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Educating Essex 7: Unfinished Symphony

Sponsors of Educating Essex

Stop all the lesson bells. I thought this blog would last forever. I was wrong. Educating Essex, sponsored by Honda, has been retired to the great Academy Elysium.

This is difficult entry, because EE has given me so, so much material that I feel like Wile E Coyote, a comic heartbeat after he realises he’s run three steps over the edge of the canyon edge. *Looks down* *gulps* *looks to camera* *vanishes*

What on EARTH will I write about? Ach, but I felt this way when Jamie’s Fantasy Game Show run out of juice; as you get older you realise that your heart will heal in time. There’ll be other telly schools. They just grow up, leave you and break your heart *sniff*.

So what have we learned?

Apart from the fact that diameter is circumference divided by pi?

This week the documentarians at twofour gave us their all, in one mighty gasp of hole-in-one casting: Vinni (rap spelling and all) was brought back from the substitute bench, and we were introduced to their secret weapon of charm and awkward, vulnerable sincerity: Ryan, a boy so direct, so honest and so impeccably golden-hearted that the coldest, coldest heart would have thawed before him. If Liz Jones met him, she would renounce egotism and narcissistic cruelty.*

* Alas, not even he could do that.

A teacher, yesterday.

Ryan had been at Passmores for two years, and he, along with all the other students, were approaching their turning-out ceremonies fast. It provided the seven-story arc with a natural narrative terminus, like a slightly grittier production of Grease, albeit with less memorable tunes (unless you count Mr Drew’s remix of Teenage Dirtbag or Ryan’s humble, mumbled hippity-hop cover of Rockwell’s ‘Somebody’s watchin’ me’). It’s a meme that every school drama can access, from Waterloo Road to American Pie: the coming-of-age lifequake when the child passes into adulthood, and it becomes time to put away childish things. As teachers, we live this moment in perpetuity, like the concierge of Miliways, the Restaurant at the End of the Universe. We’re doomed/ cursed/ blessed to act as midwives to the process of academic crowning, every year, over and over. (You’d think that we’d be asked out opinions a little more frequently, wouldn’t you? Alas not. Teacher Voice has yet to be granted the same status as its moronic student sibling, which enjoys a perpetual renaissance.)

 Vic, our grizzled Head of Paediatrics has seen it all; as he admits at the end, he lives and breathes the well-being of his community, but when they go, he has another cohort that needs and deserves the whole school’s focus every bit as much as the last lot. It’s a generational story. Like nurses and doctors, we need to conserve our compassion for those directly in our care: to do otherwise would be to attempt to stretch our hearts to shattering point, regardless of how oaken they are. When they go, we still care, we can even miss them, but we’re needed elsewhere. The world has to take care of them by that point.

‘X and Y are two Geometrically similar solid shapes.’

Mr Thomas, the Maths

‘Nice tie, boss.’

At first glance there wasn’t much in common with this week’s X and Y, Vinni and Ryan: one was an incredibly bright young man with problems, and the other was…oh. I see what they did there. Vinni, as we have already seen, was struggling with a fractious home life, and his own inability to refrain from pressing the self-destruct button. We see this all the time; so much talent, so much potential, so much waste. Obviously not being present at the numerous blow-ups designed to make teachers go insane with agitation, it’s easy to see him as a cuddly project for someone with a kind heart. Only teachers know the kind of stress and damage that KLVs can cause to classrooms when the cameras aren’t rolling; it’s far easier to sympathise with a main characters when they are presented as tragic heroes, rather than villains with a streak of good. But I’ll stick my neck out and say I can see exactly why Mr Goddard busted his nuts eternally for Vinni, because he was exactly the kind of kid you want to help. Something about KLVs bring out the mother/ father in you; you can see the alternate futures opening up in front of him, and most of them aren’t pretty. Some of them are inspiring. If only someone could intervene….

Sometimes it works. Sometimes it doesn’t. As Ms Bird, the take-no-shit English Head of Department who got him through a remedial immersion course in English said, ‘That’s the pay-back,’ when her young padawan squeezed a C in English- and who can blame her? We pay for our ambitions, like Fame, in sweat, and a win is a win, and we too deserve our moments. See, that;s the odd thing about our profession; when we win, others win. When they win, we win. To borrow from Aristotle, a virtuous man can only flourish in a virtuous community, and the community flourishes by the same process.

Prom Fright

‘It’s an imbroglio of epiphenomenalism, innit?’

