Silent Witnesses – Review of the First World War Centenary Battlefield Tours Programme

“I have many times asked myself whether there can be more potent advocates of peace upon Earth through the years to come, than this massed multitude of silent witnesses to the desolation of war”

King George V at Tyne Cot Cemetery in 1922


Recently, I had the privilege of accompanying one of the centenary battlefield tours to the British sites of Western Front. I have always found the First World War fascinating. I spent much of my undergraduate degree focusing on the diplomatic intrigue of the pre-war period. Prior to becoming a teacher, I also spent the best part of a year guiding visitors around the battlefields of the Ypres Salient and the Somme. Therefore, I was thrilled to accompany six of my pupils on the centenary programme in October 2015 and March 2016.

 I cannot recommend the programme highly enough. The meticulous planning enabled our group to visit places which were pertinent to our school communities, while also retaining sites which illustrated the bigger picture of the conflict. Every school in England is entitled to send two students and one teacher. Even if you already organise an annual tour, I would really suggest signing up to the FWWBTP. It will give you some really great insights, particularly as they are always led by experienced members of the Guild of Battlefield Guides.

 Battlefields are sacred places, no matter when the battles were fought. They are often places where human history has changed course. Naturally they are also places where the dead lie, which is reason enough for us to stop and reflect. Evidently, British battles such as Agincourt, Waterloo, Ypres and the Somme all had huge military and strategic significance. More interestingly however, despite being precisely 501 years apart all these pivotal battles occurred within a geographical radius of approximately 120 miles. This incidental fact of geography exposes the importance of Northern France and the Low Countries in the thread of British foreign policy for over half a century. It is the political significance of these battlefields which fascinates me. Militarily, the first battle of the Somme (July-November 1916) was initially a catastrophic failure which later bore fruit in terms of lessons learnt and new tactics. However it was the social consequences at home and the realisation that five centuries of light touch British intervention and splendid isolation had been rudely interrupted by the heartbreakingly morbid harvest of over 60,000 casualties on the 1st July alone.

 Our visit to the Sheffield Memorial Park was a particularly poignant way to illustrate some of those acutely personal stories and connections. We were accompanied by a number of northern English schools, who I am sure would have appreciated the focus on the pals battalions of the northern cities, such as Manchester, Leeds, Bradford and Sheffield. One of my favourite memorials is the purposefully half-built Accrington Pals memorial, made from the familiar Lancashire red-brick which I was so accustomed to when I was growing up in Manchester. We then proceeded to High Wood where we visited the London Cemetery, which would have resonated with the pupils who I was accompanying.


 My favourite image of the Sheffield Memorial Park. The British front line on 1st July 1916 is just where the trees are on the left. In the distance you can just make out two additional cemeteries, crowned by the simplicity of Herbet Baker’s Cross of Sacrifice.

The use of enquiry questions was also a valuable way the tour enabled pupils to focus their learning on the key aspects of the war. I often find that enquiry questions are wonderful ways of providing focus on a historical topic; however I also find that enquiries can often create tunnel-vision with our pupils. The tour does a really great job of keeping focus on some key questions whilst also allowing that freedom to explore other aspects of the conflict which may not be directly relevant to the enquiry question that day. Every aspect of the tour was always focused on an objective, theme or question keeping the pupils thinking, guessing and learning. The use of artefacts and the expertise of an accompanying member of the armed forces also provided a unique insight into life on the western front.

 There is no doubt that the tours will be remembered by my pupils for the rest of their lives. Two of our pupils were selected to lay a wreath on the Menin Gate memorial to the missing of the Ypres Salient, which I know affected them deeply. However, I do have a number of suggestions which I think would make the tours even more effective as a national vehicle for commemoration, academic study and remembrance.

 Firstly, teacher CPD beforehand should ideally be more knowledge focused. This would ensure that when we are working with pupils on the battlefields we are able to provide the best possible support for them. A detailed pre-reading on the key sites of the war and the sites to be visited would enable teachers to think creatively about how to use the sites effectively. Secondly, I would ensure that far more work is given to allowing the pupils to explore the causes of the conflict and Britain’s role in the pre-war conflagration which engulfed the continent in July 1914. Obviously this has implications for KS3 curriculum design, but I think the tour could also address this in the tour preamble at Kingswood, or even on the coach over to France and Belgium.

 Often pupils have entrenched (excuse the pun) images of the Great War, which circulate around trench warfare, ‘butcher’ Haig, poppies and remembrance. Interestingly, I would also go as far to suggest that this remains the image of the Great War for many of the adult population. The July crisis of 1914 is one aspect of the conflict which has been hugely oversimplified. The overused MAIN (militarism, alliances, imperialism and nationalism), and the assassination still provide the bread and butter of teaching for the causes of the First World War.

