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Every picture tells a story

It seems that we have a very high proportion of parents at Highgate Primary who work within the arts. So last week, when the Tate Gallery launched artist Steve McQueen’s project to create a visual portrait of every one of London’s 7 and 8 year-olds through the medium of the traditional class photograph, my inbox went into overdrive with a barrage of pings. If I’m yet to reply to you – ‘thank you so much for bringing this to my attention. This sounds like a really exciting project and we are definitely going to be signing up!’

There is something rather timeless about the annual class photograph. Children make their way to the playground or, if it’s raining, the hall. After a bit of organisation, tie straightening and last minute hair brushing, everyone says ‘cheese’, ‘whisky’ (for some reason) or indeed anything with a long ‘e’, and there it is, the class captured on film forever. Over the years the format has stayed the same with the class of 30 organised into three rows, their teacher at the side (with apologies for the brief, misguided, informal composite photo introduced three years ago but swiftly abandoned).

Everyone has a memory of their own class photo. I remember getting in terrible trouble with my mum for taking my tie off – and it would seem that the same thing happened to our Year 3 teacher, Nick, in 1983. His mum however made sure there was no repeat the following year (see front row above).

Each moment in time says so much about the subjects, with the children’s hopes, dreams and aspirations there for everyone to see. The fashions of the time are archived (tank tops feature heavily in my primary school photos). And then there’s the hair – you can definitely date a school photograph by the proportion of bowl cuts, mullets, quiffs or spiky tops in evidence. I imagine this year it will be the shaved side parting that gives clues to the historians of the future.

But most interesting for me is how the class photo captures the cultural make-up of the community. In Hertfordshire in the 1970s, every class photograph I feature in is almost 100% white British. Having looked through the school archive, I can see that Highgate Primary has a long tradition of multi-culturalism. This year our Year 3 classes collectively represent 15 home languages. We are an international school within an international city.

Next year, when the class photograph of every one of London’s 2410 Year 3 classes is on display in London’s greatest institution of modern art, it will be fascinating to see what our community of Year 3 classes look like.

What’s more, in the future, all of our 8 and 9 year-olds will be able to say that they’ve had their portrait exhibited at the Tate.

William