This much I know about…how, on Mother’s Day, our mother is still here, against the odds

I have been a teacher for 28 years, a Headteacher for 13 years and, at the age of 52, this much I know about how, on Mother’s Day, our mother is still here, against the odds.

On the weekend my brother and sister cleared our mother’s flat so it can be sold to pay for her care home fees, here is a short tribute to our mother’s indefatigability.


Engagement day, 24 July 1956

My mother’s maiden name was Browning. Her first name was Elizabeth. It might account for my love of words. She can 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 a manic depressive, now known as bi-polar. For all that we might consider children’s mental health problems a modern phenomenon, they are, in fact, nothing new.

In 1939 Electroconvulsive Treatment, or ECT, was introduced to this country. ECT was devised by a Roman professor of neuropsychiatry, Ugo Cerletti, after he had observed, during an abattoir tour, the passivity induced in pigs by pre-slaughter electric shocks. A decade later, Mother was one of the youngest British recipients of ECT.

Sylvia Plath’s description of ECT is probably the most vivid: ‘Doctor Gordon was fitting two metal plates on either side of my head. He buckled them into place with a strap that dented my forehead, and gave me a wire to bite’. She goes on to describe how, ‘with each flash a great jolt drubbed me till I thought my bones would break’.

Like all ECT patients mother remembers very little of the shocks, something considered a positive feature of the treatment. Of all the senses, however, smell is the greatest evoker of memory. Graham Greene said that smell has a ‘power infinitely more evocative than sounds and perhaps even than things seen’.

Mother can’t recall what the doctor said to her. She can’t even recall what the room looked like. The one thing she can recall is the odour of her singed hair when she awoke from the treatment.

Mother met my dad when he was delivering letters on his post round. She had been tipped off by a friend that 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.

The next line of this romantic tale should be, from that day forth they lived happily ever after, but, to be honest, over the subsequent thirty years the many joys were offset by more than just a few moments of despair.

Mother married my dad when she was just 20 years old. She tried to break off the engagement. She knew her manic bouts would test him. She knew her dark days would wipe away his smile. She knew she would bring him his unfair share of misery.

Before they wed, she wrote to dad to end their relationship but her father found the letter and destroyed it.

Mother could have finished with dad without having to serve her own decree nisi. Why didn’t she just tell him it was over? The answer to that question is lost forever in the thick mist of memory. She was young. She was cowed by her father. She probably snatched at the chance of happiness. After all, we all want what Raymond Carver wanted, don’t we? ‘To call myself beloved, to feel myself/beloved on the earth’.

So marry him she did. Miss Elizabeth Ann Browning became Mrs Ernest Harry Tomsett. And for purely selfish reasons, I’m glad my granddad found his daughter’s un-love letter.

Mother 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 head teacher. Granddad was a gardener on the estate. My grandma did housework at Mr Gladstone’s nearby house, Heatherlands, and cooked lunch for him and six boys five days a week.

So mother grew up in the grounds of a school. Whilst her parents were fully paid-up members of the servant classes, she 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.

Enter, at the age of thirteen, the black dog.[1]

Predictably, mother remembers little about her depression: ‘When you feel depressed it’s terrible. You can’t see any brightness in anything. It’s horrible. If you’re depressed, you’re so low. You can’t see anything worthwhile. You don’t like waking up, but you get out of bed and you dress and you what not, but…depression is a terrible thing. The worst time I had it was in my teens. I can’t really remember what happened. I didn’t do very much in those teenage years. I had two or three jobs. Then it gets hold of you again and you lose that job. You can feel it coming on and then, suddenly, you feel like life is not worth living any more. It’s not nice. You can’t get out of it. All you can do is just wait. You just wait until you feel on the up again. It’s all you can do’.

One of those jobs she took whilst she was recovering from the first bout of severe 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, one of whom was dishy. She married him on 27 October 1956.

‘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.’

Mother and dad, c. 1980
[1] Sir Winston Churchill nicknamed his own depression the black dog.


