This much I know about…why now, more than ever, teachers need their headteachers to teach (if they possibly can)

I have been a teacher for 32 years, a head teacher for 17 years and, at the age of 56, this much I know about why now, more than ever, teachers need their headteachers to teach (if they possibly can).

This post comes with the important acknowledgement that fellow school leaders are under pressure like they have never been under pressure before. It is also worth pointing out that we have not yet had a positive test result for Covid-19 amongst our school community, and how I am aware that my headteacher life will become significantly more demanding when we do…

My first book was originally going to be called “Why headteachers have to be the best teacher in their schools”. It was a good decision to call the book “Love over Fear” instead, for myriad reasons, but that original title contained a grain of truth. If you are a teaching headteacher you get to learn, first hand, what is impeding your colleagues from teaching as well as they possibly can. As Viviane Robinson so rightly asserts in her book, “Student-Centred Leadership”, a teaching headteacher learns, “in detail about the challenges the learners face and the conditions teachers require to succeed”.

My job, in the world of Year Group bubbles, social distancing and hand sanitiser, is to ensure that I eradicate anything that is making life unnecessarily difficult for Huntington’s teachers. At the moment I only teach a period of Year 9 English, last lesson on Wednesday, and a double period of Year 13 Economics A Level on a Thursday morning. That smidgeon of teaching has, however, been illuminating. Here are six things I have learnt about what has faced teachers at our school these past few weeks:

  1. In the current circumstances – where you might have, for the fourth or fifth time that day, walked 250 metres across the school site, pulling your mobile resource unit (aka, a store box on wheels) into a classroom where the students have already sat down and, once again, you have had to summon up the energy to reclaim your authority over the room – the tiniest thing, which normally you would take in your stride, can tip you over the edge. In my first Year 9 lesson of the year (the previous lesson, immediately after being on lunch duty, I had stepped in, with literally one minute’s notice, to cover a lesson for a colleague who needed some time out), a student, who was just fiddling with his pencil case in the front row, received a stern rebuke from me, the force of which was completely unwarranted and for which I apologised at the end of the lesson.
  2. Remembering to leave enough time at the end of the lesson to allow students to wipe the desks with antibacterial spray, disposable cloths and rubber gloves, is a challenge. I had a couple of MCQs ready to test the recall of my Economics students, when I realised that the last seven minutes of the lesson were needed for ensuring the students had completed the cleaning rather than checking if they had advanced their learning.
  3. It is damned cold teaching with the windows open. We initially decided that students could wear coats “if they felt cold”. I ruined one or two colleagues’ lessons early in the term (sincere apologies Faye) by sticking my oar in and insisting all students removed their coats because it was 25°C outside. I only learnt the stupidity of the “if they felt cold” policy when I taught my first Year 9 lesson and faced ten students, out of the class of thirty, with their coats on. If a student is wearing a Stone Island jacket, you can be sure he will be freezing all day, whatever the weather! Policy change klaxon…
  4. The instinct to walk around the room is hard to resist. In my Economics lessons I have to literally duck out of the way of the board because I am hemmed in by Year 13 students and I keep blocking their view. Ensuring the two-metre distancing is making rooms even smaller.
  5. Uploading work for remote learners is best done at the end of the day, because you never know how much you will get through in the lesson. In my first lesson of the year, I got less than a third done of what I had planned. Lessons are like that sometimes. A colleague also emailed me to say that the end of the day was better because it would be less pressured, a view which influenced my decision to set work from day two of absence for students self-isolating at home.
  6. The ICT glitch which meant that PC screens kept freezing was damned annoying. In my first four lessons the screen froze three times and the only solution was to restart the PC. Hard enough when you are the headteacher and all the advantages that designation brings – imagine if you are a Modern Foreign Languages NQT, who did not finish his/her teaching practice, who hasn’t been in front of a class for over six months, who is teaching behind a strip of black and yellow tape two-metres from the nearest student in a Design Technology room, who teaches a class of 33 Year 7s straight after wet lunch, and just as you had settled the class down and you were halfway through taking the register, the PC screen freezes. So, I had to get that fixed and we think, finally, the corrupt driver, which was part of the new build on the PCs we had reconfigured over the summer, is at fault. By Wednesday it will be sorted.

Beyond walking the corridors and being on duty more times a day than any headteacher thought possible, getting in classrooms to teach, so that we know what faces our teachers and students, is incredibly helpful. It allows us to be more understanding of – and consequently more humane towards – our colleagues who are busting a gut to meet the new demands of teaching, sometimes teaching 15 lessons or more on the bounce without a PPA hour, and commuting between every single one.