The Leaver’s Prom was EXACTLY as you would have designed it, if you had been asked, six months previously, to sketch out a teenager’s fantasy of a posh do: white Hummer stretch limos that Arnie would have looked at and went, ‘No, zis is too vulgah, even for me, aargh,’ and half the girls looking as if they had been sprayed with glue, and kicked through a Disney dress-up box in the Playboy Mansion; all stripper heels and My Gypsy Wedding dresses.  I feel desperately sad for a world where teenage girls feel they have to dress up as video hos to fit in, and boys are allowed a gray suit and a buzz cut (no tram lines, mind), maybe a bit of Lynx if the ladies play their cards right. On the other hand I suspect the preening and the exaggerated, cartoon caricature of glamour is a custom as old as Noah. Plus ca bleedin’ change.

Poor Vinni couldn’t come to the party- instead of the Golden Ticket that Willy Goddard had promised him for trying, he Did Not Pass Go, and had to settle for hovering outside on his bike looking wistful. He deserved it, of course. And it was still sad. Vinni himself, because he’s not stupid, spoke with grace and no little dignity to Vic, and the moment where he could see all his peers disappearing inside was heart wrenching. But not as much as the moment when Goddard’s reserve cracked and he fell into an abyss of regret for the way things turned out with Vinni. ‘It’s a no-fail organisation,’ he said with tears, as a million viewers knew what he meant. It’s not often telly does this to you, but I think we were all feeling it at that point.

We were spared the brutal spectacle of teachers dancing. That’s one thing Vinni can be grateful for.

‘Pi so serious?’

But the emotional crescendo of this week, if not the whole series, was Ryan. Like a modern Galahad, he seemed too pure, too good for this world. He spoke with starry-eyed honesty about his situation, his asperger’s, his life ahead, and his clumsy, beautiful thoughts about the future. If I say that the EE website describes him as ‘He enjoys his own space and the company of Asterix books and fantasy novels,’ then you know exactly where he’s coming from. I used to program Commodore 64s and draw comic strips. I’m with you, brother.

We knew, as soon as he spoke, that he wasn’t like other people/

‘I’m not like other people,’ he said (see?) and I thought, Jesus, it’s Michael Jackson in Thriller (John Landis’s pointless, brilliant prologue to the King of Rohypnol‘s’ Hallowe’en-conquering masterpiece).

‘I don’t mean super powered,’ he added, in case we asked him to melt steel with his eyes or something. ‘Different.’

‘What IS pi?’

If he was different, I could wish for a little more difference in the world. His conversation with Mr Drew was like watching Muhammed Ali talking to Marilyn Monroe; two Titans of EE meeting briefly on screen: Drew asked him what animals he had seen on his visit to the Petting Zoo; Ryan replied, ‘A very small frog.’ I don’t know why that was so funny, but I could have watched half an hour of it.

Ryan was nominated for a Jack Petchy award. Surrounded by five adults all gushing with praise for his character, including Vic himself, he looked a stunned. ‘Very nice,’ he said, as if he was doing them a favour. At that moment I was reminded: Kids Like Ryan are what we come to work for.  Our job is to care for, to protect, to nurture and nourish KLRs as best as we can, and then set them free, into the world as carefully as we can, knowing full well that there’s nothing more we can do; they’ve flown the nest. They may fall, or they may flourish, but from that moment on, they’re in their own hands, or someone else’s. Perhaps they always were, of course, but now we can no longer catch them when they fall. No wonder this job can break your heart- as we saw from Vic’s reaction to Vinni’s tumble.

Vic was in pieces as he confessed, ‘If they fail, we fail.’ His heart is so clearly in the right place, that I only cross him with caution, but I can only partly agree. When we have done everything we can, and when we have done even more than that, then we can only, we MUST be able to say that we have done our best. No man is responsible for things beyond his control, in the same way that I cannot be held to account for the actions of my ancestors.

Yet the quality of Vic’s regret, and the sincerity of his guilt over the matter of the Fall of Vinni shows him to be a paragon amongst educators. His sentiments, while unrepresentative of his real responsibility, contain an emotional, maybe a spiritual truth. Who would you rather taught your children- someone who saw it as a holy mission to help them to flourish, or A N Other? I suspect I could give you my answer so quickly it would shame a mongoose auditioning for Kipling.

‘What IS pi?’

