My Top 10 School Movies

After 22 years working in BBC radio, a few years ago I retrained as a teacher, and this morning I started to think about how teachers and schools have been portrayed in the movies over the years, and how this might have influenced my career choice. This is a very much a personal rather than definitive list – lots of classics are missing. There’s no Goodbye Mr Chips, no To Sir With Love, no Dead Poets Society, not even a Harry Potter. What else did I miss?

(Plot summaries from the City of Bristol’s best web site, IMDb)

10. The School of Rock (2003)

After being kicked out of a rock band, Dewey Finn becomes a substitute teacher of a strict elementary private school, only to try and turn it into a rock band.

(And yes apparently it did originally have The Definitive Article in its title). I actually only saw this relatively recently, being constantly nagged by my children to watch it. It didn’t disappoint, Jack Black at his feel-good best. And having worked as a supply teacher for a year, it was probably even better that I waited before watching it.

9. Sing Street (2016)

A boy growing up in Dublin during the 1980s escapes his strained family life by starting a band to impress the mysterious girl he likes.

John Carney’s beautiful, personal film about a boy trying to start a band in 1980s Dublin owes more to The School of Rock or even Son of Rambow than the possibly more obvious The Commitments. Some found the ending a bit much, but I loved it loved it loved it. Highly recommended.

8. The Belles of St Trinian’s (1954)

These schoolgirls are more interested in racing forms than books as they try to get-rich-quick.

With a cast like Alastair Sim, Joyce Grenfell and George Cole it could hardly go wrong, the latter foreshadowing his TV role as Arthur Daley by 30 years or so. This probably would have been better viewing on the eve of starting work in a girls’ school than the one I actually picked (see No.6 below).

7. Donnie Darko (2001)

A troubled teenager is plagued by visions of a large bunny rabbit that manipulates him to commit a series of crimes, after narrowly escaping a bizarre accident. (IMDb you truly are spoiling us with this synopsis).

Personally I find this film kind of funny, I find it kind of sad. Ok, not strictly a school film, but surely anyone who ever studied Eng Lit at school (and that’s all of us) had a teacher at some point who reminds you slightly of Drew Barrymore’s young rebellious teacher with her ‘cellar door’. Or perhaps you are that teacher? And frankly, sometimes I doubt your commitment to Sparkle Motion…

6. The Falling (2014)

It’s 1969 at a strict English girls’ school where charismatic Abbie and intense and troubled Lydia are best friends. After a tragedy occurs at the school, a mysterious fainting epidemic breaks out threatening the stability of all involved.

What was I thinking, watching this the night before I started working in a girls’ school? More to the point, what the hell was writer/director Carol Morley thinking with that ending? I won’t spoil it, but this extraordinarily lyrical, poetic, ambiguous film is sharply undercut with a really, really, really disturbing ending that I find… deeply troublesome. I didn’t sleep well that night. Nor much ever since.

5. The Awakening (2011)

In 1921, England is overwhelmed by the loss and grief of World War I. Hoax exposer Florence Cathcart visits a boarding school to explain sightings of a child ghost. Everything she believes unravels as the ‘missing’ begin to show themselves.

Neglected, under-rated BBC film starring Rebecca Hall, Dominic West and Imelda Staunton. Ok, I admit I will watch anything Rebecca Hall appears in, but I love this film, a cracking ghost story with a twist that I found impressive, after an oppressive, suspenseful journey. I rate it higher than the much-lauded The Falling. Literally, it’s one better.

4. The History Boys (2006)

An unruly class of gifted and charming teenage boys are taught by two eccentric and innovative teachers, as their headmaster pushes for them all to get accepted into Oxford or Cambridge.

A highly personal choice. This adaptation of Alan Bennett’s play may be a bit too stagey for the screen, but I love this because at the same time as this film is set I was doing ‘third year 6th form’, being crammed (pointlessly, as it happened) for Oxbridge by some glorious eccentrics who spookily resemble the teachers in this film. With literally the same soundtrack playing on the cassette player in the Junior Common Room. Perfectly encapsulates 3 months of my life in the 1980s.

3. An Education (2009)

A coming-of-age story about a teenage girl in 1960s suburban London, and how her life changes with the arrival of a playboy nearly twice her age.

Again, not strictly a school film, but as a sucker for a coming of age film, I love this – and I feel the title allows me to add it to this list. It’s linked in cast member Dominic Cooper to the previous film, and thematically makes a great companion piece to the next film on my list. Plus, you know, it has Carey Mulligan in her best role since Blink and it ensured that Doctor Who would never be able to afford her again.

