Archives for posts with tag: schools

Public services are always a hot political topic here in the UK. We are always asking more of our healthcare system, law and order bodies and educational establishments. There is always a kerfuffle when things go wrong and little reward for those that makes things right. Hence the need to set the record straight so often.

It is why the public services feature so prominently in documentaries. These are tales of how the day-to-day is done away from the headlines. Many I don’t watch, especially police-based ones, purely because they don’t interest me. But education ones do. There is something so vital in how your school years form you that make the stakes that bit higher.

Educating Greater Manchester is the latest in the series and offers the usual winning combination of heart-warming stories, humour and serious challenges. The first episode highlighted many of these. It centred round how the community of the school was changing through immigration and how the issues raised are tackled.

The focus of this was Rani, an 11-year-old who had recently arrived from Syria fleeing the civil war. He was struggling to fit in through poor English and was even being bullied. An older boy from Syria, who had settled in the UK three years ago, became his mentor. He also befriended Jack. Between these two figues, his confidence grew. A particularly touching moment was when Rani discovered he no longer needed to be in the remedial class and was able to join Jack in normal lessons, which led him to burst into tears. I may also have had something in my eye at this point.

The humour was provided by Jack and Rani’s gang tacking advantage of a dirty van in the driveway by drawing the usual cock and balls that are so amusing when you are that age. Well, any age really. If you don’t smile at someone having written ‘I wish my wife was this dirty’ on a mucky vehicle I can’t help you. Even the headteacher Mr Povey found himself having to fight to keep a straight face when disciplining the boys, although he did.

But the challenges of integration weren’t shied away from. A friend of Rani’s mentor from Afghanistan was called Osama by another student, leading to an angry confrontation. Even the mentor himself was, albeit more accidentally, called a terrorist by a Polish student, which just goes to show not all the tensions are between natives and newcomers, but also between immigrants themselves.

There was also the backdrop of the aftermath of the Manchester Concert attack, which some students had attended and, thankfully, survived. What was most telling was that Jack, who lets remember is barely 12, was able to process it in a way that some of my generation and older can’t. He knew that Rani was not responsible for it. Nor his family. Not even his religion. It was a bad person who would have always been bad regardless of religion or absence of it. He wasn’t going to end his friendship with Rani. Oh no, they had more cock and balls to draw.

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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.

A good observational documentary has at its heart the same ingredients as a work of fiction. Engaging, complex characters, a well-told narrative and the ability to create a variety of emotions in its audience. Educating Yorkshire demonstrates this perfectly, whilst also shedding light on that political football that is the education system. Every aspect of school life has been repeatedly tinkered with by governments and education secretaries prioritising their own ideological agendas over the needs of children for decades, and neither the political left or right can be judged as particularly shining examples.

The producers have chosen not to take a direct political line, but instead spent the first episode telling the story of three particular students, and in doing so perhaps told us more about the realities of childhood today than any manifesto driven programme could. First, Bailey, full of teenage girl swag, wearing several layers of make-up and generally being a bit bolshy. ‘Ugh, how ridiculously dolled-up she looks’ was no doubt everyone’s first reaction. But in a lovely tender moment, she explained to the camera why she painted herself: she was attacked by a dog as a small child leaving her with facial scars. Even in the age before Heat magazine and the like this would have left her feeling awkward, but no this was almost a social death sentence. In an loving cut-away, two teachers discussed Bailey’s issues, showing genuine concern about a lack of inner confidence that could be her undoing. If only that outward energy could be channelled into being a role model for the younger girls instead of being disruptive. Sadly, Bailey’s hopes of being made a prefect were dashed by her own behaviour, that left the viewer wondering if her inner demons would forever lead her to self-sabotage.

Another student facing demons was Kamreem, a mixed-race student who it appeared was never given the right start in life, although the exact details were kept private. Forever butting heads with other students, sometimes literally, he was becoming a regular fixture in the head teacher’s office. His mum seemed a sweet sort who wasn’t entirely sure what to do with him. He broke down in tears when he realised the consequences of weeks of his misbehaviour, but was quick to say no-one ever listened to his side of the story. This wasn’t entirely true it seemed, at least not as regards Mr Mitchell, but again the viewer was left with questions that this documentary couldn’t, and perhaps shouldn’t, answer. Who did Kamreem have at home to look up to? More importantly perhaps, should teachers be social workers and child psychologists, stepping in where parents have failed? Would we as a society let them intervene if they were able to?

Amongst these two stories full of shade came a ray of sunshine in Ryan. Sweet, good-natured and a little cheeky in a way that 12-year-olds should be (asking his teacher if she was going through the menopause was the second funniest moment in the show, beaten only by the Head of Year 7 being flummoxed by ‘sexting’.) Like Bailey, he too wanted to be a prefect. His speech came from the heart – like so many of the kids, he only wanted a chance. He wants to become an actor or a policeman, wanting to either entertain or help people. One teacher suggested he could be prime minister. If he does become a politician, I hope he becomes education secretary at some point. Having seen teachers keep going despite being driven to the edge, he is better qualified than anyone else to know what schools need.