Tom Bennett

Home » educating essex » Educating Essex, episode one: Things can only get worser

Educating Essex, episode one: Things can only get worser

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Is it exam results day already?
I rejoice, and the civilised world rejoices, because Thursdays have given me a reason to turn on the television in the barren,  Apocalyptic dystopia that exists between Holby City and Extreme Nursery Cage Fighting on Channel 5. Educating Essex, Channel 4’s latest fixed-rig Panopticon, started this week, and from the looks of things I now have another perfectly serviceable excuse not to mark anything for the next four weeks (not that I ever need an excuse; today’s justification was ‘had to hide from falling satellite in pub’). 65 not-so-hidden cameras, 900 kids, a fruity deputy head who should be playing Mother Goose in panto, and a cast of chummy, eternally patient desperados ready to deliver their punch lines on cue. It’s masterpiece theatre.
It’s easy to sneer- my God, it’s easy- so I won’t. EE is a fly-on-the-wall, detention-setting, parent-phoning record breaker of a program. If they had a little sister program called Educating Extra on immediately after it on E4, I’d have Tivo’d the crap out of it. By the end of it I was hugging myself with the kind of abandon that only an educational blogger can feel; like a shark that’s just swum into a seal hospice. Where do you even begin?
For a start, the school was called Passemores- PASS MORES FOR GOD’S SAKE. Who built it, Charles Dickens? John Bunyan? It was chosen by the program makers because- and I’m quoting- it was ‘representative of the average school’. Which is interesting, because Ofsted gave it a bill of Outstanding last time they popped in, and It gets an A*-C rate that many schools would sell their janitor for medical research to achieve. So it’s hardly a typical school, unless we want to describe tachyons as ‘quite fast’.
Talking of underestimating things, to say that filming in schools presents ethical issues would be to describe Tuliza from N-Dubz as ‘a bit lucky’. Bertrand Russell and David Attenborough would find it hard to circle the square dance of delicacy required to do something like this without bulldozing over countless issues of child exploitation and the seduction of the innocent. The honey trap of instant celebrity/ notoriety is a powerful perfume for anyone, and by that I mean the teachers as well as the kids. One TV producer I worked with a while back asked me for help putting him in touch with schools prepared to be filmed. He called such Heads ‘telly tarts’. The implication was clear.
Talking about the ethical and practical dimensions, the producer, Hannah Lowe said:

“Around 20 or 25 were on our radar and my job was to get under their skins and get their trust,” says Lowes. “It was a very important time in their lives and they were going through some big changes.”