Goddard and his Essex posse have received an enormous amount of praise, certainly in the cyber circles which I occupy. To my mind, this show has been a huge success, not merely for next year’s application figures to Passmores (although, My God, there’ll be a queue round the block back to Hackney this year; if you’re sharp, you can set up junk stalls selling ‘Mr Drew says…‘ T-shirts. And pies.), but also as a decent insight into the profession for non-specialists and non-teachers (or ‘Government advisers’ as they’re sometimes called) alike. It’s been criticised by the hard of thinking for bringing the profession into disrepute, which is a bit like saying that nurses are doing a bad job because watching them wiping arses is unpleasant.

In a society where automatic deference to authority has melted away in the race to support autonomy and child rights, the way we restore order and the hierarchy of age and experience is by structure, boundaries and loving care. We are expected to be so much more than the job description implies, and it’s no wonder that so many people find the job hard these days. Society expects us to both fix and prevent its problems.

‘What IS pie?’

Parents sometimes expect us to teach their children discipline, oblivious to their own intrinsic role in this process. Government expects us to imbue them with civic duty and societal values, while simultaneously asking us to deliver mathematically precise models of academic excellence, predicated on models of infinitely expanding outcomes and based on dwindling resources. The papers look to us when riots flare up, and I wonder where in my curriculum I somehow taught them to fire-bomb chip shops.

Visit any school with even intermittently challenging students, and you will see the challenges that teachers face. Only some of the problems come from the students. In fact, the problems brought to us by the students, we can deal with: I have a Black Belt in dealing with stroppy kids and soap dodgers. The biggest problems we now face come from without, as education is marketised and riddled with bureaucracy like Swiss cheese, shoehorned into shapes by well-intentioned, but essentially quite stupid people.

The mystery is solved at last. HERE it is.

Teachers Like Vic (TLVs) and Mr Drew, and Stan, and all the others, have been an honourable representation of the other side of the Daily Mail headlines; they are the buggers with their sleeves rolled up (and in Vic’s case this week, a natty polo-shirt and tie combo. It’s a look) getting in early and getting home late because they want kids to be nourished by a society they never chose to inhabit. There is no greater duty that adults can adhere to, than the axiomatic principle that we care for our children: a roof, food, water, and education. Until the IT revolution promised by the edu-prophets comes to pass, and all children learn personally from cerebral implants and virtual simulators, we educate most of our kids in schools.

Personally, I hope they all get a chance to go to a school like Passmores. Gentlemen; ladies: I salute you, and all my colleagues in schools across Britain.

Clear off, scumbags. Until next lesson.

Other highlights

‘Have you heard of the Odyssey?’ ‘Is it a ship?’
  • I’m not saying the adverts that punctuated our favourite telly school were designed by Momus the Muse of irony, but the decision by Rimmel to flog their latest eye-spider gloop, seconds before Carrie ‘What is Pi?’ graced our screens was the most cunning piece of subliminal juxtaposition since Gilette started hawking razors during TOWIE. I’m just saying.
  • Oh yeah, and another advert was for the DVD release of Bad Teacher. 
  • ‘Sponsored by Honda’ is a phrase you will be aware of, even if only at some crepuscular, lizard brain cave of your psyche. The last image we saw was of a courier hammering down some lonely tunnel, carrying precious cargo that bore the blazon: ‘Human Blood: fragile.’ It certainly is.
  • Ryan’s Oscar winning speech, where he picked himself up and Kanye Wested himself into Vic’s emotional goodbye speech. ‘Sorry Vic, Imma let you finish: but the last two years have been the best years EVER.’ Rivers of molten mascara flowed down the central aisle of the assembly hall, and through the living rooms of Britain. I might have had a man-tear myself. A manly one, mind.
  • Vinni’s quick-as-a-flash assistance to his mate in Mr Drew’s Panopticon, when asked what a rhetorical question was. He didn’t even have to think before he described it with an example, and I thought to myself, that kid is smart. Hopefully in a few years he’ll pick himself up and get it together, because there’s brains in that young man’s head.
  • Bex Conway’s valiant, brilliant pastoral efforts, as ever. Followed by some wry but possibly very wise advice from Mr King about KLVs: ‘It’s very ambitious to plan for a win; sometimes the most you can expect is a score draw.’ 
  • twofour’s website reports that Twitter saw over 100,000 tweets about the series. Sorry about that.
  • The last episode accrued 7.4% of the available audience. What on EARTH was everyone else watching?
  • ‘School is a series of bruises.’- Vic. Amen to that.
‘We’ll clear off, then.’

