This much I know about…how we must keep on saying, “Hello”

I have been a teacher for 31 years, a head teacher for 16 years and, at the age of 55, this much I know about…how we must keep on saying, “Hello”.

“And those that used to say hello simply pass you by.”
from Think for a Minute by The Housemartins

I hail from Sussex. One of the unexpected pleasures that struck me when we began living in the North was being greeted in the street by complete strangers. People I had never met said, “Hello” as I walked along York’s pavements. For a southerner, it was initially unnerving, but soon became a reassurance. Whilst I will never be an assimilated Yorkshireman, I felt welcome in God’s own county.

A five-mile early morning walk around York is a staple feature of my lockdown day. I follow a route along the River Ouse. I see dozens of people. It feels odd, but understandable, that we skirt around each other, maintaining a healthy two metres of separation. But what has upset me is the bowed heads, averted eyes and the awful silence. I mouth, “Good morning” but rarely is my salutation reciprocated.

Whilst we keep our distance, there’s no need for us to be so distant.

In a post-Coronavirus world there will be a new normal; I just hope the hearty Yorkshire “Hello” survives.

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This much I know about…when the last day of the school year falls in March

I have been a teacher for 31 years, a head teacher for 16 years and, at the age of 55, this much I know about when the last day of the school year falls in March.

Here is an account of the last few days at Huntington before the country’s schools all but closed for the foreseeable future on Friday 20 March 2020:

Today, I began our final Year 11 assembly with the Chinese curse: “May you live in interesting times”. It seemed apposite.

Oh for a boring Friday in mid-March, where nothing interesting happens, a Friday consigned to the “instantly forgettable” pile, beyond recall.

Instead, it has been a day which will interest historians for centuries to come.

It began for me at 5.00 am, like every day this week.

We have taken things hour by hour. What else can anyone do? We created a planning room where, at 7.30 am meetings, our SLT sat on separate tables and figured out what on earth to do. We worked closely together but kept our distance.

Since Monday we have focused relentlessly on communicating with our students, parents and colleagues. A daily morning PowerPoint from me, read aloud by form tutors to their tutees. A daily parental bulletin. A daily Coronavirus Contingency Planning Update for colleagues before registration.

Communicate. Communicate. Communicate.

A vacuum is soon filled with fear. We had to manage the growing levels of anxiety.

Once out of that room, we put our game face on. As students and staff began to buckle, there was no reason to add to their doubts. It’s great to show you’re human for sure, but people also need to feel they are in safe hands, especially when uncertainty and fear abound.

Then again, I did weep privately in my office on Thursday after I had told the Year 11s and 13s their examinations were cancelled.

Over the past two days we have focused our minds on gathering all the evidence we could find to support our predicted grade judgements. We knew we had to give everyone a sense of purpose. We kept them busy before they started thinking too much.

Beyond that, I’ve been repeating to anyone and everyone the Shelley line which I had written on my office whiteboard last October and is still there: “If Winter comes, can Spring be far behind?”

At break time today, the sunshine warmed the backs of my legs through the glass as I stood in reception, a reminder that this too shall pass, that the earth will keep on turning.

And we laughed a lot. My last two Year 11 classes were uproarious. We sat and told stories, finding comfort in our narratives.

My Business Studies boys told me things about our school that no one else needs to know!

The prize for the first student to solve their last ever GCSE mathematics question was either all the cash in my trouser pockets or a roll of toilet paper. The winner chose the latter.

When I stood on the stage for the final assembly, I told the Year 11s I was sorry they will never have that last day of school rite of passage. I told them that they will be awarded their qualifications.

I told them their futures will be secure, that the sun will shine again.

Our school values of Respect, Honesty and Kindness, emblazoned above me across the hall wall as I spoke, have never been more resonant.

I told them to go home and be kind to people.

My final slide before we bid them farewell for now featured a wall of Love Hearts sweets. I explained that at the core of our response to this crisis has to be love. And how, when this is over, we just might be a kinder, gentler species, one that realises that we need each other more than we ever knew.

Shakespeare was right when he wrote, “There is nothing either good or bad, but thinking makes it so”.

As our young people hugged each other and wept, the comforting strains of “It Must be Love” floated across the school hall.

Nothing more, nothing less…


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This much I know about…Putting Staff First

I have been a teacher for 31 years, a head teacher for 16 years and, at the age of 55, this much I know about Putting Staff First.

I have just finished co-authoring with Jonny Uttley, CEO of the Education Alliance Trust a new book called Putting Staff First. It will be published in April.