2. The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie (1969)

A headstrong young teacher in a private school in 1930s Edinburgh ignores the curriculum and influences her impressionable 12 year old charges with her over-romanticized world view.

Maggie Smith’s performance in this superb adaptation of Muriel Spark’s novel, is surely one of the greatest screen teachers of all time, a rebel whose refusal to stick to the scheme of work has tragic consequences.

1. Heathers (1988)

In order to get out of the snobby clique that is destroying her good-girl reputation, an intelligent teen teams up with a dark sociopath in a plot to kill the cool kids.

I admit this probably isn’t a better film than No.2, but I think Heathers is under-rated and an utter (if dark) joy. I saw first saw this in the early 90s, then saw it again recently. It was a completely different film on each viewing, but each one was wonderful. Winona Ryder is cool as, It is peppered with memorable lines, and has become almost timeless by its clever invention of a fake 1980s youth slang. Do watch it. Come on! It’ll be VERY.

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Little Box of Fip

I’ve made many Raspberry Pi internet radios in the past – here’s how to make the simplest one possible, making use of an ancient RaspberryPi 1B that was lying neglected at the back of the drawer. This one is so simple, you can’t even change channel – the only internet radio station I ever listen to is the French station fip, so this is a perfect addition to the kitchen, and I’ll wire it in to the 3.5mm audio input socket on an old iPod dock.

Here’s what you need:

  • An old Raspberry Pi with SD card, power supply, wifi dongle
  • A keyboard, HDMI cable and some wired internet – all of these only temporarily
  • A 3.5mm audio jack lead to connect to the input of an amplifier or iPod dock.

Fresh OS install

I did try updating the old version of Wheezy on the old Pi’s SD card, but I ran into all sorts of problems. Far easier to do a fresh install of Raspbian Jesse Lite – this is a small install that doesn’t have a GUI, nor any of the software installed on the desktop like LibreOffice or the dreaded leviathan that is Wolfram. It’s command line only. That’s all we need for this.

First, as there were no files I wanted on the card, I re-formatted the SD card in my MacBook using Disk Utility as a single FAT32 partition. It was an 8GB card but I am sure you could use a far smaller one. I then downloaded NOOBS Lite, unzipped and dragged the files onto the SD card, then ejected it from the MacBook and plugged it back in the Pi.

I then plugged the Pi into my TV and plugged some wired internet into the Pi’s ethernet socket, booted it up and did a network install of Raspbian Jesse Lite. When this was finished I rebooted the Pi, and ran raspi-config to do a few things:

  • enabled ssh so I can log in remotely if I need to (it won’t have a screen or keyboard)
  • forced audio output to audio jack
  • selected option to wait until has network to boot
  • renamed device ‘fip’ so I can find it on my home network easily

Install a media player and add a station

I then installed the mpc media player by typing:
sudo apt-get install mpc mpd

I then added fip as a radio station by typing:
mpc add

(You can find addresses for BBC local, regional and national radio stations on my page here.)

Test this works by typing
mpc play 1
at the command line. You should hear the station you added from the headphone jack on the Pi. (If you add more stations they’d be mpc play 2, 3, etc.)

I then ran
at the command line to turn the volume up as high as it can go, and stopped the stream playing with
mpc stop

Make it play automatically at boot

I then wrote a little shell script to play the radio by typing nano and entering the following lines:
mpc play 1

The press ctrl-x to save and exit.

Then I typed
chmod 755
to make it executable. I then typed sudo nano /etc/rc.local and added this line before exit 0:

Reboot the Pi, and it should now play your internet stream as soon as it boots up.

Wifi would be useful so I unplugged the ethernet, added a USB dongle and followed the instructions here about setting up a wifi network’s SSID and password. Rebooted without wired internet – and bingo, a little box that just plays my favourite radio station. This is probably massive feature creep, but if I could add ONE button, it might be one to shut it down gracefully…

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Windbreaks are well Brexit

windbreak 16

Last summer I got a bit obsessed with windbreaks and started photographing them. I liked their colour, their Britishness, the opportunity they afforded for a bit of sub-Martin Parr brightly-coloured photography.

windbreak 3

This year I see them in a slightly more jaundiced light. Yesterday I was sitting on that rarest thing – an almost windless, sunny Cornish beach. This is the same beach that Simon Armitage accurately describes in Walking Away; to walk along this beach is often to invite a sand-blasting by air that renders conversation impossible. But this day there was almost no wind at all – if anything it was too hot. And yet still the windbreaks came, each one blocking a bit more view.