If you want to know how the kids have gotten on after the show, go here to the Channel 4 website to get the skinny. Or if you can bear the Daily Mail, they’ve done a piece here.
Mr Drew is interviewed here.

Thank you for reading this far, masochist.

Educating Essex 6: Save me from myself

‘We’re talking’.

‘Thank you for your hard work; you’re always such a pleasure to teach.’

Mr King

This week the spotlight fell on Mollie in year 10, and her startlingly similar-looking older sister Charlotte. In some ways we were looking through the microscope at the same thing we always do: pupils who could do well, but for one reason or another, aren’t. T’was ever thus. We focussed on Mollie though, the- apparently- very bright pupil who was on a collision course with..well, with anyone within kicking distance. As ever, I need to give some context to this blog: the real Millie and Charlotte, I don’t know. All I can comment upon is the edit we’re allowed to see. Still, it was revealing; in fact, this week was a particularly masterful creation from the producers, who gave us a three-act melodrama, with set-up, complication, crises, resolution, and some full-throated character arcs. And in the end, everyone learned something, and we got to see Mr Drew’s socks, which HAS TO BE some kind of bonus (Mr Happy, in fact. Presumably Mr Tenacity was unavailable).

TV Mollie, we were told by the voice over and by Mr Drew and Charlotte was very bright. I guess there are all kinds of intelligence then (and I don’t mean sodding de Bono either; Thinking Hats my righteous white ass), because when I think of intelligence, I don’t think of someone stubbornly setting their shoulder against the world for the right to wear a non-regulation jacket or a pound and a half of Estée Lauder. I don’t think of someone who blows up like thermite in a microwave every time someone asks them to not call a teacher a fucking prick. But I’m old fashioned.

I know that it is currently in vogue to describe every type of aptitude as an intelligence, even if the intelligence under discussion involves ping-pong or something (you can call it table-tennis all you like, it’s ping-pong to me). The great thing about this is that the word intelligence itself gets so inflated, and covers so much territory, that it essentially starts to mean almost anything. Oh, hang on, that’s a bad thing.

I think I’d rather go with, ‘Mollie displays signs of intelligence. And other times she tells people to go stick things up their arses, with very little persuasion needed, even if by so doing she turns ploughshares into swords and allies into enemies.’ I suppose it’s a sort of intelligence.

Oh, I know what they mean- she has an innate capacity to compute, to recognise, to discern; perhaps she has the talent to do subjects relatively easily. We know what you mean by intelligence. I bet she has stacks of it. But what one does with it…that;s the rub. I know many, many intelligent people stacking shelves in Asda. And, thanks to the somewhat brainless requirement of the last government, that 110% of all school leavers (or something) should go to University, I know plenty of very qualified people shaking fries at Fridays. Mollie, we are told, ‘Could be anything that she wanted to.’

And that’s true; but it’s just as true for the vast majority of our students: the only difference between their outcomes is what they do in between arriving at school and leaving. Some people have a bit/ lot more natural talent then others (see: Film Club) but I have rarely met a student who couldn’t get an A in just about anything if they were prepared to put the required amount of effort into it. I could climb Mount Everest, if I gave myself an early enough start. But I won’t: because I choose not to. Everyone has potential; that’s the damned thing. It’s our job to teach them to believe that, at the same time as we show them that potential means nothing without the sweat that unlocks it.

Mollie’s tragedy, as it is for so many of them, is that she could do well, but she keeps detonating every time someone asks her to put her pipe out; and her pipe smoketh eternally. Every time we see her, she’s impersonating Eyjafyallajokull (fuck off, spellcheck), usually punctuating her exchanges with (usually) Mr Drew with quips like ‘Oh GODDDDDDD!’ or ‘RGGGGHHHH!’. I can see why they say she’s bright.

In interview, she shows some sense of reflection. ‘I don’t mean to be’s like I got Tourette’s or something…’ Always love how we teachers have so perfectly absorbed the language of the market, the social worker and the pop-psychologist,  that our children have absorbed it osmotically. How many kids, twenty years ago, would have described themselves as ‘unable to work independently’ or ‘struggling for ways to manage their temper’? Not many. We have adopted the idiom of the diagnostic physician for so many aspects of our behaviour that previously on ER, would have been described as perfectly normal (if unusual) points on an expected scale: it breaks my heart to see how often we now offer our witless, worthless diagnoses of behavioural problems, as if they were viruses possessed by, and inhabiting the person of the student, rather than being descriptive statements about observed behaviours.

