Tom Bennett

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Educating Essex 4: The Facts of Life

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Head of Sex-ed

‘Lord make me chaste…but not yet.’
St Augustine

Sex without love is an empty experience…but as empty experiences go, it’s a pretty good one.’
Woody Allen

This was the week in which a poll (ultimate truth alert!) revealed that 72% of children didn’t have the chance to influence their sex education lessons at school, and 78% of them thought they should. The message is clear- let the children speak; let their views echo through every valley and over every mountain top, yea, unto the lands of Cameron and the lands of Gove. Let every classroom ring with their voices, etc etc. It’s student voice again.  Save me.

“We are calling on young people to seize the opportunity to make their voices heard by telling us what they think 21st Century SRE should cover, to better meet their needs.”
Jules Hillier, Brook [teen sex health charity] deputy chief executive

21st century sex and relationships? I’d love to see how that differs from the boring old 20th century version. Does it involve Real Dolls and cables? I think not, I think not. Sexual relations between people has been- and I’m sticking my neck out here- a bit of a constant feature of humanity since Adam looked at Eve and said, ‘You need some help with that?’ Brook, the charity that commissioned the report (which therefore puts it entirely in the realm of credibility) is, I might add, righteous and good. The research, alas, was conducted by a third party called Research Bods, which proudly advertises its services as an agent for ‘PR, Marketing and advertising.’ One of the products they offer is ‘news generation’; isn’t that nice? They certainly got the kind of sciency news that gets published here. But I am cynical.

Educating Essex roared back into town with another episode that belied the tacky title this series has been saddled with: once again, we saw two main threads developed with sensitivity and some style.

The first one was…, well NOT sex, sex, sex, but the results thereof, as we followed the revelation of a student’s pregnancy and the way that hormonal hand grenade detonated in everyone’s lives. The protagonists were Liam and Sky, a sweet couple of kids who had done what generations had done for millennia before them and would continue to do so- fallen in love. Never, of course, underestimate the potency of a young love; it’s easy to scorn its depth and breadth from the vantage of eminence, but from inside the tryst, it’s as serious as anything more mature.

‘I used to be a maths teacher.’

Of course, they looked like children, too young to become parents. But that’s the convention of our culture; in other times and countries, they would have been the oldest parents in the village. Their bodies were clearly ready for the demands of the life force, but were their minds? This is always the main worry for professionals in charge of the welfare of children- can they handle it? Fortunately, it seemed that they could. Sky seemed, for the cameras at least, proud and happy to be carrying the next generation of Essex, and God bless her. Even her friends commented on her strength and grace, and so did I (you probably didn’t hear it, I was on the couch). Liam looked a bit more frazzled by the whole prospect, but if he had any reservations beyond the expected impact shock, we didn’t see it. He seemed more worried about what his Grand Dad would think, getting Sky’s mum to do the talking. He’s 16. Can you blame him?

Fortunately Grandpa was as cool as Christmas about the whole thing, although he admitted that his own dad would have blown a gasket if he’d done the same. It was, I must say, quite beautiful to see the rallying round that turned a teenage pregnancy from a potential disaster into the joy and awe that a new life can bring. If Vinni last week didn’t get a lump in your throat, then this was the second assault on your tear ducts.

And just as important was the reaction of the school: Vic Goddard, our knight-errant Head, did what he’s proved he does immaculately: understand, empathise and nurture. Liam was even offered Hot Chocolate. His face looked like Edward in Narnia being offered coffee and Turkish Delight by the White Queen. ‘Oh Boy!’ his eyes seemed to say, despite the whole baby conundrum. Then we met my educational hero of the week, Mrs Goddard, who shared her on-screen husband’s Betazoid emotional telepathy and gave them just the balance of reassurance and inspiration that the kid needed. ‘I wish I hadn’t done it now,’ Liam conceded understandably. ‘Well, tough, eh?’ said Vic, being exactly as direct as he needed to be, before compounding it with kindness and a reminder that everyone at school would help them through it.’I wouldn’t say you’ve made the best choice,’ he said, ‘but you are where you are.’ Have a hot chocolate, mate.