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This much I know about…how not to recruit, thanks to fellow Headteacher Stuart Simmonds

I have been a teacher for 28 years, a Headteacher for 13 years and, at the age of 52, this much I know about how not to recruit, thanks to fellow Headteacher Stuart Simmonds.

From the BBC series People Like Us, which just keeps on giving…



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This much I know about…the importance of having a vision for your school, high expectations, an anonymous note and feeling discontented

I have been a teacher for 28 years, a Headteacher for 13 years and, at the age of 52, this much I know about the importance of having a vision for your school, high expectations, an anonymous note and feeling discontented.

A decade’s work bears fruit. Unless you are creating a school from scratch, when you become a head teacher you inherit a school and its culture. When I began at Huntington in September 2007 we created Vision 2018, a description of the school we wanted Huntington School to develop into during the intervening decade. That decade is nearly up and a week last Friday evening I was in the café at the University of York Sports Village waiting for my son to finish playing football, generally minding my own business. A woman came up, apologised for interrupting me, put a piece of paper in my hand and left. What she had written made my evening, my weekend, my year:


What I particularly like is how she identifies that the “tone” of the school is great. Getting the balance right between a relentless focus on students’ outcomes whilst maintaining a culture based on love takes some doing. As I am fond of saying, it’s about creating the culture for truly great teaching.

I think the world is for the discontented and I am perpetually discontented. What follows takes nothing away from the priceless hand-written note above; however, this is based on a conversation that actually happened:

Subject Leader: How hard is John Smith working?
Teacher: Oh, not bad for a set 4.

What does that reveal about expectations? I have never met a school leader who has not claimed to have the highest expectations of students. But do we really? What does it mean to have the highest expectations? With Vision 2018 soon to be out of date, we have been shaping our new vision which will take us to 2022. It is anchored in the notion of high expectations:


In 2022 Huntington will be a school where we have the highest expectations of students and ourselves, where every student, no matter his or her starting point, is expected to work as hard as he or she can, and behave as well as he or she can, without qualification.

In 2022 Huntington will be a school where we have truly great, evidence-based teaching & learning, where we have collaborated as a whole staff on finding out what works and we evaluate our practice regularly against what we know works in our context.

In 2022 Huntington will be a school where we have the very best training programme for our staff, where every single colleague has a high quality development programme mapped out for them the moment they begin working at our school.

In 2022 Huntington will be a school we have the unqualified support of our parents, where parents have the highest aspirations for their children, where they work with us, not against us, in educating their children.

In 2022 Huntington will be a school where we have a challenging, inclusive curriculum, one which is built upon the foundations of reading, writing and arithmetic, and is shaped according to what our students need to know, understand and do in order to thrive for the rest of their lives.

In 2022 Huntington will be a school where we have students making exceptional progress in their studies way beyond what even they themselves think they are capable of making, where we can be as sure as we ever can be that every student sets off into the world with a set of examination results of which they can be proud.

In 2022 Huntington will be a school where we have a highly functioning Pastoral system, one where our pastoral and academic systems operate seamlessly together as one to ensure that every child at Huntington has a champion.

In 2022 Huntington will be a school where we cherish wellbeing, where every single one of us is wholly committed to our work, but has time to enjoy life beyond Huntington School, with family and friends, so that the school/home balance is in true harmony and we embody a celebratory, sustainable approach to life.

In 2022 Huntington will be a school where we have a core set of values that we live by, where our core values – Respect, Honesty and Kindness – direct our every interaction to the point where they are woven through us like the words in a stick of rock.

In 2022 Huntington will be a school where we have the highest reputation, one we genuinely deserve, where our excellence is manifest, where our Research School is leading national developments in teaching & learning, and the best teachers and support staff want to come and work here – and students from all around want to come and learn here – because they know they will thrive.

We have some work to do over the next five years if we are to realise our new vision whilst ensuring the “tone” of Huntington remains great.

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This much I know about…how best to support our most disadvantaged students

I have been a teacher for 28 years, a Headteacher for 13 years and, at the age of 52, this much I know about how best to support our most disadvantaged students.