Yep- you had to gain their trust, just like teachers do. So you can turn them into telly! Brilliant. That’s what trust is about; convincing people to open up to you, so you can carpet-bomb them on the box. Memorably the crew were careful to tell the kids that this wasn’t a fast-track to ‘being the next Jade Goody,’ and if that doesn’t make the blood freeze in your veins a little then I suggest you are a cadaver already.
Let’s be clear- the first imperative of projects like this, is to make compelling TV; apparently they filmed 150 hours of footage every day for seven weeks. Ask a grown-up work out how much that is, and then boil it down to the most entertaining four hour programs. Every day, the TV producers had 22 microphones, which would be allocated to the most promising ‘narratives’. They spent months in the school observing lessons and school life to get a feel for where the cameras should be placed. And- holy smoke! – one or two of them ended up in the detention room. Who would have guessed? One of the intended aims, stated by the makers and the Head alike, was to show the public the ‘real side’ to school, an unvarnished image of what really goes on. But we all know what the road to Hell is paved with. This is no more realistic than the toothless stage wrestling of the judges’ desk in X-Factor, or the ‘will-they-finish-it-lawsamercy– anxiety of Grand Designs. It might be kitchen sink, but it’s still drama.
But, as Salvador Dali memorably said, ‘Art uses lies to tell the truth,’ and even the artifice of fable can be used to teach us something useful or even true. And that’s what I think TOWIEE does, even more fabulously than its genetic ancestor Jamie’s Dream School, which made a star of John D’Abbro and…well, no one else. Where that was a laboratory disaster, a homunculus of a man pretending to be a school, Passmores has the benefit of being a genuine bona fide comprehensive, with some exceedingly fine looking teachers in it.
This week the star of the school show had to be Deputy Diva Mr Drew, and I’ll pre-empt your anxiety by announcing him as my Educational Hero of the Week right now, in case you can’t bear it. It was going to be the hero, glimpsed only briefly like a Unicorn, who dismissed his class with the devastating and Olympian line, ‘Get out, scumbags,’ delivered deadpan, cold as the icy tomb of Judas. That man should be teaching the next generation of PGCE students, not wasting his time with a few kids. He mopped up a few predictable brickbats today in the more bilious sections of the middle-brow media, simply because, on the surface, such an address appears the very soul of unprofessionalism, and the first word in an industrial tribunal.
What these humourless rentagobs fail to see is that- even in the microclip offered- his kids seemed perfectly at ease with his comment, and he delivered it with the masterful unconcern of a Jedi master of classroom relationships. Someone who has no idea about modern state secondary teaching might pinch their raddled sphincters in mock disapproval, but they have no idea about education, and teaching, so we can safely ignore their opinion. Frankly, I couldn’t give a thin shit what people who have no experience of teaching think of such things, in the same way that I imagine Brian Cox isn’t worried what Carol Vorderman thinks about particle physics.
”I’m handsome,you’re pretty.’
So, this chap Drew. You can see why the producers were drawn to him- he’s Mr Saturday Night. When they saw him, they must have thought, ‘Looks like we can order that champagne after all, boys.’ Normally when you describe someone as a character, we mean a hacking basket case who wears novelty jumpers and cries a lot when they get home to their empty, echoing houses. But Mr Drew has character like Simon Cowell has mannish girlfriends with large hands and Adam’s Apples- in spades. Like many gifted teachers, there’s a drop of obsession about him, an absolute determination that his way is right; not for his benefit, but because he believes his relentless, eternally dogged pursuit of good behaviour and manners will result in the very best  education for the kids.
And you know what? He’s absolutely right. The monotonous, repetitive drone of him saying, ‘Take the hoodie off; take the hoodie off. Take. The. Hoodie. Off…’ ad inifinitum is exactly one of the ways that teachers can constructively deflect the equally inane and irrational ardour of many teenagers attachment to their own whims and possessions. It looks like a waste of time; it’s a Herculean response to the problem of having to clean out the Aegean Stables every day, with every kid, forever. The minute a kid reckons he can out last your stubbornness with their stubbornness, they realise that they can do whatever they like if only they’re tenacious enough. And teachers need to have the guts and the chops to show them that when it comes to endurance races, we’ve got more wind than them. A blessing, then,  on Mr Drew and his house. His earnest, believable sentiments about giving every kid in his care a good education comes from the heart; and it’s a sentiment shared by the majority of teachers I have ever known- behave, listen, learn, and I will give you something valuable that can help you in your lives. Amen, brothers and sisters.
Miss Congeniality
