Reality TV is, to me, a very broad term that encompasses a lot of different types of show with very different audiences. Even within each sub-genre there are massive contrasts – for example the brash and loud The X Factor lives in the same branch of programmes as the genteel Great British Bake Off, although heaven forbid a fan of the latter should find themselves tied to the former.

The biggest boom in this genre is the observational documentaries. Channel 4 has cornered the market in this with great success. 24 Hours In Police Custody, One Born Every Minute etc., etc., etc. One of my favourites in this genre is the Educating… series. The Yorkshire series was a particular delight, and created accidental heroes and starts out of its participants.

Currently the spotlight is on Cardiff and Willows High School. The opening shots make it look like the entire school is feral, as kids swarm over dinner tables and kick pigeons. Lord of the Flies with tarmac and plastic chairs is the best way to describe it. Yet this is quickly exposed as an unfair picture, as 99% of the time the school appears to be run efficiently with disciplined staff who are able to reign in even the most destructive of teenagers.

Each episode follows roughly the same construction: two kids of the same age but with different problems are followed, as is the teacher who has to manage both of them. In episode 1 these were Leah and Jessica, two Year 11’s on the cusp of adulthood. Leah had a problem with attendance and behaviour. Jessica was the perfect student but had low self-esteem and was baffled by the social aspects of school. Mr. Hennessy, who comes from the old-school of work hard and reap rewards later, was tasked with solving their problems.

There were some heart-breaking moments. After weeks of trying to get through to Leah, Mr. Hennessy received a text from her in which she confessed to all her problems. She didn’t see the point of coming to school because nothing would change where she felt she was heading, which was down. Hennessy’s stony exterior broke as he faced a tough choice: give up on her and let go down the path she was heading, or sacrifice even more of his time and try to rescue her. Meanwhile, Jessica was put in charge of the school newspaper, but internally was flailing as she struggled to handle interacting with other students. As someone who has social phobias myself, I felt for her and wished for the breakthrough she needed.

Balancing this high drama were moments of sheer joy. Both students achieved what they needed to, and the time put in by the staff was rewarded. Leah found that by putting a bit of work in, she could give herself options. Jessica, meanwhile, became confident and happier.

At the centre of this though is a question: to what extent does these programmes reveal the success or failure of a government’s approach to education? Certainly, the successes seem to stem from teachers who are innovative, passionate and dedicated. At no point is the government referenced in what support, if any, they give schools. Is it therefore a clarion call for the government to be more appreciative of the work teachers do, and not make them bend to the whim of the minister who is in charge at the time? Or is it praising the growing independence that the government is introducing in the education sector? Perhaps in order to answer these questions, the show needs to tell the teachers’ stories as well as the students. Or perhaps it’s not meant to answer these questions.

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