Sobering moments can hit you unexpectedly. I was privileged to speak to a conference hall full of Glaswegian teachers recently at Celtic’s football ground, Celtic Park. Apparently their fans call the hugely impressive stadium, ‘Paradise’. I was told that the average life expectancy for men living in the surrounding Parkhead area is 54 years. As Sir Kevan Collins – my co-presenter – and I reflected, if we lived within sight of Celtic Park, I’d have eighteen months to live and Sir Kevan would have already popped his clogs.


Poor teaching perpetuates disadvantage. Here’s why we have to keep improving our performance in the classroom. The Sutton Trust Report, Improving the impact of teachers on student achievement, included this important finding:

The effects of high-quality teaching are especially significant for pupils from disadvantaged backgrounds: over a school year, these pupils gain 1.5 years’ worth of learning with very effective teachers, compared with 0.5 years with poorly performing teachers. In other words, for poor pupils the difference between a good teacher and a bad teacher is a whole year’s learning.

It’s so obvious, isn’t it? My son came home the other day and asked me to print off a Biology GCSE Unit 2 exam paper so he could practise questions after he had revised. I had superfast broadband, a laptop and printer, I knew where to find the papers, I had a password to access the latest version. When I had printed off the paper, I even had a stapler… I went on to drop all the papers in an electronic folder for him and he proceeded to revise, asking me for help when he needed it. Any insufficiency in his provision at school is compensated for by the support he accesses at home. Not so for the boy from the estate whose parents don’t have such rich resources and insider knowledge.


A modest proposal. If our most disadvantaged students are going to thrive, as school leaders we have to stop guessing about what works and lead learning from an evidence-base. Our teachers have to be the best teachers in the world. Period. It was particularly apposite to speak at Celtic Park to Scottish colleagues who work in some of the most deprived schools in Great Britain, with Sir Kevan Collins. The CEO of the Education Endowment Foundation was on sparkling form as he extolled the virtues of the Sutton Trust/EEF Teaching & Learning Toolkit which has been recently up-dated.


Sir Kevan Collins on tour! If you want to hear Kevan speak, then come along to the Research School Regional Conference 2017 on 24 May where he and I are teaming up again! You also get to hear Alex Quigley… You can book here.


Forget school structures…we have to improve the quality of teaching in our schools: it is the only thing that matters.

Posted in Research, School Leadership | 5 Comments

This much I know about…modelling deliberate writing to a hall full of more than one hundred Year 13 students

I have been a teacher for 28 years, a Headteacher for 13 years and, at the age of 52, this much I know about modelling deliberate writing to a hall full of more than one hundred Year 13 students.

I write several times a week. It has fast become my favourite past-time. Writing with deliberate control is a hard-earned skill, which I am still learning. What fascinates me about the writing process is how much time is spent re-reading what you have written. To know what to write in your next sentence, you nearly always have to re-read your last. Re-reading whilst writing is fine when time is not a constraint, but when you have to write at speed in an examination, you have to re-read and write almost simultaneously. It is a skill students find particularly challenging to master.

Writing well in examinations requires a methodical approach which will withstand the pressure of the situation. I am teaching A Level General Studies this year. In the Culture paper students face a 13 mark question (Question 4) which requires them to discuss an issue and come to some kind of judgement about it. They only have 25 minutes to write the essay.  What is particularly important is the Assessment Objective for the quality of their written communication which attracts four marks out of the 13 available. Under examination conditions they need a methodical approach which will earn them full marks. Their mock examination contained the following Question 4:


Out of my comfort zone. As a follow up to their mock, I modelled to the whole of Year 13 how to write, with deliberate control, a perfect answer to the same Question 4 . I have to admit, I was a tad nervous. I began with a short presentation which has Orwell’s essay Politics and the English Language at its root and then talked through and wrote a full marks answer (with, admittedly, a couple of odd mistakes – near the end I say the word “without” but write the word “with” which makes the sentence mean the very opposite of what I intended. Thankfully I found the mistake as we read through, en masse, what I had written…). It proved to be another one of my lessons, albeit to a hall of over 100 Year 13s, where I fed back on their mock examination and modelled the metacognitive processes inherent in deliberately controlled writing. Below are the presentation slides and the full 35 minute video of the session. In order to make the whole event effective, you need a good lapel microphone and a high quality visualiser – when it comes to the latter I recommend the Ipevo Ziggy-HD Plus.