This year I feel as if I should have counted the windbreaks last summer and seen Brexit coming… taken account of the effort that goes in to carrying multiple windbreaks down to the sand, to construct windbreak fortresses, villages and towns in some cases as extended families enclose an area of beach that is forever off-limits to outsiders – at least until the tide comes in and forces retreat. Windbreaks are exclusive, not inclusive. They are territorial, beach land-grabs that are sometimes hilariously counter-productive: on every beach there will be at least one windbreak that has been put up to catch not protect from the wind, one that blocks the view of the sea, one that falls flat on its face.

the hokey cokey

I am possibly guilty of hypocrisy, as I must confess we usually take a 2-person pop-up tent to the beach, which clearly must also block views. But we try to site it thoughtfully, and it does at least offer protection from the sun and privacy for changing, which a windbreak is about as much use for as an ashtray on a motorbike. Or on a windy beach.


Click on the image below to see the full gallery:


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Prime real estate

We were walking round the back of the O2 in Greenwich today and saw this artwork marking the Greenwich Meridian. I wondered why there seemed to be several different lines marked on the ground, one of which had some white metal or plastic extensions (containing a light, I assumed) stretching over the edge of the path and over the water. Behind the fence in what is now the back of a hotel I could see some stores let into the ground with names of different countries, and assumed (correctly it seems) that these are poorly-maintained markers from the millennium just a few years ago.

The Prime Meridian in all its glory

The Greenwich Meridian web site is very useful here. It turns out that there are many different possible meridian lines. The one that is usually marked is the Airy Transit Circle, the main one that runs through the Greenwich Observatory, though it’s not the line shown as 0 degrees longitude on a GPS device, and it actually no longer has any connection at all with the UTC time standard.

As well as the Airy Meridian, three other Lines were marked [round the back of the Millennium Dome] – the Bradley Meridian, roughly 6 m to the west and still used by the British Ordnance survey, along with the rather spurious ‘Halley’ and ‘Flamsteed’ Meridians.

This article explains in some detail why when you visit the ‘Prime Meridian’ at the Greenwich Observatory, your GPS locator does not read 0 degrees of longitude – you’d need to move some 100 meters East:

zero degrees my ....

If you’re feeling overly joyous and need a downer, read this account of the doomed Millennium Tree Project.

The prime meridian hasn’t fared particularly well in my neighbourhood either. I hadn’t even realised it had been marked out in an artwork in Hither Green, but it’s all but vanished now.

estate office
There was a stone marking the place where it crosses Lee High Road (close to where the photo above was taken) but I went looking for it yesterday and couldn’t find that either – possibly because they’re digging the road up. I hope it gets put back.

All of which leads me to think that meridian lines are really quite silly, arbitrary things. A bit like New Year’s Eve or Millennium night itself…

millennium night

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Are we all meant to be racist now, Father?

I have a confession to make: I am a bigot.

Let me explain. I voted Remain in the EU referendum and was angry, upset, dismayed, asthmatic at the result. For me it was a binary choice, the ballot paper looked like this:



This view, and the way I voted has its roots not in urban or student politics, but in a Church of England primary school in North Somerset in the early 1970s. I can remember being told in assembly by our head teacher Mrs Hutchcroft that we should treat people the same regardless of the race, colour or creed. I had to ask what ‘creed’ meant.

Ours was an almost entirely white village, aside from the family who ran the Chinese takeaway. Even my secondary school had, when I was there, ONE black pupil, and even then only temporarily. So perhaps it was an easy statement for my head teacher to make. But her words stuck with me, I can even picture where I was sitting cross-legged in the hall and the smell of the varnish and school dinners.

Stunned yesterday by finding myself one of the 48%, I concluded that 1 in 2 of us in this nation is just not a very nice person, possibly racist. It was a binary question that revealed our view of ourselves and what kind of country we want to be.

People are saying we need to ‘reach out’ to the 52% and understand them. But what if I think they are wrong? What if I refuse to accommodate racist, inward-looking views? Why should I? I feel like the residents of Craggy Island asking Father Ted “should we all be racists, now father?”

So why am I a bigot?

Dictionary definition:

having or revealing an obstinate belief in the superiority of one’s own opinions and a prejudiced intolerance of the opinions of others.

That’s sounds like me.

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