The thinking behind this new book is best exemplified by an oft-used metaphor…

When cabin pressure falls inside an aeroplane and the oxygen masks drop down, parents are directed to fit their masks before they fit their children’s. It is obvious why. Once hypoxia – a deficiency in the amount of oxygen reaching the brain – sets in, even the simplest tasks become impossible.

Symptoms of hypoxia vary from person to person but include blurred or tunnel vision, hot and cold flashes, euphoria, numbness, tingling, apprehension, nausea, dizziness, headaches, fatigue and belligerence.

Without an oxygen mask, within a few minutes parents suffering from hypoxia will be incapable of fitting their children’s masks, let alone their own. If parents fit their oxygen masks first, it turns out to be better for their children, who have a competent, healthy adult to support them through what can be a challenging experience.

The parallel with being a teacher is striking. If we do not ensure, first and foremost, that our teachers are happy, healthy, well qualified, highly motivated, hard-working, well-trained experts, they cannot be their best for their students. Consequently, a school which does not prioritise professional learning and managing staff workload – which, as a consequence, will help improve staff wellbeing – is disadvantaging its own students.

Whilst it is easy to say that schools would not exist if it were not for the students, the glib converse is that without truly great school staff, the students would not be taught well enough. What we need – as recruiting subject specialist teachers, school leaders and specialist support staff becomes increasingly difficult – is a revolution in how we treat the adults in schools.

“What is the most important school-related factor in pupil learning? The answer is teachers”, say Schwartz et al, and if they are correct, then we have to put our staff before our students because it is the only hope we have of securing what our students need most: top quality teachers (Schwartz et al, 2007).

The longer our schools are populated with hypoxic adults, we imperil all our futures.

And whilst we are determined to put staff first, that does not mean working in a blueprint school is an easy ride; far from it. We expect teachers to work hard and to be the best version of themselves they can possibly be.

If high quality teaching is the only thing that really matters when it comes to improving students’ outcomes, it follows, then, that we expect teachers in blueprint schools to accept the professional obligation to improve their practice; indeed, we consider that to be one of the most important aspects of being a teacher in a blueprint school.

The Cambridge Dictionary defines a blueprint as an ‘early plan or design that explains how something might be achieved’. Ten years after the Academies Act disrupted the structures of the English school system irrevocably, we want to look forward ten years hence, to a revitalised school system where our nation’s teachers are thriving and, consequently, so are our students.

Our new book is a 2030 blueprint to revitalise our schools that unashamedly puts staff first.


Schwartz, Robert B., Wurtzel, Judy & Olson, Lynn (2007) “Attracting and retaining teachers”, in the “OECD Observer” N°261, May 2007

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This much I know about…our family’s Lost Lowry

I have been a teacher for 31 years, a head teacher for 16 years and, at the age of 55, this much I know about our family’s Lost Lowry.

What follows is based upon a family tale which has floated around my wife’s family’s consciousness for decades. At the end of last year, I asked my mother-in-law Pauline to tell us the story again, when we were all sitting round the dinner table. She was essentially speaking directly to Louise, my wife. I captured Pauline’s words on my dictaphone and shaped this short story. The quotation from The Antiques Roadshow was the serendipitous spur which finally prompted me to pin down this family tale for good.


The Lost Lowry

“It’s now become a kind of status symbol to own a Lowry. That means everybody wants one.”
Rupert Mass, Antiques Roadshow, 29 September 2019

When your grandad came out of the navy he started a taxi business. He couldn’t work as he had a complaint. He was torpedoed in the war. He set up this taxi service. There was one taxi in every village. He made a lot of money out of that. He had one car and then two. He was a good entrepreneur, your grandad. He had lots of people who he taxied around. The Blackwell’s. There was Mr Shami, an Iraqi. I think he were a mill owner.

Anyway, he used to run these people around. Including Lowry, you know, the painter. Matchstick men and matchstick cats and dogs. I love his paintings, me. I think they’re lovely. They’re busy. The house was very dismal. He had a trilby and a long raincoat. He were tall. He died just up the road in Wood’s Hospital, at the top of the park, near where you were born.

So, Mr Lowry had your grandad as a chauffeur and he used to take him places. I never took that much interest. I used to see him shopping as a young girl. We knew he were an artist. He used to carry a shopping bag around with him. It was in the early fifties, maybe late forties. We lived at Broadbottom then. Your grandad used to pick him up. He used to do long trips with him. Up to Sunderland, I think, you know, the north east. Long trips. In those days there weren’t many cars. He drove for him for years.