We need to model explicitly the mental processes involved in learning which we, as teachers, can often take for granted. Today, back in the classroom, the students wrote the answer to a completely new Question 4 to embed what they learnt from this lesson. The root of all this work is in the Education Endowment Foundation/Sutton Trust Teaching and Learning Toolkit. As a (head)teacher, I swear by it…



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This much I know about…whether mindfulness training has the potential to shift the adolescent population away from psychopathology and towards improved mental health and well-being?

I have been a teacher for 28 years, a Headteacher for 13 years and, at the age of 52, this much I know about whether mindfulness training has the potential to shift the adolescent population away from psychopathology and towards improved mental health and well-being?

In case you haven’t noticed, I am interested in improving mental health in our schools…


On 24 April, the Pathfinder TSA based at Archbishop Holgate’s School, York is hosting the totally free “Let’s Talk About Mental Health” conference; to register please click on the logo below:


At the conference I am running a workshop with Liz Lord, the School Liaison Officer for the MYRIAD research project based at the University of Oxford. What follows explains MYRIAD and invites schools to help answer the question: Does mindfulness training have the potential to shift the adolescent population away from psychopathology and towards improved mental health and well-being?

If you would like to join the MYRIAD research project please email:



MYRIAD research project – University of Oxford

Opportunity for UK secondary schools

Here at the University of Oxford we are looking for Headteachers, senior leaders and teachers to take part in a national research project funded by The Wellcome Trust, looking at the effectiveness of introducing mindfulness in schools.

Adolescence is a time of significant change and development, and around half of all people who will go on to suffer from mental ill health will first be unwell during these years. Learning skills that promote flourishing, build mental strength and wellbeing in adolescence could help people be healthier in the long term. The research question The MYRIAD project will address is ‘Does mindfulness training have the potential to shift the adolescent population away from psychopathology and towards improved mental health and well-being?’

We are looking for schools to work jointly with us to ensure the highest quality research will take place, helping us understand more fully young peoples’ emotional wellbeing and resilience and whether a mindfulness approach can help with this and promote flourishing for all pupils. We will compare good quality social and emotional learning already being taught in schools, to a class based mindfulness programme. Half of involved schools will continue teaching as usual and the other half of schools will be trained to deliver a mindfulness programme to pupils. All related training costs and supply cover will be provided by the project. We fully appreciate that each and every school will have different approaches to support resilience and mindfulness is one approach that is showing potential. We need good quality research to investigate this in detail. The project, called MYRIAD, is currently recruiting schools for a large scale randomised-control trial which is hoping to gather data from 25,000 pupils in 76 schools across the UK. We are looking for schools who would be committed to excellent research and have no prior experience in providing a mindfulness programme.  It will be a fantastic opportunity to develop links with Oxford and to help raise the profile of scientific research within your school.

You know your own schools the best and we would work closely with you to support your school through the research process. We would ask for a main contact, a research lead, who would navigate us through the complexities and the practicalities of working with your school setting. This person, ideally a member of SLT, would help us in all aspects of the research and advise us in all dealings with your school. This would be an excellent CPD opportunity for someone interested in schools-based research and being part of a large-scale school study.

Participating would enable your school and especially your pupils to gain valuable insight into high quality scientific research processes and be an opportunity for your pupils to see ‘research in action’.

For more information about the project please visit We would like to hear from you if you are Headteacher or teacher at a secondary school who is interested in the question of how to promote emotional health and wellbeing in your pupils. We are expecting a very high demand for places on this project so please register you interest as soon as possible.

Please contact the MYRIAD team at:

The MYRIAD project is a collaboration between teams at the following universities:

The University of Oxford: Professors Mark Williams & Willem Kuyken

Cognition and Brain Sciences Unit in Cambridge: Professor Tim Dalgleish

University College London Professor Sarah-Jayne Blakemore

King’s College London

University of Exeter

We also have international collaborators including Penn State and the University of Minnesota.