Where once I would have been castigated for being rude and hot tempered, now I can be said to have ‘anger management’ problems. I can be given special provision for my tendency to tell people to go fuck themselves. I can even get a statement, with the funding that entails.

I’m not denying the existence of real mental problems- in fact, I think that our society stigmatises and marginalises real mental problems of the human condition, although even seeing some of these as pathological is problematic, and probably says as much about our social relationship with the condition as anything else. Homosexuality used to be included as a mental problem; depression wasn’t. Swings and roundabouts, really.

Anyway. I only mention it, because the inevitable result of all this labelling guff is that kids start to feel that they’re not responsible for their actions. Why? Because when you describe a personalty trait as a condition, then it becomes alien to one’s character, and something you’re not to be judged for. It’s like a fat man patting his belly and saying, ‘I’ll need to get rid of this.’ It IS you! Worse, teachers fall into this game too, and say, ‘I know you’re nice, deep down’ as if there were two people being discussed, instead of one with the capacity to act well and…less so.

In the end, what you wish you’d done is bullshit: we’re judged by what we do and what we refrain from doing. Someone who acts appallingly one moment and angelically the next, is a bit of both. Jekyll and Hyde were parts of the same whole. When the child realises this, the adult starts to emerge from the rubble of character. Some people never get this far. And sometimes it’s because we treat them as if their behaviour and their character were somehow two different things, rather than one being the progenitor of the other. Unless we accept responsibility for our actions, we are doomed to go through lives believing ourselves to be helpless conduits for our whims, and deterministic robots, devoid of moral shame or blame. To Hell with that. Either we’re moral beings, with free will and the capacity to choose, or we are not. If we are not, then our entire culture makes no sense, life has no meaning, and do what thou wilt shall be the whole of the law.

So I prefer to imagine that we’re responsible for ourselves. There is no universal escape clause. There is just us, and the things we do. It takes guts to be able to look at yourself in the mirror and say, ‘I did that,’ especially when the actions are shameful. But the flipside is that we can be proud when we act well. Any other way is soulless.

Vic Goddard, preparing for assembly

‘The words just come out,’ admits Mollie when she is asked about her outbursts. Mr Drew nails this point to the wall when he asks  Edina about why she called a teacher a prick. ‘Would you call your granny a prick?’ he asks, in what you might have presumed was a conversation ender. Alas, Edina concedes that she might call her her Granny a prick, after all. Which is nice (Note to Edina: don’t expect Harry Potter Lego in your stocking this year).

But the point is still made: if you can refrain from clobbering Gran-Ma-Ma with a blunderbuss of cuss, then you can do it in other circumstances.

We witness this all the time in schools: the child with EBD who is perfectly capable of behaving in subjects he likes, for teachers he responds to. The ADHD pupil who gets a B in one subject, but Xs in everything else. People, for the most part, are perfectly capable of controlling themselves when they want to: when they see a reason; when they feel enough pressure to do so. The motivation might be self-interest; it might be duty; it might be compassion. Whatever.

To my eyes, Mollie’s outbursts were perfectly within her power to restrain; which isn’t to say that she likes to do them, but that, deep down, somehow, they make sense to her. Her back story, which is common enough to be mundane, but painful enough to generate sympathy, suggested fractures at home, and a displacement of attention as she moved from being one of three siblings, to suddenly becoming one of a Baker’s Dozen of children, dislocated from the nuclear role she occupied and suddenly, to a young mind, peripheral to the love she needed. Who knows? I won’t insult her or her family by further speculation; all I can do is offer conjecture about what I saw on TV- a young girl who doubted herself so much that she behaved in a way that got attention from adults, and possibly proved to everyone that she was as much trouble as they thought she was.

The relationship between her and Drew was touching: he was the scratched record, the hard-ass who could always be relied upon to toe the hard line with her. At first she predictably kicked off against it like Osama Bin Laden in the Playboy Mansion (which is where, incidentally, they should have locked him up: that would have shown him); over the weeks of report, she seemed to acquiesce. And that , my friends, is why we do what we do: provide boundaries, electrify the fences, and just..repeat ad infinitum. It’s called being reliable. It isn’t sexy (unless your tastes are very niche); it isn’t exciting, and it doesn’t get you invited to many motivational speaker gigs (God save us) but it’s 50% of what teaching is all about: being a reliable adult.

