The school photograph

Written by: Dr Bernard Trafford | Published:
Dr Bernard Trafford, head, Royal Grammar School, Newcastle

In this day and age, is the school photograph still a valuable use of time? Dr Bernard Trafford thinks it is

Last week our school managed briefly to step aside from the rush of purposeful activity that characterises September and even from the continuing flurry of reactions to the government’s Green Paper (which I won’t mention again!). Instead we looked inward to a pleasurable and intensely traditional event – the quinquennial whole-school photograph.

This term my school is the biggest it’s ever been, with more than 1,300 pupils aged seven to 18 and the best part of 200 teaching and support staff. For the team of photographers, then, it was no small undertaking to get so many people safely onto the enormous 11-level gantry that they had spent two hours erecting (and off it again).

For us teachers, it was only 90 minutes lost, so efficiently were we organised by the professionals. Still, it called for a lot of work from my deputy who undertook the thankless task of getting class teachers to organise their children, a chain of command that is at best loose-linked (“what do you mean you put it in an email? I haven’t got time to read all those...”).

To be fair, everyone did their bit very effectively and with good humour.

We awoke to a grey morning: and rain threatened throughout. The forecast offered a 50 per cent chance of rain, so I guess we were lucky to get away with it. I wandered around encouraging the troops and commenting brightly that a grey day is so much better for photography than full sun – sun which perversely broke through just as we were ready to take a shot, obliging us to wait for it to disappear behind the next cloud.

So all went well. But you might ask, was it worth all that effort? After all, in this digital age, children and parents alike are arguably overwhelmed by pictures of themselves, their friends and everything else. Is there still a place in a 21st century school for a highly formal, metre-long, expensive framed print where you need a magnifying glass to spot yourself?

I think there is, although the proof may yet lie in how many parents bother to buy prints this time round. I’ll buy a copy, of course and find one final additional slot on the wall in the spare bedroom – with all the other pictures from my 26 years as a head in two schools. But that’s just me.

I don’t believe those pictures will be hanging on my students’ walls until they reach my advanced age. But most will hang on to them.

There is something in such pictures about that sense not just of community but of institution: of being all in this joint venture together and (though it’s not cool to go on about it) really rather proud of our school.

Years or decades later, people occasionally dig out those old pictures, play the game of trying to identify everyone, laugh at how that old friend who had so much hair back then seems to have so little now, and begin reminiscing.

It is all about the present, current friends and colleagues: it is also about the future, because it is a record to be kept for then; and, when the future comes, it is about happy shared memories.

While we waited, a colleague described searching for his father-in-law’s 1938 school photograph for a montage to celebrate a diamond wedding anniversary. It’s what people do.

We sacrificed a lesson-and-a-half. If you add up everyone’s time, you might reckon we lost 2,250 hours. I don’t think I’ll go there – school days are full of memories, hopefully happy and positive ones. Things like last week’s picture help preserve them.

It is a moment in time: although the students are in uniform or following the sixth-form dress code, appearances, hair fashions, even the way boys’ ties are knotted will reflect the period and quickly render the picture a historical document.

Was it worth it? I think so.

  • Dr Bernard Trafford is head of Newcastle’s Royal Grammar School and a former chairman of HMC. His views are personal. Follow him @bernardtrafford


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