Sex: ‘Not uncommon.’

Liam seemed like a desperately decent young man, and showed it by focusing on getting through his exams and taking a course at college in painting and decorating to start supporting his new family. Life doesn’t permit us the luxury of making the choices we’d prefer very often; and when it throws an earthquake in our path, all we can do is start building again when the shaking stops. That, or bury ourselves in the rubble and ask, ‘Why me?’

The second plot line was sadder: an angry young man called Luke, 15, one of the 2% of the school populace who, in the words of Vic, ‘Took up 70% of the resources.’ We know he’s tough, because Vic tells us, ‘I know there’s a successful young person in there….but he tests my patience.’

And how: he’s been on report for weeks on end. ‘Being on report is serious,’ the narrator intoned with gravity. Unfortunately, it didn’t seem too serious to Luke if he’d been on report for so long; people can get used to any circumstance, given enough time. In his case he had to take his report to the eternally patient Ms Conway, Head of House, who had a rare and wonderful combination of teacher qualities: being direct and compassionate. Poor Mrs Goddard had to bear the blast of a Force Ten Luke when he stormed out in an angry huff from her lesson, with zero provocation other than the gentle pressure to work- every teacher’s duty and citadel. She demonstrated Garbo-like self-mastery in her refusal to either back down or blow up at him; the virtuous mean of assertiveness and mutual respect.

But Luke, as many angry young men are, was too far into a temper to back down; I could sense the rage, the wounded pride, and almost certainly the tortured regret that made it so hard for him to back down from the lonely corner into which he had boxed himself. We were also given the God’s-eye narrator’s gift of omniscience with the revelations that Luke had, like many others experienced tragedy in his life, reminding us that kids often have to endure circumstances that would break many older people.

When the staff were chasing him around school, propelled by rage, someone said, ‘He’s having a bad day.’ He had a lot of bad days, it seemed. Entered early for examination because they suspected that he might not make it to the end of GCSEs, he couldn’t hold it together, kicked off at the exam officer, and bowled out in another rage, angry at the world. ‘Good teachers,’ it was mentioned at the SLT meeting, ‘Say he’s unteachable.’ He lasted to the end of the year, and left with 7A*-Cs at GCSE, so the patience and the effort paid off to some extent, at least for Luke.

At what cost? I worry, and I wonder, often, about the impact that facilitating perpetually angry and combative pupils has on the rest of the school body. It’s a theme I return to often. Often, through reasons purely driven by compassion, we neglect the silent, biddable majority, and deny them the compassion that we extend to the minority. It’s a familiar argument in politics as it is in philosophy: do we distribute resources according to need, or by desert? Kids like Luke (KLL) need the time and the effort, but what do the other kids need? The amount of manpower and resources locked into containing and nurturing the merest candle light in these pupils sacrifices the mainstream to their demands. By tying the top to the bottom so closely, someone always suffers, and it’s almost always the ones who want to learn and benefit from education.

This isn’t an argument for turfing anyone out onto the street, but a recognition that mainstream schools aren’t the right environment for a very small percentage of the school body, who persistently undermine the common good; they need to be nurtured more carefully and closely in special educational units, where they can get the one-top-one support they need, while allowing the mainstream the relative calm that they need. Sure, the objective can always be reintegration, but that shouldn’t be a right but a privilege. Society makes these demands in the broader social sphere, so why shouldn’t schools replicate that norm?  Having a bad day isn’t a good enough excuse for being rude to anyone else- it’s a reason, sure, but not a good one. Being angry doesn’t make you punch a wall. Self-restraint is intrinsic to selflessness; the realisation that we are ALL important, and all equally deserving of attention. We demand that children go to school, not because we enjoy locking them in classrooms, but for their benefit whether they realise it or not. One’s emotional state doesn’t justify cruelty or casual malice towards others, otherwise our laws would be legislated on egoism rather than the common good.