Christopher Clark’s brilliant focus on the complexities of Serbian and Austrian politics shed much needed light onto the Balkan tinder-box which triggered the conflict. I have heard that some schools are trying their best to incorporate this scholarship into their curriculums. Crucially however, the underlying motivations for Britain entering the conflict are also ignored. Britain’s place in the world and imperial agreements with France and Russia are often replaced by the crude simplicity of ‘plucky little Belgium’. Considering one of the key themes of the tour and of the whole conflict is remembrance, it would surely be a good use of time to reflect on why Britain chose to declare war on Germany in 1914. That would hopefully clear up some of the ambiguity which is certainly not present when we remember the Second World War, which tends to be conveyed in a remarkably more Manichean way.

One contemporary of the Great War, writing about the creation of the Commonwealth War Graves Commission suggested that the Western Front should be converted into a ‘Via Sacra’ – a continuous line of memorials which would bear witness to the destruction of war. Winston Churchill famously wanted the whole city of Ypres to be kept in its decrepit state as a permanent British war memorial. The creation of the Commonwealth War Graves Commission by Sir Fabian Ware was a truly remarkable convalescence of remembrance, sacrifice, and imperial and religious diversity and unity. However, it is up to the next generation of young people to ensure the First World War is remembered. I am always humbled by the way the Commonwealth countries send coaches of pilgrims to visit their significant sites (Pozieres Ridge, Gallipolli, Delville Wood to name but a few). I am always impressed by the Canadian scheme which funds a number of passionate students to guide visitors around the Newfoundland Memorial Park and Vimy Ridge. Although there are certainly some issues with giving each site over to a particular nation (often the contribution of earlier regiments or nations are forgotten), I find the Canadian scheme is a superb way of keeping the memory of the conflict alive for future generations. The centenary battlefields programme with its Legacy 110 project is doing likewise in the UK. There are some fantastic projects and we hope to create ours on the 100th anniversary of the Battle of the Somme.

A final thought – with the centenary ending in two years time, it would be a magnificent idea for the government to endow a similar scheme as the Canadians did. Thiepval would seem the obvious choice, guiding visitors around the battlefield where one age passed and another began – allowing young people to pass on the torch of remembrance from their generation to the next.


Seven simple steps to survive Teach First

I wrote this short guide back in August for the 2015 cohort of Teach First participants. Obviously it is specific to Teach First trainees however, much of the advice particularly surrounding behaviour, subject knowledge and time management are applicable across the board.

Step 1 – Create a timetable

After Summer Institute, draft a timetable. I found this to be the most important thing I did which helped me get through the year and actually enjoy it. I can understand why many people recoil at the prospect of planning the minutiae of their day to day existence. When you have very little time however, planning your life works.

  1. Contact your subject mentor, and ask him/her what your planning commitments are like for September. Are all lessons already planned? Do you have to adapt anything? Do you have to start from scratch? Are you co-planning? If so, what are you required to do and by when? Work out how long this will take.
  2. Contact your professional or subject mentors and ask them what the school’s marking policy is. Is it every book every two weeks? Is it a book a week? Is it a deep mark every half term? Work out how long this will take.
  3. Make a list of non-negotiables which you enjoy on a weekly basis (socialising / exercise / entertainment / family / relationships etc)

Step 2 – Sort out behaviour

Statistically this is the biggest concern for new teachers and also one of the key reasons why many teachers decide to leave the profession not long after qualifying. Fundamentally, the pupils need to behave in your lessons. You will feel less stressed and the pupils will learn. Do not pander to the litany of TES advice about using a cow-bell to get their attention, or to strategically plan a lesson on interpretative dance every week to ‘calm’ down your rowdy Year 8 class. I am also aware that your summer institute training probably consisted of role plays and copious amounts of sugar paper. My advice would be to never lower your standards and always use the school’s behaviour policies consistently. If your school’s behaviour policy is inconsistent, or not supported thoroughly by your SLT then –  tragically –  it is up to you to follow things through. Spending this time chasing things earlier in the year will pay dividends later. Always insist on silence when you ask for it, and do not progress with the lesson until you get it. Meet and greet pupils at the door, enforcing simple expectations around uniform. Insist on full equipment and no chewing. Once these little things are sorted the rest will follow – relatively easily – in most cases. You are not their mate. Anything that stops each pupil (or a whole class) from learning you need to nip in the bud, immediately.

