The press have been working themselves into a lather about Educating Essex
, C4's new documentary about an Essex comprehensive, Passmores Technology College now Academy
, with the Mail writing
It's a school where foul-mouthed teachers brand pupils 'scumbags' and liberally use four-letter words.
I'd be interested to know what other people think. I was commissioned by the Radio Times to write a review and interview with the headteacher before the show was broadcast. I watched one episode and thought overall the documentary presented the school, and by implication, state schools very positively. My piece was not run in the form that is printed below because it was decided the RT wanted an opinion piece instead and no interview/review on the TV show. Was I being hopelessly naive in thinking that the show might present state schools in a positive light?
Here's my piece:
At last, here’s a TV documentary that tells the truth about our schools. Channel 4’s Classmates is perhaps the most ambitious “slice-of-life” documentary ever made in a school. The programme makers gained unprecedented access to a large successful secondary school, Passmores School and Technology College in Harlow, Essex. For seven weeks of the autumn term of 2010, 62 cameras were placed throughout the school, focussing on a number of Year 11 students and their teachers.
What I found heartening was that this programme is a “warts and all” celebration of school. Because the school is in many ways your “average” secondary school – a non-selective local comp – it is emblematic of many schools up and down the country. It’s exactly the sort of documentary which many teachers like me have been crying out for. Why? In order to counter-act the pernicious myths perpetuated by a largely hostile and ignorant media that the majority of schools are failing their pupils. Nothing could be further from the truth; the schools’ inspectorate, Ofsted, judges the behaviour in 86% of schools to be good or better, and considers 7 out of 10 schools to be good or outstanding in the overall provision they provide for their pupils. Indeed, myself and some other parents, journalists and teachers have been so worried about this that we set up a website, The Local Schools Network (www.localschoolsnetwork.org.uk
), which aims to celebrate our local schools instead of denigrate them.
What’s great in this programme is that we are constantly reminded by the pleasant behaviour of the pupils in assembly, the hush in the classrooms, and the orderly corridors, that this school, like vast majority of state schools, is a calm, purposeful place. Nevertheless, like a fly attracted to the dirtier things in life, the camera does gravitate towards the miscreants in this show. Critics of state schools may well hold up some of the behaviour that’s depicted here as evidence that everything’s going to pot, but I think the programme makers make it clear that misbehaviour is comparatively rare. In the episode I watched, we see a truculent teenage girl, Carmelita, tell the Deputy Headteacher, Mr Steven Drew, to piss off after he asks her to remove her non-regulation hoodie. She stalks off, ignoring Drew’s command to talk to him. The situation then takes a dramatic turn for the worse when she makes a false allegation against Drew that he’s manhandled her.
Drew’s boss, the headteacher, Vic Goddard, talked me through the incident: “Ultimately the moment another person’s education is affected by that person, you have to intervene and things can become very heated, particularly when it’s a member of staff being accused and not a pupil. But that’s exactly why Carmelita did it: to deflect attention away from her own wrong-doing. It’s very dramatic – but not reflective of what goes on in the school as a whole. That’s why in 7 programmes there’s only 15 minutes of footage in lessons. Because our classrooms are very well disciplined, there make boring TV. Carmelita, Luke and Vinnie are highlighted in the series because they are difficult characters, but these troublesome pupils are in a tiny minority. Unfortunately, the senior management as a whole spent a large part of our time dealing with 3% of the kids. They are often out of lessons, because once they are in lessons, they’re just not ready to learn. That’s we have to deal with them. The TV makers focused upon them because they make great viewing – at our expense!”
This might explain why it’s very seductive to paint schools as hotbeds of indiscipline. I know this myself as I’ve just published a novel, The Last Day Of Term, which depicts an inner-city school in a state of disarray: writing about bad behaviour was a good way of maintaining narrative tension. My book is very much a work of fiction but it does, ironically, contain an incident similar to the one in the documentary when a pupil, like Carmelita makes a false allegation against a teacher. In my novel, the allegation causes turmoil, but fortunately, in real life, the matter was quickly cleared up by the no-nonsense Goddard, who used CCTV footage to prove that there was absolutely no substance to the allegation. Carmelita was duly excluded from school, but allowed return after the Christmas holidays, which were, at the time, only a few days away.
It’s a fascinating incident to reflect upon this because it illuminates, in so many ways, the challenges facing both teachers and pupils in your average school. Vic Goddard and I both agreed Steven Drew had a clear choice after he’d been told to piss off; he could have let the girl go and “cool off” – or he could have insisted that she “followed the school rules” and speak to him about her behaviour instead of walking away.
Goddard said: “Steven’s job is ‘standards’: target-setting, data analysis, uniform, detention, rewards, all those sorts of things. Steven is very much the person who maintains the discipline on a day-to-day basis. Carmelita is one of those forces of nature, who would, if you were to let her get away with something like that, go to everyone in the school telling them about it. Ultimately that erodes discipline and standards, Steve’s not going to let that happen. He works hard every day to make sure people don’t do that.”
As Drew says himself in the show, dealing with young people is ultimately about forming good relationships with them. Classmates shows that forming a good relationships with teenagers isn’t about “giving in” to them, but about imposing boundaries and showing you care. For many of these children it’s clear that school is their place of sanctuary in an otherwise hostile world. Like good parents, the best schools both nurture and protect, and provide structure. At Passmores, the pupils know where they stand but they also know that all the teachers care passionately about them.
The one criticism of the show might be that the school could be placing these children in a vulnerable position by broadcasting their lives to the nation. A number of documentaries about school in the past have actually been quite morally dubious; pupils’ misbehaviour becomes a “freakshow”, turning the viewer into voyeur.
I questioned Goddard at length about these issues. He said: “If I’m honest, because we’ve been judged an outstanding school by Ofsted, we had more to lose than to gain from doing the documentary. But ultimately, I’m very proud of the school, proud of the kids and the staff, they are the absolute top-top, both staff and students. I’m fairly confident within our school’s skin; we do have difficult characters, child mental health issues, all the typical stuff connected with many modern families, the stuff that working class schools have. I know we do a good job with it. At that point, it was right, we’re a risk-taking school – we’ve experimented in all sorts of ways – and so we thought: why not?”
For me, the gamble has certainly paid off in a way that it simply hasn’t with other school docs. At last, we have a piece of primetime TV which nails the lie that our schools are cesspits of bullying and incompetence -- and shows that the opposite is really the case. Schools like Passmores are the great achievements of our society, full of light, laughter and, above all, learning.