And, of course, sorting out the ICT glitch becomes far more pressing when it is disrupting your own teaching…

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This much I know about…fully reopening school, why we all now need a garden and my angling addiction

I have been a teacher for 32 years, a head teacher for 17 years and, at the age of 56, this much I know about fully reopening school, why we all now need a garden and my angling addiction.

It is the Saturday morning before we reopen Huntington School fully. I am sitting in a caravan watching the sunrise. Whitby Abbey is all but visible to my left and I have just kidded myself that, through the binoculars, I have spotted a pod of dolphins out in the North Sea. The sky is cloudless and sunlight is piercing through the windows. A small fishing boat is returning to the harbour with its catch. My coffee tastes great.

I am not sure I have felt so calm for a long, long time.

School is all but ready for the most extraordinary start to the school year. My colleagues have been remarkable, constantly thinking and rethinking how we can set the site up to balance the two competing priorities: to teach our young people well, whilst minimising the risk of contracting the virus.

We will, of course, have made mistakes in our exhaustive preparations. Some of the measures we have implemented are destined to require a tweak or two. But I know we will be respectful, honest and kind to each other as we work through this coming week. We are at that point when we just want to get on with it. And I trust our young people to return to school impeccably. We have all been away far too long.

Driving here the scenic route from York, across the North Yorkshire Moors, it was not hard to grasp why the new series of All Creatures Great and Small on Channel 5 has been such a hit. As the Telegraph review says, the programme “has returned to soothe us in these chaotic times”. Post-pandemic, people have a yearning for the countryside. The most important feature of a new house? Where before it was central heating, now it is a garden.

On the way home from the caravan on Sunday, I will stop for an hour and fish my beloved Yorkshire Esk. This desire for a simpler life, closer to the natural world, is something I reflect upon in a tale from my new book, An Angler’s Journal (if you have an angler in your life and you are looking for a Christmas stocking filler, you can pre-order a copy here!).

In “Addicted” I capture the moment when I became hooked on game fishing and explore why capitalism as an economic system is faltering.

Addicted

I have valued experiences over possessions for a long time now. People come to realise that material things really do not matter at different times in their lives. I reached that moment when I was relatively young. I suppose growing up in a family where it was all we could do to make ends meet explains why I have never really worried about accumulating stuff.

Shopping is not a hobby. Something inside me shrivels up and dies if I have to visit the local designer outlet. So, when it comes to my birthday, my family face the enduring question: What do you buy the person who has everything? Or, more precisely, what do you buy the person who doesn’t want any thing.

I all but gave up fishing for a couple of years in my mid-teens when I attempted to become a golf professional, but took it up again in my 20s, focusing upon coarse fishing whilst enjoying the odd foray on the sea. Then, in my early 30s, my wife bought me a full day fly-fishing lesson with Bill, an assistant at the Arnfield fishery, near Glossop in Derbyshire. Because I had fished before and had a decent grasp of what to do, I picked it up quite quickly. That said, I spent the first hour fruitlessly thrashing the rod back and forth; the more effort I made the more often the fly line curled down feebly, just beyond the boat’s prow. Bill was a patient expert. He talked about rhythm and timing. He demonstrated how to cast effortlessly.

I do love being a learner, especially when the teacher is as good as Bill; always listen and don’t be shy to ask for advice. He knew we would catch on a black gnat pattern fished on the surface. I was briefed on the merit of Gink to keep the dry fly afloat.

In time, I managed to cast a decent enough distance. The black gnat was visible amidst the cut on the water. I thought it was like watching a float, or a piece of bread crust. Without warning, a swirl. The line ran out and I struck like I was trying to drive the hook home into the bony mouth of a double figure pike. Nothing. Bill mentored me gently: “No need to strike, just lift up and away from the fish. Do that and the hook will be set.” So that is what I did. Three hefty rainbow trout later, I was addicted to game fishing.

A day’s fishing is the best of birthday treats. The Covid-19 pandemic has helped people realise that a world built on capitalism – which depends upon people purchasing stuff they do not need – is not a sustainable model. Many people now know that they can survive quite nicely without visiting the shops. And a silver lining to the pandemic cloud has been a huge spike in fishing licence purchases.

Long may it continue.

Illustrations © Marvin Huggins
https://www.instagram.com/marvs.artwork/

 

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This much I know about…why teachers need to have interests away from work

I have been a teacher for 32 years, a head teacher for 17 years and, at the age of 56, this much I know about why teachers need to have interests away from work.