That said, there’s a big discussion to be had about the wisdom of their no-exclusion policy. It’s admirable as an ambition, but as a strategy it is doomed by its own premise. It’s the opposite of justice; a product of compassion unrestrained by considerations of utility and need. There will always be a confused, angry minority of students who reject the opportunity of twelve years of free education. And every time one of them cusses a teacher, makes a scene, flaps and howls and moans, a teacher is taken away from teaching, and the class is put on pause while some bitter narcissist has their ego bathed in gore and glory. Every second a teacher spends on them is taken from thirty others. Of course, we give chances, and we try to prevent exclusion. But sometimes, it’s not just the regrettable, last option for us- sometimes, it’s the right thing to do; the just thing to do. Mr` Drew’s claim that excluded children frequently end up in prison, relies on a false syllogism:
P1: Excluded children often go on to prison after exclusion
P2: If I do not exclude them, they will not be excluded children
C: Therefore they will not go to prison.
This is, I imagine, the logic that informs the drive for later and later compulsory education. But it confuses cause and effect- they don’t go to prison because they were rejected by school, but rather the type of people who find themselves facing frequent exclusions are probably the same people who find the life of robbing and mischief equally alluring. Just a thought. Keeping these kids in an education system they apparently despise long after their educational sell-by date might convert a few bad eggs into…well, curate’s eggs at least, but my God, the damage it does to the mainstream body of students. They sit, and they wait, and they wait, and they wonder why the grown-ups haven’t, or can’t seem to deal with the naughty kids, and why they seem powerless to teach.
That said, kids like Charlotte, seem easily within the grasp of a school to contain, if they simply apply the right pressure and loving boundaries, leavened with a healthy dose of internal exclusions. Beyond the cameras, I’m sure she’s the essence of charm and academic vigour- telly adds ten pounds to your ego. The TV version of Carmelita, at least, did her best to appear charmless, witless and mannerless (and succeeded) in this first episode. 
But with some students, who persist in their self-destruction, there has to come a point at which a school says, ‘OK, we’ve tried. Cheerio.’ People who howl at this as some symptom of faithlessness are invited to consider this: do you realise what the cost to the other students is, by allowing such people to remain? I’ll tell you for free: it means that the other kids learn half as much. I promise you this. You can have one or the other. Take your cat calendar aphorisms and your rainbows and ponies about every child being a bundle of dreams and fairy wishes, and stick them up your arse. We teachers have no time for your fantasies. The children have no time for your fantasies.
‘Quick, one of them’s about to set fire to the place- zoom in!’
And no self-respecting, obsessive blog about this would be complete with a mention of the charming Carmelita, who, for the sake of spite and malice and the God-given right to wear a hoodie (guaranteed, no doubt, in the Geneva convention on Child Rights *checks* oh sorry it isn’t), was prepared to go along with an allegation of assault on the dapper Mr Drew. That’s right, a career –ending allegation that could lead to criminal charges and penury for the man. I think every teacher in Christendom rejoiced when the egocentric shrew had her story pulverised by the cameras. And every teacher leapt from the sofa at the sight of the earnest, professional English teacher call her mother in an attempt wrestle some sort of resolution out of the situation, only to be told by the parent of the year that he was ‘licking the Deputy’s arse.’ It was pure comedy gold, as his smile turned to a frown, the phone went down, and the positivity morphed into disgust. There’s something desperate when a phone call gets to that point, but as every public servant knows, at least it finally gives you the moral high ground you need to slam the bloody phone down without fear of reprisal.
If this program does any good- and I don’t care if it does, it’s certainly done me some good- then it’s to show how restrained teachers often are by process and bureaucracy, and how often we have to deal with misbehaviour, contempt, rudeness and challenge. We aren’t looking for the compliance of automatons; we’re trying to teach children. The sad fact is that the allegation made against Drew is neither uncommon nor exceptional; kids say things like this all the time. Some of them know exactly how to play the system, demanding Dragnet levels of evidence before admitting guilt, and knowing that in reality there is very little that a teacher can do if the pupil wants to be defiant and aggressive. Call home? And speak to Supermom?
Next Thursday cannot come quickly enough.
Last thoughts:
  • Their senior leadership meetings look a riot. I’d like to think that, instead of discussing behaviour and observations and the like, all SLT are instead exchanging parcels of magnetic pubic wigs and other humour-free trinkets of pointlessness.
  • Throwing a snowball at kids is a VERY BAD IDEA; it simply tells them ‘OK, kids, throw ice and rocks at me…and EVERY OTHER TEACHER, EVER, UNTIL THE END OF TIME.’ Children often lack subtlety. Do not provoke them to assault you with weapons. Seriously.
  • The Telegraph didn’t let anyone down, as it simultaneously ran a snooty ‘schools have gone to Hell’ story accompanied by…yes, fruity school girls in cabaret make-up. Perhaps someone should tell the picture Ed that these girls are in year 11. Not so funny or fruity, eh?
  • Twitter spiked like a Geiger counter in Bruce Banner’s saddle when this was running. Every teacher in the Western Hemisphere appeared to be watching.