 Step 3 – Don’t beat yourself up

Participants have a tendency to over-worry and over-complicate, particularly in the first few months. If things go wrong, don’t worry – you are training. Focus on the small things first and get them right in the lead up to October half term. Routines, classroom presence and behaviour should be your first priority. Don’t worry about planning all singing and all dancing lessons in your first few weeks. If you have had a disastrous day, remember why you are doing this and keep your mind focused on those golden moments. Think practically about your challenges and reflect on what you can do, within reason to improve things. Never take anything personally, and think of challenging classes as a learning point.

Step 4 – Be aware of your responsibilities, and your rights

Make sure you are on top of your school’s systems and procedures. If a school requires you to mark books every two weeks, then make sure you plan your timetable accordingly. Always act with integrity and uphold the school’s values and ethos. This will help you in the staffroom and in the classroom. Crucially however, you must also be aware of the school’s contractual obligations with Teach First to support you, and not request you to undertake any unreasonable additional duties. You are a trainee after all, and the impact you make in the classroom must not be compromised by a lack of support, or onerous additional tasks which impede your professional development. If you are unsure about these obligations, see your Professional Tutor/LDO in the first instance, and then raise any uncertainties with your school mentors. Mentor meetings, timetable allocation, cover work, pastoral duties, lunchtime supervision and undertaking the duties of a form teacher are all areas which you need to be careful about.

Step 5 – Know your subject

Subject knowledge is absolutely integral to your role as a classroom teacher, and the impact you make. In terms of pedagogy, it is without a doubt the most important aspect. In the summer holidays, make sure you are fully aware of what you are required to teach, and make sure you are confident teaching it. Ask your subject mentor for all KS4 (and KS5 if appropriate) exam specifications, and allow yourself some time in August to read up on anything you are unsure about. Most importantly, throw yourself into your subject. Get yourself excited about teaching things that you have a passion for. Planning lessons is an onerous task, but one made remarkably easier, quicker and more enjoyable if you love the topics you’re teaching. Keep on top of current research too, by subscribing to any relevant associations and journals. This will make your teaching better, but more importantly the ability to inspire pupils with your enthusiasm will get them onside far more quickly, and make your life easier.

Step 6 – Keep on top of your Journal and PGCE

Your journal may seem like an irrelevance now, and many participants go many weeks without consulting it. Realistically, leaving your journal empty for weeks, and then filling it in desperately in a fit of despair every time you meet your tutor is utterly impractical and time-consuming. Spend ten minutes each week (perhaps on a Sunday) recording your thoughts, observations and reflections and then use those to create manageable, achievable and measurable targets. I made mini-reflections in my school planner at the end of every lesson, which I then consulted when I wrote my journal reflections. Take your essays seriously too. In a school-based training programme, it is often easy to lose sight of the bigger picture. Dedicate an hour or so each fortnight to planning your essays and doing any relevant reading. If you do little bits throughout the year, you will find that your holidays won’t be miserable pits of misery filled with hours spent hunched over a laptop surrounded by pro-plus and congealed mugs. Finally, create a box-file with evidence of anything that meets your teaching standards. This will make you PGCE portfolio much easier to compile. May is a busy month, and the last thing you want is to spend days sporadically searching for emails and evidence of pupil’s work.

Step 7 – Socialise, exercise and read regularly

Teaching, second to sainthood seems to be one of the few professions where there is an expectation that you sacrifice every aspect of your life for your job. Some schools implicitly assume that you should be working 14 hour days to meet the basic requirements of planning, teaching and marking in addition to pastoral work, extra-curricular activities, behaviour chasing, paperwork and data entry. Although this is clearly morally reprehensible, you need to ensure that you set aside plenty of time for yourself. Have targets for what you want to get done every week, such as getting through a chapter of a book you have been meaning to read, or to go to the gym, or playing a sport a minimum of once a week. Most importantly, actively seek out those friends and colleagues who really spark and inspire you. They could be your closest mates, old university pals or Teach First colleagues. These are the people who nourish your individuality and remind you of what it is you are trying to achieve. Try to ensure you don’t just stick to teachers. In fact, try and make an effort not to see teachers quite so much, as many have a propensity to moan and talk shop, constantly.




A brief introduction

I have been teaching history for over a year in an ambitious school in North London for the past eighteen months. I am an NQT in my second year on the Teach First programme and – certainly to my surprise – I have found the experience hugely enjoyable. I wanted to record my experiences in the hope that new teachers might glean something useful and practical.

I have always been passionate about history and I have developed a firm belief in the role of teachers in imparting knowledge which can enrich and sustain young people for the rest of their lives. I hope to share some thoughts about the state of history teaching and education in general.