I have just had my pacemaker replaced. It was a brutal affair; I know that because I was wide awake throughout. Ripping the old one out, after 12 years of fibrous growth had embedded it in my chest, took some doing. There is nothing quite like listening from behind your Covid-19 protective sheet to the surgeon muttering “bugger” and “crikey” to make you feel the full force of your mortality. At one point my legs began to shake involuntarily when he told me he was trying to avoid puncturing my lung. I was in the best place if he did, I was reassuringly informed.

The experience made me glad that I don’t spend all my time worrying about work any longer. That said, since 20 March I don’t think I have worked quite so hard or worried quite so much about school. I have merely chosen to not be overwhelmed by the responsibility of leading Huntington, and my operation has only reinforced the wisdom of that choice.

For the past two years I have managed to find the occasional corner of the weekend to write 500 words of my next book…on fishing! It is called The Anglers’ Diary 2021, to be published in time for anglers’ Christmas stockings! I finished the first draft this very morning. It constitutes 53 short tales from my lifetime of fishing escapades, one for each week of the calendar year; I even have an illustrator, Marvin Huggins, to ensure it’s dual coded!

To give you a taste of the book, here’s a tale where fishing and teaching collided spectacularly…

HOOKED UP!

School assemblies can be tedious affairs. All too often teachers stand in front of students and pontificate sanctimoniously about some moral example they have set in their own lives and how students should emulate them in theirs. Quite often, teachers tell students about something that interests the teachers but which students find fascination-free. I am a particularly good exponent of the latter.

Why I thought our students would be remotely bothered about the art of fly casting, I do not know. But it did not deter me from booking a whole week of September assemblies to give a full fly casting live demo. Yes, you read it right. I had decided that students would watch attentively whilst I demonstrated to them how to cast a fly. In the school hall. Three hundred students, and their tutors.

On the Monday morning I was in early to practise. I put a stool on the stage and on the stool I placed an empty plastic water bottle. There was less space than I had anticipated. A cavernous hall felt more like my front room. It was all a bit tricky. But with some improvisation I was soon knocking the bottle off the stool with a well-aimed cast.

An hour later the hall felt even smaller, rammed full of students. I began with the history of the most famous rod makers, Hardy’s of Alnwick – of some interest to an audience of male pensioners from the north east, perhaps, but maybe not to your average 13 year old.

When it came to the demo, I had to get the first five rows to duck down. It was quite ridiculous. I could see my colleagues looking perplexed. What IS the head up to? The students were bemused. At least they were paying attention. They had clearly never seen anything like this masquerading as an assembly before.

The bright yellow fly line fizzed through the air. My first attempt thumped against the stage wall. The second went wide. The third wobbled the plastic bottle. There were oohs and aahs from my audience. I was enjoying my self-indulgence, confident that the bottle would soon be flying off its perch.

I raised the rod again and the line arced above the students’ heads. I launched my arm out towards the stage and the rod jolted out of my hand. It took me several seconds to compute what had happened. The rod was hanging above the parquet floor, dangling next to me. The students were giggling. My colleagues looked away.

The hall lighting is suspended from the ceiling on a frame of scaffolding poles. The fly line had wrapped itself around one of the poles so securely, it took two caretakers and a ladder to retrieve it at break time.

For the rest of the week’s assemblies I explained how to learn from your mistakes.

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This much I know about…planning for “catch up” when our students return in September

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 planning for “catch up” when our students return in September.

There is so much catastrophising about our students’ return to school in September, I worry that the prophets of doom are fast becoming the biggest threat to our students’ wellbeing. If we tell students they have been irrevocably damaged by their lockdown absence, they will  feel, most probably, irrevocably damaged; conversely, tell them that it is great to have them back and we can make up any lost ground, I bet they will crack on largely unaffected.

And, I have to say, having spoken to our Year 10 and Year 12 students these past couple of weeks, all they want to do is get on with their studies, in school.

In my humble opinion, we should stop prophesising about “a lost generation”, as though students have been completing no school work during lockdown. Instead, the vast majority of our country’s students have been learning whilst they have not been in school. Moreover, it is worth remembering that when they do return in September, students will not have been in school for 3.5% of the total number of school days between Year 1 and Year 11.

Rant over. Our plan for our returning students is very simple. We focus first upon Attendance, because if the students are not in school, they cannot benefit from live teaching. Then we ensure all elements of the Curriculum (content-pedagogy-assessment) have been reviewed ready for classroom conditions in September; and finally, we find pockets of Time for specific cohorts of students to cover essential content they have missed. Attendance-Curriculum-Time.

Here are the bare bones of our ACT plan. It is very simple. It is the product of essentialist thinking. Let us implement one or two things really well for the return of our students in September, rather than overwhelm them with an extraordinary range of half-baked interventions. Life for them recently has been extraordinary enough…

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This much I know about…providing direction for my Subject Leader colleagues for September

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 providing direction for my Subject Leader colleagues for September.

