At the chalkface: The school photograph

Written by: Ian Whitwham | Published:

Hopefully there will always be some pupils who will resist this conformity. Even at my crusty old grammar school, there were always some wags who managed to sabotage things – like the enormous whole school photo...

Have you still got your old school photos?

Of course you have.

Click!

A moment in time, so resonant, especially your primary school photos.

Mine are on this desk. After nigh on 70 years. Blimey.

There I am with my lovely five-year-old chums and the gorgeous Miss Weston. Class One, Chalfont St Peter Primary School, 1950, in glorious, fading black and white.

Click! Another one. The First XI Football Team of 1954. There we are with our high ankle boots, hooped socks, baggy shorts, proper shirts, crossed legs, folded arms, trying to look stern like Stanley Matthews. We practised forever on Gold Hill Common using the silver birch trees as goal posts. Bliss. We thought it would never end. Has life got any better?

Pardon my sentimentality, but I’m reminded of the final line of the film Stand By Me: “I never had any friends later on like the ones I had when I was 12.”

Jesus, does anyone?

These lachrymose musings are prompted by a fabulous exhibition at London’s Tate Gallery – Steve McQueen’s YEAR 3. Using the medium of the traditional class photograph, this epic installation brings together two-thirds of London’s seven and eight-year-olds – that’s 76,146 children, 1,504 schools, 3,128 photographs. A celebration and a meditation on this age group, haunting, provocative, unsettling – and timely.
London has lately been subject to much prejudice and paranoia, especially from middle England. Well, they couldn’t be more wrong. The teachers are brilliant, the children are creative and sussed. The inner city is good for you.

This is England at its best.

So why does McQueen focus on year 3?

“It’s this moment just before they have to conform. It’s not that you lose them, but it’s a whirlwind and they have to stand up in it.”
So what’s the relevance to secondary schools? Everything. These years are the seedbed.

Secondary schools must nourish it. Too often they can’t, too often they’re exam factories, which shut down imagination and force pupils into becoming mere learning outcomes. Tragic. We must not, cannot kill the curiosity and laughter on these bonny faces.

Hopefully there will always be some pupils who will resist this conformity. Even at my crusty old grammar school, there were always some wags who managed to sabotage things – like the enormous whole school photo. They zoomed round the back of the assembled and occurred twice. Masters went berserk. They were meant to.

My mate “Rumble” managed to occur thrice, ruining the 1959 photo forever. Immortality in triplicate! Technology, and this pressure to conform, have made these larks nigh on impossible.

I returned to this extraordinary exhibition. All that blazing life. All that hope. All those captured present moments. Click! Oblivious to perhaps darker futures.

  • Ian Whitwham is a teacher of English, now retired, who spent many years working in the state school system of inner city London. He has written for SecEd since 2003. Read his most recent articles at http://bit.ly/2UIMd1O


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