Posted in Mental Health in Schools | 1 Comment

This much I know about…teaching Carol Ann Duffy’s poem “War Photographer

I have been a teacher for 28 years, a Headteacher for 13 years and, at the age of 52, this much I know about teaching Carol Ann Duffy’s poem “War Photographer”.


It doesn’t take much to make me feel like a dinosaur these days. I contemplated purchasing a new SLR camera a couple of years ago. However, the shop assistant made me feel so hopeless in the shadow of his overwhelming expertise that I decided instead to tidy up my twenty-eight year old manual Minolta, buy a couple of reels of black & white film and stick to what I know.

The trouble is, what I know isn’t what my students know. When I began teaching at Eastbourne Sixth Form College in 1988, the Art department had a small dark room. I became addicted to printing my own photographs. As soon as teaching had finished for the day I would lock myself in the dark room and get lost in the DEVELOP:STOP:FIX:WASH:DRY process of producing black and white prints. I may not have put in my 10,000 hours, but I won’t have been far off! Recently, a number of my English department colleagues were kind enough to invite me to teach a guest lesson on Carol Ann Duffy’s “War Photographer”; however, unless you are familiar with how photographs came into existence pre-digital, you cannot fully comprehend this poem…



In his dark room he is finally alone
with spools of suffering set out in ordered rows.
The only light is red and softly glows,
as though this were a church and he
a priest preparing to intone a Mass.
Belfast. Beirut. Phnom Penh. All flesh is grass.

He has a job to do. Solutions slop in trays
beneath his hands, which did not tremble then
though seem to now. Rural England. Home again
to ordinary pain which simple weather can dispel,
to fields which don’t explode beneath the feet
of running children in a nightmare heat.

Something is happening. A stranger’s features
faintly start to twist before his eyes,
a half-formed ghost. He remembers the cries
of this man’s wife, how he sought approval
without words to do what someone must
and how the blood stained into foreign dust.

A hundred agonies in black and white
from which his editor will pick out five or six
for Sunday’s supplement. The reader’s eyeballs prick
with tears between the bath and pre-lunch beers.
From the aeroplane he stares impassively at where
he earns his living and they do not care.

What is the main moral conflict of the poem? So, if you are teaching this poem, here are four videos to help, which can be used in the Powerpoint presentation below as indicated on the blank slides. One video illustrates how to print photographs; the Dunhill video introduces Don McCullin, the war photographer Duffy’s poem is based upon, and his moral conflict as he takes shots of people dying; an extract from the documentary, McCullin, gives a brilliant account of him working during the Battle of Hue in Vietnam; and the last one, from CNN, sees McCullin question the worth of everything he has done as a war photographer.





Going beyond the obvious. One of the key conflicts in the poem is explored in the final stanza: the decision for the Sunday supplement’s editor as to which photographs s/he selects for his/her readers. When I began teaching A level Media Studies I recorded a programme on this very decision, a VHS recording which is long lost. The picture editors of the Sunday Times and the Observer were discussing why they had chosen two different photographs to accompany their respective articles on the American Air Force’s carpet bombing of the retreating Iraqi army on the Basra Road at the end of the first Iraq war in 1991. The Sunday Times had used a long distance shot, the picture editor arguing that he did not want his readers and their families to be upset at the breakfast table by graphic shots of the human cost of the US attack. His readers, he argued, could imagine what it must have been like:


The Observer had taken a different approach, printing Kenneth Jarecke’s famous picture of the “charred Iraqi” soldier. The Observer magazine’s picture editor was utterly certain that he wanted his readers to understand as clearly as possible the pure horror of war:


Neither of these two shots was taken by McCullin; however, I have included them in the middle of this Powerpoint to stimulate debate amongst students.

Lately, I’ve been working on the clarity of my explanations. In the final video below, you can watch how I present the two images to students. Note how I build the images up, clarify the decisions made by each picture editor and warn the students of the graphic nature of the Observer image to engage their critical faculties.

Posted in Teaching and Learning | 2 Comments