This is the letter I wrote to my Subject Leaders this week…

 

Dear Subject Leaders

What might our curriculum look like when we reopen school in September? Well, like most things lately, no-one knows. It. All. Depends.

The first thing we need to know is what will be the social distancing rules when the new academic year begins. And that depends upon how Covid-19 develops over the summer.

During SLT meetings we have been working on four scenarios for September. Each scenario is quite possible, and each needs a different plan. Importantly, when we talk about the curriculum, each one requires a different approach to planning what we are going to teach, how we are going to teach it and how we are going to assess what the students have learnt of what we have taught them. The table below illustrates, in very general terms, how each scenario affects our curriculum planning:

The scenario in September determines almost everything about curriculum content, pedagogy and assessment. Until we make some decisions about the practical arrangements for September, we cannot reshape our curriculum, pedagogy and assessments. And the practical arrangements will be determined by the Covid-19 scenario that confronts us on 7 September.

But we do not know what which scenario will face us in September. No-one in government has made a decision about next year’s A levels and GCSEs. And whether all students will be returning to school in September is uncertain; for instance, the Oak National Academy seems to be planning lessons online for the whole of next year.

The thing is, we may not have the time to plan for the scenario that eventually confronts us, because most teachers will be enjoying a well-earned rest. Our teachers and support staff, many of whom have been managing their working lives simultaneously with running a young family, need a break.

So, what do we do?

I want to give Subject Leaders as much certainty as I can. Before we break for the summer holidays, over the next five weeks I want you and your team to plan for three scenarios for the first half of the autumn term, assuming that, if it is still in force, social distancing has been reduced to one-metre (scenario 2):

  1. School closed (curriculum delivery completely online);
  2. School open to 50% of the students per week, with the other 50% of students working at home, alternating weekly (delivering the normal timetable to half your students one week, half your students the next week, and when they are not in school, students working independently on work set online which has been prepared before we break up);
  3. School open to all students (pretty much life as normal).

This plan minimises disruption to school structures, keeps things understandable to students, staff and parents, and gives you as much time as I can to complete the work before we break up for summer.

Here are some tips to help you plan:

  • Unpick your current schemes of learning – which threshold concepts will allow you to develop lessons for the different scenarios?
  • Use your Subject Associations.  Many organisations and associations are producing free materials. You don’t need to reinvent the wheel.
  • Think carefully about the assessment method you will use for each lesson/piece of work – we may not be able to collect work in.
  • Consider the resources required: the use of textbooks might not be possible, so consider the production of booklets etc.
  • Use subject training sessions over the next few weeks to draft a plan for each year group and delegate the workload throughout the department.
  • Join subject Facebook groups: teachers from around the country are posting resources and videos to aid lesson planning.

The Food and Science departments have experimented with drafting a three-scenario scheme of learning. They are very much early drafts, but may be useful to get you thinking (see Appendix 1).

I hope this has helped give you some clear direction. If we can complete this planning for the first half of the autumn term before we end this academic year, we can all relax a little over the summer, knowing that when we return in September, we will be ready for whatever faces us.

Thanks so much for all you are doing. I appreciate it beyond measure.

Kindest regards

John

 

Appendix 1

 

And here is our wider thinking about the challenges we will face in September, covering all four scenarios:

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This much I know about…how NOW is the time to pursue the National College of Education leadership qualifications

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 NOW is the time to pursue the National College of Education leadership qualifications.

In December 1980 I was chucked out of school, a term into my A levels, and pursued my sporting dreams as a golfer. By September 1982 I was a jobless failure. The unemployment rate in the UK was 11% and rising, a level unseen since the Great Depression of the 1930s. The bleak economic numbers seemed depressingly permanent.

On Saturday 28 August 1982 at around 10 p.m., Cliff, the barman at the local pub, offered me a job behind the bar; on the following Wednesday I went back to school and I began my A levels again as my year group was leaving.

Learning is the best medicine. I turned to educating myself at a time when the future looked hopeless. Professionally, I have always pursued improving my own and my colleagues’ expertise with an eye to the future rather than the present. When we have struggled over the past ten years with our school budget, I have ring-fenced funding for staff training when cutting the staff training budget would have been a relatively painless short term saving.