Luke’s last admission was particularly devastating: ‘I’d rather  not try and not fail, than try and fail.’ I weep, and the civilised teaching world weeps at words like that. My heart breaks for kids full of anger and unhappiness, it really does. I wish I could reach out my hand and heal their hearts, every one of them.

But we cannot; we haven’t the power, the time, the resources to do so in most schools, not without wrecking the attention we give to others. Until we realise that at a national level, many schools will suffer as they do now, doing their best and realising that it will never be enough- for all parties.

Other highlights:

Film Club!

‘Second rule of Film Club: NO SKIPPING!’
  • No blog about EE4 would be REMOTELY complete without a mention of surely the next big thing in the educational blogoverse: Film Club. We met the tiny awesomeness that is Keiran, who we first see attempting to hustle Vic into reading his first novel (Keiran is a year 7, I might add) like a pro. Vic, sensibly, encouraged him, but also encouraged him to focus on school work. If I know kids like Keiran, he’ll be beavering away at it under the bedsheets anyway, so no harm done. I bloody LOVE kids like him, all awkward and sensible, bursting with talent and the manners to do something with it that doesn’t involve telling his teachers to go f*ck themselves or taking a dump in the canteen or something. We got two scoops of Keiran though, when we met his compadres in Film Club. They’d been skipping forward on the DVD like proper rotters, and poor Keiran was missing out on plot strands or something. Mr Drew’s deconstruction of their ridiculous hurry to finish was a joy.

‘Are you being made to stay behind?’
Film Club (as one): ‘No.’
‘Do you have to be here?’
Film Club: ‘No.’
‘So what should you not be doing?’
Film Club (heads bowed in shame, conceding Drew’s implacable logic: ‘Skipping bits.’

These guys are budding comedy geniuses; they should have their own series. I’d love to see more of them, but as @ModernCassie recently pointed out, ‘The first rule of Film Club is that you DO NOT TALK about Film Club.’ So we might not see them again.

  • Another montage this week: not lunch, but a Haribo and marshmallow-fest, reflecting the million tiny sugar rushes we need to get through a day. I like the EE montages. They remind me of when Julia Roberts gets kitted out in Pretty Woman.
  • Mr Drew, admonishing his thousandth pupil that day: ‘Would you like me to change the rules of the world because they don’t suit you?’ Deadpan. Legend.
  • In the sex education class: ‘Period Hole’. These are the end times, aren’t they?
  • Mr Drew (again, worth his weight in Plutonium and diamante) handing out oranges- I fuss you not- in a pink pinny to the examination students. ‘Nice bit of fruit to go in?’ said Drew. BEYOND parody.

Next week- ‘What is Pi?’ It’s the moment we’ve been waiting for. I, for one, am looking forward to finding out EXACTLY what Pi is. And where it comes from.

Like babies, perhaps.

Clear off, scumbags.


6 Comments

  1. Anonymous3 says:

    My guess is the kids will conclude that Pi comes from the period hole.
    Or sumfink.

    As ever, good blog TB.
    Nail.Hit.Head.

    I am still trying to reconcile my feelings re: KLL v the rest of the school population.

    Anyway, as an avid encourager of a well placed Narnia reference, I salute you.

  2. Tom Bennett says:

    Cheers, A3, good to hear from you. I find that Narnia allusions are infinitely applicable. See my #teletubbies blog for more details.

    *salutes back*
    *probably does it the wrong, American way*

  3. Dee says:

    As a student teacher who had three good lessons today and one which was a tad trickier I thank you for making me laugh out loud for the first time today.
    Ta much

  4. Tom Bennett says:

    My enormous pleasure, Dee 🙂

  5. Phil says:

    Makes me think I should watch it direct, though difficult to imagine I'd like it as much without the Tom Bennett filter.

  6. Enjoying your thoughts on the episodes, and loving your writing style (it had to be said). I would like to comment that if 'KLL' were taken out of mainstream schools, they'd likely not leave KS4 with 7 A*-C GCSEs (a number which truly shocked me and caused my already strong respect for the staff to swell yet more).

    Hope you'll share your thoughts after this evening's episode.

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