He lived in a house called…what was it? “The Elms” I think it was, up in Mottram. Oh, your grandad got on well with Mr Lowry. He took him around regular. He must have been on one trip with him once and after he dropped him off – he used to have a cup of tea with him, especially if it were a long trip – he says, as your grandad were going out of the door, “Harry, do you want this?” He had one of his paintings in his hand.

And your grandad said, “You can keep it, as far as I’m concerned Mr Lowry. I’ve never liked your stuff. Not being rude or owt.”

And that were it. He never offered him one again.


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This much I know about…how Larkin was right, “days are where we live”

I have been a teacher for 31 years, a head teacher for 16 years and, at the age of 55, this much I know about how Larkin was right, “days are where we live”.

It’s Margate, 22 April 1957. My dad sat on the seafront, beaming at the camera. On his right is his sister-in-law, my Auntie Beat, and on his left, his wife, my mother. Dad, trim and smart, would have been 29 years old; mother, with her Picture Post polka dot skirt, just twenty-one.

Behind them is everything they need on an Easter Bank Holiday Monday: a couple of lunchtime ales followed by a spot of shopping at British Home Stores and, after a walk on the beach, to J. Lyons & Co. Ltd., with its famous roof terrace café, for a cup of tea and a slice of cake.

They look the epitome of happiness. And why not? It’s a day off work. The sun is shining. The summer is ready to unfurl before them. And what’s more, mother is six months pregnant with their first child, my sister Beverley.

Dad’s brother Tom would have been behind the camera, making them laugh. “Say CHEESE!” No need to extricate from the long day the grain of pleasure for these four; they’re having genuine fun. The image’s sepia tones are imbued with a sense of indefatigable optimism. All of life is ahead of them.

Dad died nearly 35 years ago. I’m not sure when, exactly, Uncle Tom and Auntie Beat passed away. My sister Bev was taken by cancer back in 2017. BHS and Lyons are long gone. And today I visited mother in her Sussex nursing home. Despite her Alzheimer’s, she recognised me. She knows my other sister and my two brothers, but no one else.

I showed her a photograph of my wife Louise and our two sons. There was not a glint of recognition in her eyes. She asked about dad. I told her that he had died of cancer a long time ago. She looked rueful and declared, “I loved him”. Ten minutes later, after I had explained dad’s fate for the second time, she said, in a rare moment of lucidity, “Well, they all die John”.

On the way down south we dropped our eldest, Joe, back home in North London. Instead of carrying on straight away, we made the effort to take the tube to the Barbican and visit the Museum of London. I wanted to see The Clash’s London Calling 40th anniversary exhibition. It was, predictably, a thrilling experience.

Afterwards, as we walked through the streets towards the Old Spitalfields Market, Louise remarked that “Days”, by Phillip Larkin, had become her favourite poem. “It’s it, isn’t it? Like this, this is it, days, like this one”, she said. “This is our life. Not yesterday, not in the future, but now. This is where our life happens. On day’s like this.”

And, of course, she is right. Days are where we live. Days like the Easter Bank Holiday Monday that Ann & Harry and Tom & Beat spent laughing in Margate, all those years ago.

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This much I know about…why Tom Bennett is right – teaching IS a wonderful job!

I have been a teacher for 31 years, a head teacher for 16 years and, at the age of 55, this much I know about why Tom Bennett is right – teaching IS a wonderful job!

I am teaching a Year 11 Business Studies GCSE class comprising 11 boys. I began teaching them in Year 10, when their behaviour was ruinous. I took them out of the original class so that the teacher and the 12 remaining students could get on with teaching and learning. I marched them to my office, sat them round my table and explained that, for the next 14 months, I would be teaching them, right though to their final examinations.

Two things happened in that class last week that gladdened my heart. On Monday we were practising MCQs, including this one:

Now, I had not taught them anything like this. I have no idea what a “Pure play retailer” might possibly be. When we went through the answers, Luke had chosen the correct answer, B. I asked him why and this was his reply:

‘Well, Mr Partmiter in RE was talking the other day about God being omnipotent, and he had explained to us that “omni” is a prefix meaning “all”, so I thought that must be the answer because customers can buy stuff in all different ways. Good old Mr Parmiter!’