Ironically, one of those pressures on our budget in recent years has been the Apprenticeship Levy. Whilst we have employed apprentices, it has been difficult to take advantage of the tens of thousands a year we pay HMRC. Recently, however, I have been teaching on the Senior Leaders Masters (Northern cohort) for the National College of Education.  They have a range of leadership programmes that can be fully funded from the Apprenticeship Levy:

Future Leaders Programme (Level 3)  – A twelve month programme for line managers working in schools in teaching and non-teaching roles who are at the start of their leadership journey;

Education Management Programme (Level 5) – An eighteen month programme for current or aspiring middle leaders;

Senior Leadership Masters (Level 7) – A two year programme for senior leaders on the leadership pay scale.

I have been working on the Senior Leadership Masters programme with Stephen Tierney, @leadinglearner, and it has been an absolute joy. Stephen and I bring our 60+ years of experience of working and leading in schools to the excellent programme materials, setting them in the context of day-to-day of school leadership.

Indeed, beyond our contribution, the Masters programme draws from a range of sources, a blend of generic, business and educational leadership expertise which we will need to navigate these extraordinary times.

I cannot recommend the National College programmes enough.

In the next few months, I will be bringing the leadership thinking I outline in my latest book, co-authored with MAT CEO Jonny Uttley, Putting Staff First, to the sessions I teach. Putting Staff First is a book which Professor Sam Twiselton describes as “a thing of beauty”. According to Professor Dylan Wiliam, Putting Staff First is “one of the very few books that I would recommend that every single school leader should read.”

So, as we ponder the reopening of schools and worry about the next few weeks and months, remind yourselves that this too shall pass. There will be years of rebuilding our schools, our economy and our society, and our future school leaders will be central to getting our country going again.

As I discovered nearly forty years ago, the time to invest in your future is when the world looks its bleakest.

If you are interested in one of the National College of Education qualifications, register your interest here.

Now is the time to invest in our future school leaders.

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This much I know about…Elizabeth Ann Tomsett, 1936-2020

Elizabeth Ann Tomsett, 2 May 1936-18 April 2020
“God give me strength to bear that which I cannot change”

Our mother, Elizabeth Ann Tomsett, was born on 2 May 1936. Her father served in the Royal Navy between the wars and was steward to Admiral Sir Arthur Power. When he left he was appointed the Admiral’s butler and lived on his estate at Littlemead Cottage, Hayling Island where mother was born.

When World War II broke out the family moved to East Grinstead and lived in a tied cottage in the grounds of Abbey School in Ashurst Wood where Prime Minister Gladstone’s nephew, Robin Gladstone, was the headmaster. Granddad was a gardener on the estate. Our grandmother did housework at Mr Gladstone’s nearby house, Heatherlands, and cooked lunch for him and six boys five days a week.

Whilst her parents were fully paid-up members of the servant classes, mother had wanted more from life. She was sharp. She read voraciously. She attended Ashurst Wood School and, in 1947, she won a scholarship to the East Grinstead Grammar School. Education offered her the chance of social mobility, to be the first one in her family to attend university. She had the opportunity to grow beyond her relatively humble origins and embark upon a professional career.

Mother’s maiden name was Browning. Her first name was Elizabeth. Whilst no poet, she could certainly write, that’s for sure. Despite her promising name mother wasn’t educated, having had to leave school when she was just 13 years old. She was diagnosed as having manic depression, now known as bi-polar.

One of those jobs she took whilst she was recovering from her first bout of depression was at a nearby dahlia nursery. She twice helped to show flowers at the Royal Horticultural Hall in London. She left there to lodge and work at a fruit farm in High Hurstwood, in deepest East Sussex, where she learned how to prune fruit trees and to pick apples to pack for market.

The winter of 1954 was a cold one. It snowed hard. The girl who worked at the village grocery shop, which doubled up as a Post Office, couldn’t make it into work. Mother took her place, temporarily at first and then permanently. The Uckfield postmen called at the grocer’s every morning to collect the mail. Mother had been tipped off by a friend that one of the Postman was quite dishy. She sat in wait for him on the wooden gate to the house. When he arrived, he offered her one of his Player’s Navy Cut. She was impressed.

She married our dad on 27 October 1956. He proved to be the love of her life. She talked to me about those years and what a difference marrying him had made to her world:

I spent those years when I should have been at school at home, more or less. I don’t remember much about those years. I don’t think my mother understood. Dad was more amenable because he was more intelligent. Then when I met Harry it was alright. That was my salvation. Because he cared, love his heart.

With a husband postman and five kids to feed, mother had to work. She was a grafter. She would clean houses for some of the wealthiest villagers. She had a spell in the 1960s and early 1970s working at the Buxted Chicken Factory. One of the vilest tasks she was given was to cut the legs off the chickens with huge shears as they came round suspended from an overhead conveyor belt. The resulting blood blisters on her hands were the size of two pence pieces.