Now what was it called again..?

That means turning up on time, doing what you say you will, and being fair. It means being tough sometimes, and putting people on the naughty step when they deserve it .It also means wanting the best for pupils, and letting them know it, at the time time as you keep them behind, call their parents or give them a detention. Tough love, I will say until the Last Day, is still love.

Drew, it seems, is a Jedi of this skill. It is, I might add, enormously encouraging to see senior staff being given such a strong pastoral responsibility in school and the time to do something about it. I’ve no doubt he’s rushed off his titties, but at least he appears to be master of the naughty room, and allowed to inhabit the space. He steals my educational crown of the week this week. Also, because of his comment to Mollie when she finally reached his desk for the first time: ‘I’m not interested in why you misbehave.’ Which is exactly right- by this point the student needs to start taking responsibility for their own actions, and fast. The understanding has preceded that point, for months and months; by that point, a child needs to see that only they can turn the situation around, and sometimes that means cutting off the cuddles and turning up the compulsion.

As the narrative progresses, we’re allowed glimpses of Mollie coming round to the system’s needs. Because that’s what she needs: to understand what battles to pick, and when to pick them. Fight the battles that are worth fighting, and not simply fighting everything because you’ve got a pair of paws and they’re in reach, which is what she seems to do in this episode. And, eventually, she ends the year with 5 A*-C GCSE grades; impressively early. They could have ended the episode with Drew hurdling the benches of Harlow while grateful children try to keep up with him, as he shadow boxes up the steps of  the Harvey Centre and yawps with victory. Instead we got Bon Jovi’s ‘It’s my life.’ It’ll do.

And of course, that’s what all the effort was for: weathering every gale of rudeness, every storm-in a tea cup. Because every teacher worth a damn wants the best for the kids, and wants them to leave with as many qualifications as possible to make their life as close as possible to their flourishing.

THAT SAID, it’s only possible to provide an environment for kids like that when someone has the time to look after them; to indulge their outbursts, and to act as a conduit between their poor choices and their better ones. In a school where such pupil behaviour is more common, we pass a tipping point where indulging such behaviour leads to the demolition of the educational space: I’ve written before about the silent majority who want to learn and don’t get all the attention, because some band of arseholes has commandeered the lesson for their own amusement. Nurture groups and individual interventions are only possible when they are the exception, rather than the norm.

Good luck to her, and her simulacrum sister; Mollie was, despite her foul temper and childishness, charming. Mr Drew ended up seeming to be her in-school father; and he proved it to her by being the one person who was prepared to keep telling her she was wrong. She was fortunate indeed, to have the services of such a man. Despite his socks.

Although was it just me, or did she end up wearing the jacket she was forbidden from wearing at the start of the show. Either there were pixies in the continuity, or the rules changed over time. Still, it was beautiful to see her walk up to him covered in, no doubt, top class slap, and wait for his reaction.

Clear off, scumbags.

Other highlights:

‘We’re not so different, Drew and I.’
  • ‘Do I look sophisticated?’ she asked, sporting her Harold Lloyd Gregory Pecks. 
  • ‘Do I look like an Essex Girl?’ she asked, wearing the same face furniture. I don’t understand how she went from one to the other.
  • Drew’s Taxonomy of what constituted the great and the good: Snooker players who admit fouls; that guy in front of the tank of Tienanmen Square; parents.’ Priceless. It was the combination of Burmese opposition politicians and Hurricane Higgins that got me.
  • Steps’ greatest hits blasting out in the office: Mr King’s note-perfect hangdog reaction to Katy Perry’s Firework. Which is, admittedly, completely shit.
  • Charlotte, one mark off a C: ‘Yessssssss!’ *hands in air, fist-pumping. Who said the art of succeeding gracefully was dead?
  • Drew’s Scatter Graph of Fail. Every study support room should have one.
  • Vic Goddard, doing his Johnny ‘Man in Black’ Cash Impression. Also, sporting a dandy tan from the half term, no doubt.
  • Tina’s soothing strategies: Stan’s co-pilot in a room that must reek of desperation at times
  • Mollie’s contribution to Student Voice: ‘I’m sure that if you took a survey of all the students, they’d…tell you how uncomfortable they were at school…’ Which is another reason I hate Student Voice with EVERY ATOM IN MY BODY UNTIL THE END OF TIME.
  • Drew, attempting to remember what the remake of Fantasia was called. I think it might have been Fantasia 2000. Might be wrong.
  • Mollie: ‘Mr Drew and me…we’re quite similar people.’ AH YES, AUSTIN POWERS, WE’RE NOT SO DIFFERENT YOU AND I! Ah, Moriarty, will I grapple thus with thee forever?
  • This week’s montage- the Cleaners. Props to the cleaner massive.