Inspired by Alex Quigley, we have focused for the last three years on equipping students with the tools to deconstruct words to investigate their meaning when they don’t know what they mean. Always good when a plan comes together…

And on Thursday afternoon, before we finished the year with a Betty’s tea shop Cheeky Little Rascal each, I told the boys we had got some work to do and I had to get their brains thinking. Oliver replied, quick as a flash, “It wouldn’t be a Business lesson, Sir, if we weren’t thinking.” I have been working of late to ensure every single student has learnt what I have taught, inspired by Tom Sherrington’s seminal post on the #1 problem in teaching. Just changing the wording of my questioning has helped hugely. I have these boys thinking hard; instead of asking “Have you learnt that?” I ask “What have you learnt from that?” I get them thinking all the time. Oliver’s comment is the result of relentless interrogation, until I feel sure that all 11 boys have what I have taught securely in their brains!

I taught an all-boy group like this several years ago for English GCSE. One lad stood out, called Tom. A few weeks ago, Ros McMullen texted me. She lives just up the road. I was reminded of our ensuing exchange of texts this morning when I read Tom Bennett’s inspiring post, “It’s still a wonderful job – because teaching saved me”. I don’t usually post this kind of stuff, but Ros’ texts meant a lot to me, because my student Tom meant a lot to me. And Tom Bennett is spot on – it is a wonderful job, for sure!

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This much I know about…London Calling’s 40th birthday!

I have been a teacher for 31 years, a head teacher for 16 years and, at the age of 55, this much I know about London Calling’s 40th birthday!

Forty years ago today The Clash released London Calling. It was a seminal moment in rock and roll history and a life-changing experience for my 15-year old self.

Less than a month after the release date I was queuing outside the Brighton Top Rank to see the band play on their 16 Tons Tour. They were promoting the new album. As my mates and I shuffled from foot to foot to keep the January chill at bay, critical opinion was divided about London Calling’s eclectic musical mix. No one understood Jimmy Jazz. Train in Vain was pure disco. There was so much reggae! The title track was great, for sure, but Lover’s Rock? Really? Before the gig, the proverbial jury was still out.

Once in the venue, it was a matter of downing as much Pernod & black as you could afford and then getting to the front of the stage. There were no safety gaps filled with bouncers. If you were brave you’d get a front row spot early and then just hold on. The crush was dangerous and exhilarating. The night The Clash played I ended up swaying around in the mosh-pit, just a few feet from the front.

There was nothing quite like being in the mosh-pit as The Clash began their set. The support had been finished for some time as chants of Clash…Clash…Clash…Clash bounced around the Top Rank’s sweaty walls. And just when you thought they would never appear, the lights fell. In the blackness torches scattered. The lyrics of Tennesse Ernie Ford’s 16 Tons floated out of the PA system and as they faded a voice announced, “Ladies and gentlemen, I would like to welcome back to Brighton…THE CLASH!” And a nanosecond later, pandemonium.

They began with Clash City Rockers. Mick Jones’ opening chords growled out across the Top Rank and the surge of energy was raw, elemental and purifying. A lad next to me grabbed my shirt and hauled himself up to crowd surf into the swirling mosh. I gasped for breath. Before I knew it we were straight into Brand New Cadillac followed by Safe European Home. One track, then another, then another. London Calling, Bang! Stay Free, Bang! White Man in Hammersmith Palais, Bang!

It was absolute chaos. I found myself laughing at the perilous thrill of it all. I loved it. And the thing was with The Clash, they loved it too. It was a night of heady celebration. They knew their new album was bloody great. As Andy Kershaw said, who heard them a couple of weeks later in Leeds, “they were at the absolute peak of their powers, the fully finished article…the last word in rock and roll bands”.

In those days the last bus home left at 11.05 pm from Churchill Square. Miss the 729 to Tunbridge Wells and you were stuck in Brighton all night, 20 miles from home. We never saw a full set. We left as Simonon thumped out the Police & Thieves base line, Strummer snarled Junior Murvin’s lyrics, Jones struck the jarring reggae chords and Topper orchestrated the whole thing with drum-machine precision.

It was 11.00 pm on 8 January 1980. Margaret Thatcher was in power and unemployment was on the rise. Unbeknownst to us, The Falkland’s War and the Miners’ Strike lay ahead, soon to ambush our remaining teenage years. But that night, walking up West Street, sweat-ridden and frozen, we didn’t care. We had seen The Clash. And London Calling would become the sound track of our lives. We were changed forever.

This 16 Tons Tour recording is from March 1980 in New Jersey, USA. The band’s supreme confidence is epitomised by Stay Free at 41:10. They own the whole auditorium.

P.S. My son shares his birthday with London Calling. He is 23 today. He is called Joe. Obviously.

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