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

This much I know about a simple way to monitor our pupils’ mental health.

I have been a teacher for 28 years, a Headteacher for 13 years and, at the age of 52, this much I know about a simple way to monitor our pupils’ mental health.


This coming week, the 6th – 12th February 2017, is Children’s Mental Health Week.

In 2017, the aim of the week is to encourage everyone — adults and children alike — to spread a little kindness.

We’ve all known someone going through a tough time, and it can be hard to know what to do to help, especially where children are involved. It may sound simple but in these moments, small acts of kindness can make all the difference.

Find out how you, your school, or your organisation can get involved and support Children’s Mental Health Week here.



When I interviewed Natasha Devon for my book, Mind over Matter, I asked her what one single piece of advice she had for teachers. This is her reply:


So, how might we make a deliberate effort to acknowledge that all our students have a mental health? It can be difficult, for a form tutor, for instance, to keep his or her wellbeing radar on for all the children in her form group. In the following extract from my book, I suggest a simple way – inspired by Victoria Agpar and Atul Gawande – for a form tutor to monitor his or her 30 tutees ’mental health:

agpar-3 agpar-4 agpar-5 agpar-6 agpar-7 agpar-8 agpar-9 agpar-10

Posted in General educational issues, Mental Health in Schools, School Leadership | 2 Comments

This much I know about…why subject specific key words are not enough for academic success

I have been a teacher for 28 years, a Headteacher for 13 years and, at the age of 52, this much I know about why subject specific key words are not enough for academic success.


The following are all based upon genuine post-exam conversations with Year 11 students at Huntington:

You might know what the word “theme” means in relation to English Literature, but you cannot answer the question, “Was Lennie and George’s dream always futile?” if you do not know what the word “futile” means.

You might know what the word “provenance” means in relation to the reliability of evidence in history, but you cannot answer the question, “Was the second World War inevitable?” if you do not know what the word “inevitable” means.

You might know what the phrase “high tensile steel” means in relation to Construction, but you cannot answer the question, “How do contractors liaise with the customer?” if you do not know what the word “liaise” means.


Build from the ground up. We are working with our partner primaries on small scale enquiries about the best ways to teach hand writing, spelling and vocabulary. If you struggle with hand writing, you will find spelling a challenge and so you will settle for short, simple words. Consequently, your vocabulary – your word-hoard – will always be limited. Here are three research papers, sourced by our Research Lead, Alex Quigley, aka @HuntingEnglish, which explore that relationship between hand writing, spelling and vocabulary. They are well worth reading:

Posted in Research, Teaching and Learning | 3 Comments

This much I know about…the School Funding Crisis and the National Funding Formula.

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 School Funding Crisis and the National Funding Formula.

It is time to put my head above the parapet regarding school budgets. We have had a real terms cut in our school budget of 10% since 2010, and don’t let a politician tell you any different. Using the Bank of England Inflation calculator shows that we should have £800,000 p.a. more  in our budget, if we had just kept up with inflation since George Osborne delivered his Comprehensive Spending Review in October 2010!

The view from here. BBC Radio York’s Sarah Unwin and the BBC cameraman Peter spent an hour with us on Friday to produce this report for the Yorkshire & Lincolnshire edition of Andrew Neil’s Sunday Politics Show on BBC1. I promise it’s worth 3:55 minutes of your time to watch:


Investing in our schools is obvious common sense. What wasn’t included in the report but which is the ultimate consequence of not funding our schools properly is a deepening of the recruitment crisis. If working conditions and teachers’ pay worsen because of the cuts to school budgets, then we will struggle to entice our brightest and best into the classroom. We are already at a point where the highest-achieving A-level students are least likely to apply to teach. The teacher recruitment crisis is not about just numbers, it is about quality too, and if our best graduates reject teaching as a career due to the impact of real terms cuts to school budgets, the very future prosperity of our nation will be threatened.

Posted in General educational issues, Other stuff, School Leadership | 1 Comment

This much I know about…why Geoff Barton should be ASCL’s new General Secretary

I have been a teacher for 28 years, a Headteacher for 13 years and, at the age of 52, this much I know about why Geoff Barton should be ASCL’s new General Secretary.

It is time for the Association of School and College Leaders members to elect their new General Secretary…I will be voting for Geoff Barton.

I could have written a lengthy post explaining why I think Geoff Barton should be ASCL’s new General Secretary. Instead, I thought it best to let Geoff demonstrate his experience, honesty, courage, humility and eloquence in this short video:

Posted in General educational issues, School Leadership | 4 Comments

This much I know about…’The Ladybird Book of Edu-Twitter’ (with apologies to @primarypercival)

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 Ladybird Book of Edu-Twitter’ (with apologies to @primarypercival).

A bit of fun which became, for just a couple of hours this evening, all-consuming…


























Posted in General educational issues, Other stuff, School Leadership | Leave a comment

This much I know about…a new concept of headship in a MAT-centric school-led system

I have been a teacher for 28 years, a Headteacher for 13 years and, at the age of 52, this much I know about a new concept of headship in a MAT-centric school-led system.

An ego-free Headteacher is a rare beast. To be a Headteacher you need to have a certain self-confidence. If you are going to be in charge, you need self-belief in spades. And a new Headteacher usually assumes that he has to come into a school and make his mark. Schools are notoriously vulnerable in the wake of regime change. A new Headteacher can lead to a significant modification of the values and educational philosophy of a school. And perfectly good systems are suddenly abandoned for the new boss’ favoured alternatives, without a shred of evidence that in his new setting his old favourites will work. So, out goes setting, in comes mixed ability; goodbye SIMS, hello BromCom; exit Year Groups, enter Houses. And the rest of the staff just have to suck it up and watch whilst what worked stops working…

A Headteacher often has an inordinate impact upon the school he leads. The opposite is true at Toyota, one of the most successful companies over the past three decades. In their brilliant book, Hard Facts, Dangerous Half-Truths and Total Nonsense, Pfeffer and Sutton point out that Toyota’s success stems from its great systems, not stunning individual talent…one study showed that Toyota was the only major automobile company where a change in the CEO had no effect on performance. The systems are so robust that changing CEOs at Toyota is a lot like changing lightbulbs; there is little noticeable effect between the old one and the new one. In the world of a MAT-centric school-led system, maybe there is something we can learn from Toyota, where its robust set of interrelated management practices and philosophies…provide advantage above and beyond the ideas or inspirations of single individuals?

How many Headteachers want to give up their decision-making powers? Headteachers whose schools join a MAT have to give up a certain level of power over the decision-making process, and anyone who claims any different is not being completely honest. Selecting one Headteacher to be the CEO of a new MAT inevitably leads to the other Headteachers feeling their authority is undermined. No wonder the DfE is outlawing the practice and insisting that Trust Boards are Headteacher-free zones. If we are going to create a new school system in England then we have to accept a different concept of headship, one which has Toyota-like features.

People like me need to get over ourselves. Schools which have lasted centuries have always been based upon a set of educational values, enshrined in a Founding Charter. Imagine creating a MAT whose Founding Charter was so firmly established that what the founding members believe about how students should be educated shapes the direction of the school decades, even centuries, into the future. A new Headteacher appointed to lead a school within such a MAT would be employed to be the guardian of the MAT’s/school’s educational philosophy and values-system, rather than someone given liberty to take the school in a quite different direction. Headteachers like me would come and go, but what matters – the education of children – would survive us all.


Posted in General educational issues, School Leadership | 10 Comments