sat 18/11/2017

Educating Essex, Channel 4 | reviews, news & interviews

Educating Essex, Channel 4

Educating Essex, Channel 4

Fly-on-the-blackboard documentary about secondary school life

Education as entertainment: Year 11 pupils from Passmores Secondary School. Or is it St Trinian's?

Education, education, education. Have we ever worried so much about how, and what, and why, and where our children are being taught? We’re so desperate, it seems, for some guidance on the matter that we barely raise an eyebrow about turning their trials and tribulations into fodder for reality television. Never mind the dubious ethics, we might learn something.

Educating Essex is a seven-part fly-on-the-blackboard documentary examining life for the teachers and Year 11 pupils at Passmores Secondary School in Harlow, Essex. The access, we were told, was impressive. I could think of some other words for it. Sixty-five fixed cameras captured every detail of life in the school from the corridors to the canteen, the head teacher’s office to the detention hall. This was basically Big Brother offering a sideline in GCSEs.

What we didn’t see much of, at least last night, was the classroom. The opening episode was all about discipline rather than teaching, meaning the action centred around deputy head Stephen Drew (pictured below), self appointed “gatekeeper” on the front line between staff and pupils. “I’m going to be the brick wall,” he intoned in the kind of flatlining sing-song voice that used to announce that the 16.25 from Faversham would shortly be arriving at Victoria. “What [the pupil] wants to do is on the other side of that wall and I am afraid I am the brick wall and you’re not getting past.”

Described by head teacher Mr Goddard as a “little sergeant major”, Drew wasn’t, shall we say, entirely unappreciative of the attentions of a camera crew. Yet he was clearly the engine that drove the school forward (or at least stopped it from stalling), sitting at his desk, his mouth filled with Pogues lyrics and mini Weetabix, never happier than when engaged in Hoody Patrol.

Inevitably the camera generally lingered on his contretemps with troublesome pupils rather than the dull old do-gooders. Drew had a slightly paternal relationship with problematic Charlotte, whose pitch-perfect rendition of the genus Stroppy Teen seemed to have arrived straight from the editing suite of The Catherine Tate Show: “OMIGODletmesitontheflooritdontbovverme,” she wailed at one of a million perceived slights.

Watching Charlotte’s difficulties with school life served up as entertainment, one couldn’t help but question the good sense in allowing cameras into the school. Drew worried that we would watch this programme and think that he and his fellow teachers were “a bunch of fucking idiots”. I didn’t think that. Passmores is clearly not a bad school (it's rated "outstanding" by Ofsted) and Drew is obviously a committed teacher, but so-called reality TV is merciless in pursuing its own ends; ultimately it can’t help but reduce everyone it touches to light-entertainment archetypes. Thus Drew was cast somewhere between David Brent and Captain Mainwaring, while Goddard appeared to be on secondment from CBeebies: when he wasn't jumping out from behind doors to spook his deputy, he was bursting into his classroom flourishing a cake and singing “you look like a monkey and you smell like one, too” to the tune of “Happy Birthday”, as a group of deeply embarrassed 15 and 16-year-olds examined their finger nails.

Not only does television shrink real life, but real life starts to willingly bend to fit the confines of the camera. A minor set-to over a hoody – what else? – between bad lass Carmelita, Mr Drew and a blundering, bifro-ed English teacher (think Simon Callow crossed with Stephen Mangan) seemed slightly stage-managed. The irony of checking on-site CCTV footage to substantiate a trumped-up claim of “assault” when there were five dozen cameras capturing every flicker of school life didn’t seem to occur to anyone, but it did confirm that the programme-makers demanded a dramatic climax, however contrived. In the end, any emotion or event that couldn’t be telegraphed via an uplifting blast of Snow Patrol or a glowering dose of sub-Portishead atmospherics had no business being here.

The programme did hit on a few issues, not least the “catastrophic” impact of mobile phones on young people’s attention spans. There was also, perhaps as expected, a lot of soul-searching about exclusion being “morally unacceptable” and how every bad kid had a great kid just bursting to get out. What Educating Essex really re-enforced, however, was the terrible lack of clarity surrounding the teacher's role in 2011. Drew talked regretfully about the barely tangible generation gap and vanishing lines of discipline. We saw teachers getting hit by snowballs in the playground and not knowing whether to grin or combust. The tone was one of forced mateyness mixed with withering sarcasm and talk-to-the-hand attempts at overbearing authority, grist to the mill for those who believe we have lost the ability to communicate effectively with our children.

But we already know all this, don’t we? Educating Essex was often very funny ("What is Pi? Where did it come from?"), it was warm and undeniably good telly, but ultimately it offered little to suggest that our children and most valuable public sector workers weren't being shrunk to amusing bite-sized caricatures for entertainment rather than elucidation. In the six episodes to come, Educating Essex may end up telling us something startling and important about education in the UK in 2011. But it has told us next to nothing so far.

Sixty-five fixed cameras captured every detail of life in the school. This was basically Big Brother offering a sideline in GCSEs

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Comments

Terrible program - unrealistic and boring. Switched off! There must be better Deputy Head teachers!

Am I very pedantic to wonder whether teacher Anonymous of Harlow with that dodgy punctuation and lack of an apostrophe is much better than the targets? Back to school with you.

I thought it was good telly and although I wasn't entirely clear of its purpose (other than entertain). Oh well. Good article. Entertainment fodder *like*

I am an ex resident of Harlow as well as an ex teacher in a school less than a mile from this new academy rated outstanding from Ofsted. Myself and former colleagues watched this tv with our jaws dropped and our fingers flying to type our disbelief on facebook posts. The senior management team appeared more like the children. I hope that on the back of this exposure of 'real-life' events in Harlow's newest school heads will roll ~ preferably starting with the Head of Passmores, swiftly followed by that deputy who really should be doing another 'Airline' type programme rather than being held up as a prime exemplar of adulthood for young people. Please, government get a grip of our education system and stop these academies in their tracks. This appears to be a familiar management style in all the ones I come across. I moderate pupils work in many schools so see a lot of what goes on. Can we get back to actually providing an education at some stage soon?

Unfortunately, this school is not unrealistic and not untypical of academy education.

As a parent of 2 children who have or are passing thorugh Passmores, I can only speak in the highest terms about the staff at the school, one word sums them up HUMAN.

I was very disappointed with the first episode of this series. I thought at last we would get a chance to see children actually being educated and have a more balanced picture of life in a secondary school. However the focus was, as always, on the challenging behaviour and a small number of disaffected and badly behaved students. Far from the staff and pupils being unaffected by the cameras, the feeling was very much one of all those shown playing up very much to the cameras, most especially Mr Drew. I have no doubt the problems shown take up a huge amount of time and energy in any school in current times, but if this is an 'outstanding school' there must be plenty of times when students are engaged in learning and effective teaching is going on. I hope future episodes will give a more balanced picture.

We've already sat through lessons ourselves at school and been educated, why would we want to sit through lessons being streamed at this school, it would be very dull viewing indeed. The shows purpose is to enlighten and raise awareness of what schools face today, an increasing number of "challenging" children; what this show communicates is an outstanding school's ability to manage this current issue. As a trainee professional embarking on a career in mental health this show has provided me with some coping strategies to give such a client group support; for which I would like to thank the producers.

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