntington School.

We are an old-fashioned, stand-alone local authority comprehensive school of 1,527 students. We serve our local community, which, in socio-economic terms, is diverse. Our students come from the full range of socio-economic backgrounds and arrive at our school with the full range of prior attainment. We teach a great deal of our lessons in mixed prior attainment groups because we find that mixed prior attainment groupings serve our most vulnerable students best.

Currently, however, we have a small group of Year 7s in a nurture group for English. That group has an English lesson for at least one hour every day. We have a curriculum for that nurture group that includes Shakespeare’s Macbeth. Not a modern English version of the Scottish play, but a full blown study of the original text. We do that because, in a state comprehensive school we believe that all our students should access “the best that has been thought and said”. Those nurture class students’ counterparts down the road at the renowned York independent schools will be studying the Bard, so why shouldn’t they?

And so it came to pass, on the Friday before February half-term, that I covered that Year 7 nurture group. They were in the computer room, aided by two of our teaching assistants, Libby and Jack, typing up their essays: “To what extent does the character Macbeth change during the play?”

Their teacher is one of our deputy head teachers, erstwhile head of English and one of the best English teachers you could wish for; she had told the class I would be taking them. Every time one of the class, let’s call her Mary, saw me in the corridor, she asked me whether I was really going to teach them. Even though I always replied in the affirmative, the next time I saw her she would ask the same question. We both got unbearably excited by the prospect.

The day duly arrived. I hadn’t taught Macbeth for a while. I wanted to begin the lesson with a bang! I know (or thought I knew) the first scene by heart. I got them to swivel 180° on their seats, away from their PCs, to face me. I stood in the centre of the room. I got them to imagine we were on a windswept heath. It was raining, the lightning was crashing down and the thunder rolling around our ears. I began, loudly and dramatically, to recite the opening scene…“When shall we three meet again?”

I swung round, getting louder. The ICT teacher in the next room began looking through the door to see what the hell was going on. “In thunder lightning or in rain?” It was at this point that doubt began to set in. As I roared the next line, I was thinking “What the hell comes next?” “When the hurlyburly’s done…” And I stopped for more than a beat because I had lost my rhythm and my banging start to the lesson was about to fade into a whimper.

I looked around the room, desperately, when I saw Mary up out of her seat. She caught my eye and, barely able to contain herself, she yelled “When the battle’s lost and won, That’ll be ere the set of sun.” Oh my goodness! I glanced at Libby and Jack who were transfixed in utter delight. Mary carried on and the whole class finished with a rousing, “Fair is foul and foul is fair, Hover through the fog and filthy air!”

Now, I recount this primarily because, in a career in the classroom which spans over three decades, it was one of the most magical moments. But I also record it here because it is about Huntington School. It is about putting great teachers with the students who need great teachers most (none of that would have happened without my amazing colleague), it is about deciding that what is good for the highest starters in curriculum terms is good for everyone, and it is about creating a culture where we educate children for the pure joy of it.

So, Tom, we own our curriculum. We have shaped it based on what is best for our students. And, here, and in many other places, we celebrate what our challenging, rich curriculum can do for girls like Mary.

 

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This much I know about…the creative writing process, Don McCullin’s photography and Vic Goddard’s auntie and uncle!

I have been a teacher for 30 years, a Headteacher for 15 years and, at the age of 54, this much I know about the creative writing process, Don McCullin’s photography and Vic Goddard’s Auntie Vera and Uncle Clay!

What inspires art? I have written a couple of sonnets recently; the first was motivated by a tale Vic Goddard told on Twitter about his  Auntie Vera and Uncle Clay, whilst the second derived from a visit to Tate Britain to see Sir Don McCullin’s retrospective exhibition.

The process between the stimulus for the poem and the finished artefact is complex and fascinating. The first sonnet, Park Love, began with this sequence of Tweets by my dear friend Vic:

I had thought about this tale for a couple of weeks and finally sat down to write after I had clarified a few things with Vic:

I also researched that period of history and discovered the St. John’s Inter Racial Club in south London.

When Marie Heaney reflected upon living with her poet husband Seamus, she knew when he had a poem percolating: they would be sitting watching television together in the front room when Seamus would begin tapping out the rhythm of the words in his head on the arm of the sofa with his fingers. It is that essential iambic beat of poetry that begins working in my consciousness when a poem comes on. From that point, when a phrase or two develop in my mind rhythmically, I commit the words to paper. I began Park Love by merely writing out what Vic had disclosed in his Tweets, phrasing things iambically where I could:

The sonnet then developed in five further drafts:

At this point I word process what I have and some word choice decisions are inevitably lost, such as the change to the opening line.

I am a terrible tweaker; a poem is never quite finished. Even preparing this blog saw me change a word or two. This is the current version of Park Love:

PARK LOVE
for Vic

Boy, could he run! An athlete’s graceful stance
And, oh, those slim Calypso hips which threw
The finest shapes the Inter-Racial dance
Had ever seen. She caught his eye and knew,
Right there, he was the one! But dad did not,
And forced their fledgling love into the sun
Of Crystal Palace Park, where they forgot
Themselves and kissed between his training runs.

Damp winters took their toll and she fell ill.
A Christian man, he prayed to God above;
Defied the Priest’s Last Rites through force of will.
When she pulled through, her dad had seen the love
Of one who’d stayed bedside both night and day –
And blessed this Windrush son, young Vera’s Clay.

The story behind Clay Gibbs is remarkable. Here he is training with Olympic medallist McDonald Bailey, looking the epitome of cool!

Clay Gibbs and McDonald Bailey
Sprinter Clay Gibbs and Olympic athlete McDonald Bailey, training together at Hove Stadium, July 8th 1953.
(Photo by Meager/Fox Photos/Getty Images)

Whilst I had thought for a fortnight about Clay and Vera’s story, this second poem came very soon after visiting Tate Britain to see Sir Don McCullin’s retrospective. I have not included the drafts here; instead I made a video of the poem.

 

I published a version of the poem on this blog a couple of weeks ago and since then, it has evolved. The current version below has been honed in response to comments by fellow poet and head teacher, Jonathan Taylor. When I get close to finishing a poem, metaphorically I hold up every word to the light so that I can inspect it closely to decide whether it is precisely the word required. If I am honest, I am still unsure about the second, third and fourth words of the first line…

MCCULLIN

Death confronts us all. I steal past slaughters.
Cruel tortures. Tiptoe round our country’s dregs.
Skirt a foreign father, his dead daughter.
Amputees. Spent beggars on their last legs.
Protruding ribs. Unwarranted arrests.
Executions. Slain bodies gape, unsewn.
Lost souls. The dispossessed. McCullin’s best.
His greatest hits. Shot after shot rips home.

He haunts each room. His liver-spotted hands
Birthed every print. In reverential awe
I stand, transfixed. This gentle artisan,
For one last time, displaying what he saw.
Here is my work, he seems to say. Enough!
And injured, there, beneath the gore, breathes love.

February 2019

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