In order to eke out the family’s meagre finances, mother developed a weekly schedule of meals. The day of the week dictated what we would find on our teatime plate: Monday, lentil soup with dumplings; Tuesday, toad in the hole; Wednesday, baked beans on toast; Thursday, sausages and chips; Friday, mince; Saturday, fish fingers and mash; Sunday, roast dinner.

Mother’s house husbandry was expert. Seven people fed well for next to nothing. We all remember when Dad’s infamous compliment to her about the merits of her plain cooking caused a certain tea-time turbulence.

For mother, one extra loaf a week would put her in financial difficulty until dad was paid on Friday. There were few luxuries. Mother would shop cheaply, knit us jumpers, clothe us through jumble sales and buy things on the never-never in catalogues.

My siblings, Bev, Dave, Heather, Ian, and I never felt deprived; we didn’t really know how relatively poor we were but mother did. I can see her standing at the kitchen sink with her hands in the basin staring out of the window and repeating aloud her favourite mantra, God give me strength to bear that which I cannot change. I think we all realise, now, how much mother and dad sacrificed for us.

We would holiday with friends or relatives in exotic places like Hayling Island or Galashiels or Wakefield. Some years we wouldn’t holiday but have days out around Sussex instead: the beach at Norman’s Bay or a day in Battle. We could have invented the concept of a staycation.

For our more extravagant holidays, dad would borrow a car from John Billings who owned the village garage. Dad had taught John how to play golf and we usually hired the car for free.

Dad’s golf was not costly. It was working class, or Artisan golf, where we could only play on the course at nearby Piltdown at limited times during the week. And at weekends, dad would work Saturday mornings and dedicate the rest of his time off work to golf.

That left mother alone a lot of the time. She ran the whole show, to be honest – working, washing, ironing, cleaning and feeding five kids. She was frugality personified. She read a great deal and could write with an Orwellian clarity. Here is a piece she wrote about being a contented golf widow, for the Artisan Golfer magazine:

We’ve been married twenty-one years tomorrow; I’ve spent most Saturdays and Sundays (especially in the summer) of those years at home with our children. Sometimes the air has been blue when I’ve cursed that golf club! But let me finally say this to any other golf widow who may be reading: let them go to golf. Don’t stop them playing. If you marry a happy golfer, and then say he can’t play, he won’t be that same happy fellow you fell in love with.

Mother was never going to be a feminist. Whilst Germaine Greer was publishing the Female Eunuch in 1970, mother was getting stuck into The Reader’s Digest. She read endlessly and would buy me books from the Ladybird series to encourage my reading.

My first ever homework was set by Maureen Boss. She taught me History and on the first day of secondary school we were set the question, Why did Julius Caesar invade Britain in 55 BC? Mother and I worked our way through the text book, explained how Caesar was merely preparing for future colonisation of our island and described how the Senate was so impressed it announced a twenty day celebration of the invasion. Mrs Boss duly awarded us 9/10 and a V. good comment. Mother enjoyed the feedback as much as I did.

As kids, winter Saturday evenings were the source of our greatest happiness. After an afternoon of breathless footie up the rec and tea and crumpets watching Frank Bough present Final Score, we would be scrubbed clean before settling down in the sitting room for an evening in front of the telly: Dr Who; Bruce Forsyth and the Generation Game; Dixon of Doc Green; The Two Ronnies; Starsky and Hutch; Match of the Day. That BBC1 Saturday evening schedule in the 1970s was family-viewing gold.

The spectacles I wear to view those evenings of vintage TV derive their rose colour not from the brilliance of Barker and Corbett, but from the comfort gained from having the whole family safe and together for a few precious hours. Seven of us crammed into the front room, craning for a good view of the screen, talking and laughing at the telly, generated genuine happiness. My brother Dave would be sent off to the garage to buy us all a chocolate bar, the weekly treat, to be eaten with the mid-evening hot drink. Mother would always have a green thing, aka a Fry’s Peppermint Cream.

In the early 1970s mother began cleaning for Mrs Mann whose house stood directly opposite the Piltdown golf course clubhouse. It had a huge garden and it wasn’t long before she was employing dad as a gardener. It worked really well. Mother would clean every Friday and dad would garden after lunch on Tuesdays and Thursdays.

There came a point when Mrs Mann decided to move into the closest town, Uckfield. A small two-bedroomed cottage was attached to the converted barn she had bought and she offered the cottage to my dad. So, in 1977 we left our council house and squeezed into Cherry Barn Cottage.

Some of the financial pressures they had felt for decades suddenly lifted. They were modest, happy times. By 1983 Mrs Mann had made it clear to mother and dad that she intended to leave all her worldly possessions to them. Suddenly, dad could see the end of getting up at 4.15 a.m. every day except Sundays to do his post round. And mother wouldn’t have to clean for anyone else ever again.

