Archives for posts with tag: education

It is often hard to work out who school-set dramas are pitched at. The teenage characters’ heady hormones are distant memories to many parents, while it is hard to imagine the younger generation being interested in storylines concerning the private lives of teachers. Both groups would feel that 50% of the show is uninteresting and a distraction from the stories that they do want to see.

Yet they are popular. The current horse from that stable is Ackley Bridge. It shares some key features with its predecessor Waterloo Road. Troubled school in a northern town. Plotlines that are soapy to the extreme. Relationships between teachers being every bit as rocky as those between the kids.

But Ackley Bridge is on Channel 4, so therefore is a little, but only a little closer to the edge in the social commentary it offers. For a start, this isn’t a comprehensive, but an academy. How much they explore the influence of ‘sponsors’ on how education is delivered remains to be seen, although there have been hints at it.

The big theme though is multi-culturism. This academy is formed from two previously segregated schools (not deliberately, just as a result of the postcode lottery our education system creates), one from a predominantly Asian community, the other largely white. The cultural conflicts form a major thrust of many of the storylines, whether it is exploring LGBT relationships in BME communities or the tension between assimilating into a nation whilst being proud of your religion.

There is some debate as to how much we should put these kind of issues through the soapy treatment shows like this create. It feels as if these issues are almost too big to be reduced to be mixed in with others plots like affairs. At the same time though, not everyone is going to watch a hard-hitting drama or searing documentary series, so if telling them the story through a slightly more trivial medium allows the message to spread wider then it is all to the good.

Of course, none of this matters if the show is rubbish. Well, it isn’t. Granted, I don’t love it. The headteacher-husband-sponsor love triangle is a bit too predictable, and I do wonder if there is perhaps one plot too many, making it hard to grasp on to any of the characters. But there are worthwhile storylines as well. Nasreen exploring her sexuality with the help of her friend Missy seems a strong seem to follow, and I’m intrigued enough to see where the Jordan Wilson plot goes to keep investing. Plus there is Sunetra Sarker playing the sassiest dinnerlady ever created.

At just six episodes, the first series may be too short to do it justice. But if it gets a second one, an extended run could help the show find its legs.

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.