And who can blame them? This is fantastic telly. In the next few weeks, come with me *puts on Jacques Cousteau voice* as we find out if it’s something more. I have high hopes.

12 Comments

  1. Neil says:

    Yes, it looks like being a good few weeks 🙂 I was developing a man-crush on Mr Drew until he said that permanent exclusions are always wrong. Then he admitted that viewers at home would be wondering 'What do these kids have to say to you to get kicked out?' Problem is, some kids actually seem to decide to test this on a practical level!

    It can't be right that making a false allegation = start your Christmas holiday early…

  2. David says:

    I'll have to stop and watch it now….8-) Great blog post!

  3. Anonymous says:

    Great piece, Tom. Perhaps the best I've read since the media frenzy began with the ignorant Daily Mail's article… which was actually posted 20 minutes before the first episode even finished. (Interestingly it didn't make it to the actual paper. I wonder if that had anything to do with the 400+ comments that slated its stance.)

    And Neil, a false allegation = exclusion… it just happened to be a few days before the Christmas hols began.

  4. Anonymous says:

    Why has it taken me so long to discover this blog?

  5. Anonymous says:

    I was out on Thursday night. I may not be next week. I also noticed teachtwitsplosion whilst out.

    On the subject of snowballs it's all about context. My current head will go out snowballing with the kids (and use it as a photo op). My last school suspended anyone seen holding snow. I think somewhere in the middle there's a line that works :p

  6. Russ says:

    An excellent Blog, I have shared on Google+! I worked in a very difficult school at one time and was approached by a television production company wanting to do exactly what they have done at Passmores. Fortunately I am not a telly tart and refused, I cannot tell you how many times I was thankful for that decision on Thursday!

  7. gillibob says:

    I will definitely have to watch it now! Although i suspect it will be a bit like home, albeit a Southern version as i am oop North 🙂

  8. Andrew Hall says:

    I laughed outloud watching Educating Essex and I laughed out loud reading your blog piece (in a good way!)

    The programme was great tele and it has to be remembered that it is entertainment. Like recent series 'My Fat Gypsy Wedding' and 'Seven Dwarves', I hope the tone of these lighter starter programmes will begin to become darker and raise more serious issues about education as the series wears on.

    I could make lots of positive comments about what you've said, but I'll just say that after spending the best part of 20 years in SEBD schools and PRUs, the 'we never permanently exclude' policy is an admirable hope, but ignores the role of specialist provisions in the continuum of need. In other words, mainstream schools hope to cope with a certain amount of disruptive behaviour which they're having an impact on changing, but then transfer to a specialist provison has to be part of the response to unacceptable behaviour. Transfer to a specialst SEBD school or PRU isn't a failure, labelling it as a Px is. There is a case for schools saying that your behaviour is unacceptable in our school, it is stopping signficant numbers of other children learning effectively and we know somewhere else who can help with your difficulties elsewhere. You are always welcome back here.

    Having said all that, there are schools that exclude as soon as possible and don't care what happens next to the pupil.

    As usual a happy medium has to be found.

    As a final thought, maybe Carmelita and Charlotte actually behave like that because at some level they recognise that Mr Drew offers them unswerving support and boundaries that are missing elsewhere and their behaviour ensures that they get more of it. As Carmelita leaves, she does look remorseful. Personally, such a downright, career-ending lie, would have ended her time in my school. Specialist SEBD or not.

    PS I particularly enjoyed your phrase, 'Take your cat calendar aphorisms and your rainbows and ponies about every child being a bundle of dreams and fairy wishes, and stick them up your arse.'

    I shall save Educating Essex and keep it for watching on bad days!

  9. Anonymous says:

    An excellent blog post, Rob, but I think it is important to note that the school did not say they don't ever have to permanently exclude, just that they strive not to. Mr Drew saying he thinks it is 'morally wrong' to permanently exclude doesn't mean that he doesn't have to do it from time to time. The head, Vic Goddard, was on Radio 4's Loose Ends last night and clarified that exact point. He permanently excluded just last year! Students like Carmelita may not have been permanently excluded, but may very well be in one of the insitutions to which Andrew Hall refers in his post above.

  10. Tom Bennett says:

    @ Thanks for the really cool comments everyone. And thanks for the people who point out that the school DOES exclude- the no-exclusion clause is simply an aspiration for them, which I think is a perfectly credible one if it is married to the acknowledgement that this might not be possible. The camera can sometimes be an obscura, and it's important we recognise that too.

    Also I'd add that I think that perm exclusion should lead to the kind of educational provision that Andrew mentions; dedicated teams of professionals who are trained to cope with extreme spectrum kids- I certainly don't want them punted out into the streets either. Being in favour of exclusions doesn't mean you don't give a damn about them. It's because we give a damn that we aspire to have them in appropriate institutions, not crammed into mainstream pressure cookers…

    Tom

  11. Jane Cross says:

    I'm puzzled as to why the allegation of touching her shoulder provoked such a response and was referred to as a possible “assault”. Even if he had touched her shoulder it would surely have been reasonable in circumstances? I know this was pre DfE 'clarification' on physical intervention but responding to such situations by saying someone's 'career could be at stake' has surely always been a misguided and over reactice response?

  12. Neil says:

    OK, thanks for the clarification about the fact that they do permanently exclude. But, Anonymous, I stand by my comment that her punishment did amount to starting the holiday early. It's educated guesswork in her case, since I can't tell how she feels about or responds to things, but there are a great many kids who are utterly hardened to temporary exclusions, and learn nothing from them. It's a case of come in for a couple of days, be disruptive, tell a teacher to fuck off, have a few days at home on the x-box and then back in for some more. It is utterly unlike the permanent, life-wrecking exclusion from education that Carmelita's teacher would have got, had she been believed.

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