Mother and dad had two years imagining such promised joy. He died on 6 February 1985, six months before Mrs Mann passed away. Mother was left with grief and pain, and money she had no idea what to do with. She once said to me that she’d have been happy living in a hole in the ground with dad, rather than existing in the converted barn without him.

In the 35 years since dad died, mother had a few relationships, but nothing lasting. She lived alone, latterly in a flat; I would ring mother and ask what she was up to and she would reply, Oh, not a lot, dear. Her days drifted by in an indeterminate haze of reading, television, crosswords and the regular cigarette. Beyond Ian and his dog Sid, she had few visitors; nearly all mother’s contemporaries had passed away. She was way beyond understanding the internet and how that might entertain her for days on end. She could not be doing with another pet dog. Consequently, there was a huge gaping void facing her every time the sun rose and a day began.

We started to notice how she would ask us to repeat names of people, three or four times in a single visit. She became increasingly unsteady on her feet and two falls in a matter of days in the local supermarket led her to be hospitalised. She spent her last four or so years in a care home, as Alzheimer’s tightened its grip upon her. Trying, and failing, to reteach her the rules of snooker so she could watch her beloved Ronnie O’Sullivan, was painful.

Despite the dementia, mother had more than a little of the Livia Soprano in her; she remained a combative soul, pretty much right up to the very end.

She was resident in the Copper Beech House Care Home in Uckfield when she died. Whilst it is hard to know what exactly caused her passing, her advanced Alzheimer’s certainly helped her choose to give up on living.

The care Gillian and her colleagues at Copper Beech gave her was exemplary. They are complete heroes. They grew to love mother’s spirit, which became increasingly funny, rude and raucous as her filters fell away.

The final testimonial comes from Kay, one of mother’s carers, which she sent to my sister Heather just an hour after she had passed away:

I spent time with her last night and this morning. I am glad we handed over to Michelle and her team this morning as I knew they would be by her side. It’s honestly heart-breaking at the mo. I’m so glad I had the opportunity to meet your mum. Utmost respect, she was her own woman…. You couldn’t but love her!! XX

Donations to the Alzheimer’s Society can be made here: https://www.alzheimers.org.uk/get-involved/make-donation

 

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Why the COVID-19 crisis requires the recall of Parliament

Important caveat: without wanting to sound remotely self-important, I need to point out that I write this simply as John Tomsett, British citizen.

The only way death is not meaningless is to see yourself as part of something greater: a family, a community, a society. If you don’t, mortality is only a horror.
Atul Gawande

Today at least forty people an hour will die with COVID-19 in England. Each one will die alone. The same number died yesterday in similarly dreadful circumstances. And the day before that, and the day before that.

Any of us who have lived any length of time will know what it is to lose someone we love. My dad died when I was twenty. My sister died three years ago. I have lost friends and colleagues over the years.

If you have lived, you have lost.

The process of moving from bereavement to acceptance is an uneven one, but in most circumstances it begins by saying a final goodbye, either at the bedside or at the funeral.

But those who die in hospital today will die alone. And they will be buried or cremated whilst their relatives watch on a Zoom call.

It is hard to imagine the agony of all those involved.

And then there’s that hand-holding nurse.

That nurse will call the mothers, fathers, brothers, sisters, sons and daughters to break the deadly news. Over and over again, today, tomorrow, and the next day. Deep into next week she will still be making calls to distraught relatives.

That nurse will work a 14 hour day, go home, sleep and return the next to go through the same terrible process of managing people’s last moments on this earth.

That nurse is unlikely to have sufficient personal protective equipment for tending patients in the COVID-19 ward. She will live every minute of her working day wondering whether she will contract the virus, and, like 19 of her fellow NHS workers, suffer the kind of death she witnesses daily.

Here we are, then, with the country’s death figures yet to abate, and little clear sense of what is actually being decided on our behalf by our country’s leaders to counter the pandemic.

At the afternoon Downing Street briefings, I am not even sure the daily death count is announced. You have to calculate how much the total has increased from the day before.

The fact is, our daily death count has eclipsed all others in Europe. Indeed, as I write, on the Andrew Marr Show the Wellcome Trust director Sir Jeremy Farrar, talking about COVID-19 related fatalities, says that it’s “likely” Britain will be “one of the worst, if not the worst, country affected in Europe”.

Yet a couple of weeks ago we raised our eyebrows at Spain, as footage showed A&E facilities with patients sprawled across the floor in the corridors. The people of Lombardy were held up as the victims of Italian ineptness. We saw convoys of Italian army vehicles ferrying the dead to mortuaries under cover of darkness.

The thing is, for me, life goes on over this Easter weekend. So far as Saturdays go, I had a lovely day. I sorted out some old photos, went for a walk by the river, fell asleep on our bench in the sunshine, had a drink with mates – via laptop – and finished the day watching the final two episodes of the first series of The Sopranos. I spent my day in a virus-free bubble.

Meanwhile, 40 people died every hour.

I am truly glad that Boris Johnson has taken COVID-19 on the chin and is up in bed reading Tintin cartoons. But I would rather find out, for instance, why flights from New York – aka Covid-19 central – continue to touch down in Heathrow hourly and their passengers are allowed through immigration and out, unchecked, into the UK quicker than you can say the word “quarantine”.

This is a national emergency. People are dying in their thousands. Who is asking the hard questions? What “science” are we following? Whose “science” are we following?

The media has found it near impossible to hold our politicians to account for their decision-making. Too few are reporting the awfulness of what is happening, in our country, today, right now, this minute.

This is absolutely the wrong time for party political points scoring, but it is the right time, surely, to recall Parliament. The relatives of today’s dead, at least, have a right to know what’s really going on.

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This much I know about…the challenge of keeping our students socially distant in school

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 the challenge of keeping our students socially distant in school.

I was born two months after Boris Johnson. I have a heart condition. This week I was due to have a replacement pacemaker fitted, the same week the Prime Minister was admitted to St Thomas’ Intensive Care Unit. My operation was postponed because of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Four years ago I contracted pneumonia. My GP told me that if, after taking a second lot of antibiotics, I did not feel better within 24 hours, I should go straight to A&E. You can die of this, he said.

I know what it is to feel overwhelmingly weary, to be unable to catch my breath, to feel afraid. Contracting pneumonia was, quite frankly, terrifying.

And all this went through my mind last night as I geared myself up to open school today with the help of five colleagues. On the way to work, there was chatter on Radio 4’s Today programme about reopening schools, from experts who have, perhaps, forgotten the experience of their own school days.

We had nine students to look after – the other 1,522 were at home.

I spent most of today yelling, “TWO METRES!” at our small group of wonderful youngsters. I have a responsibility to keep them and my colleagues safe from each other.

And I want to remain safe too. I really do not fancy contracting COVID-19. Consequently, I am relentless in my exhortations to maintain social distancing.

“TWOOOOO METRES!”

Keeping each other safe is an exhausting enterprise. For the past four weeks I have felt like something is sitting heavily on my chest. It is a level of permanent tension. It rises on a Tuesday night and peaks during my rota-day Wednesday. For the rest of the week it is a constant presence. I know I am not running a COVID-19 ward, but my fears are very real.

As I grumbled around our corridors and out on the school field, the words of the so-called experts came back to me. “Schools could open. Students should maintain social distancing procedures and remain in the same room all day, through breaks and lunchtimes.”

Our students are young teenagers. Remaining two metres apart from each other is an unnatural thing for them to do, as is sneezing into the crook of their elbow, or using a tissue, or washing their hands thoroughly, or keeping their fingers out of their mouths, noses and eyes.

It was a long day, but the young people were just great. They even let me win the penalty shoot-out. But it was all we could do to keep these nine socially distant, with a student-teacher ratio of 2:3. Imagine what it would be like with 1,531 students in school and a third of our staff self-isolating?

We reckon you could keep just 13 secondary-aged students socially distant in an average classroom. If we returned to school after Easter, to ensure over 1,700 people remained safely socially distant we would need twice the number of classrooms and twice as many teachers. We would require many more buses to get them there. And how we would feed everyone, when we would be stuck in the same room all day, I cannot quite imagine.

At 3.20 pm today, as we bid farewell to our students, I felt drained.

On the way home I popped into the local Tesco mini-mart. It was all but empty, until a nurse suddenly appeared at the other end of the aisle. I caught her eye and simply said, “Thank you”. She looked bemused at first, but then realised what I meant.

She was reciprocally thankful to all the other key workers: the super market shelf-fillers; the bus drivers; the refuse collectors; the police; the teachers. She was upbeat because the personal protective equipment had arrived today. She was a district nurse. She had been sneezed over for the past month, but the newly acquired surgical masks were a godsend.

Fortunately for me, we were interrupted by another shopper and our conversation was curtailed. I paid for my dishwasher tablets and held it together until I made it to my car. And it was then that I gave in and wept.

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This much I know about…moving from Research to Outcomes (Durrington researchED)

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…moving from Research to Outcomes (Durrington researchED).

Slides:

 

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