Educating Essex 5: Nasty girls and the Heart of Darkness

Mean Girls: unlike British Schools.
‘I got a wedgie! I swear I’m allergic to them!’ 
Much as I adore the way ICT has transformed the way we communicate with each other, if it was a student in one of my classes, I would toe-punt it through a set of saloon swing-doors like Yosemite Sam. Even when I started, kids were getting their heads round the idea that a playground cuss could be avenged in an afternoon by a single text back to the family mothership. Cue: the Dale Farm Peace Corps at the gates at 4pm, ready to right some wrongs with the international toothpick of diplomacy, the spanner. Cue: lots of community cohesion meetings and healing discussions *heave*.
This week Educating Essex regrettably ignored my suggestion to run with a spin-off series about the awesome Film Club (motto: We Skip No More) and instead persisted in exploring another facet of the school pastoral pilgrimage: bitchy girls.
I’d better declare an intrinsic handicap I possess in discussing this topic: I possess a Y chromosome, and this hobbles me somewhat. I am a stranger in a strange land when it comes to the seemingly pointless, cruel and cannibalistic telepathy that motivates and facilitates the process whereby girls can huddle like frogspawn in solidarity, then disperse with a kind of Brownian motion, reforming into different social networks. And it’s all done without a word! How on EARTH does it happen? It’s like penguins, clustering in miserable furry piles to shelter from the sub-zeroic temperatures, endlessly replacing their comrades at the frozen exterior of the circle. Watching it from the outside, it’s like observing the hive-mind of starlings, instantaneously deciding on a capricious whim to turn this way, then that. 
A while back I was watching Big Brother in mixed company (a veteran gunslinger, an escaped convict, a sharpshooter, someone good with knives, the usual) when one of the future darlings of the titty papers flounced out of the Torture Belvedere or whatever and into the Diary Room. ‘Hello [insert witless, misspelled mononym], how are you?’ said the broad Geordie anima. ‘Furious!’ she steamed. ‘I was making rice for everyone when [insert second name-crime], she just walked past and she looked at me like this!’ *makes perfectly normal face* ‘And I was like, you bitch.’ 
I stared at the screen in  perfect incomprehension. The other chaps in the room with me looked at each other and made, what just happened? faces. And all the girls went,’ Oh, the bitch,’ nodding, their eyes slitted in righteousness. 
Women are, indeed, different.
We are the Borg. Resistance is futile. Prepare to be ignored.
The Blonde Borg Collective
The feeding frenzy fell upon Ashleigh tonight, a bright year 11 girl whose only crime, as far as I could see, was to have the predictably stormy romantic life of most teenagers, which provided her friends (can I call people who slander and exclude their peers friends? Apparently I can) with the requisite narrative fodder for their self-penned melodramas. Everyone gets a part, and everyone can feel important because an identity has been constructed for them, at a point in their lives when identity is such a hard thing to grasp. Some play the villain, some play the victim. Some have bit parts, and some, as in Shakespeare, play the vital role of messengers. Given that this wasn’t comedy, it had to be a tragedy. And in a tragedy, someone has to die.
Poor Ashleigh. She went from member of the Magic Circle to Untouchable in a heart beat; over a mouthful of school dinner, it seemed from the edit, as the Blonde Borg Collective upgraded their social software in a package that no longer required her. The program portrayed the ‘vivacious’ Carrie as the mob boss of the chum racket.The peaceable Mr Thomas described her as ‘sociable’.  I’m careful commenting about the conduct of others when we see them through the lens of the camera. That said, what we did see wasn’t exactly edifying. There’s a million ways to interpret the behaviour we saw, but even with my generous, Forgiving Hat on , it was pretty repellent to watch as the Borg decided that Ashleigh was suddenly and instantly surplus to social requirement.
The defamation of Citizen Ashleigh was bad enough; the pleasure that her peers took in her distress was vile. Cruelty is an offence against the most important thing in the world: love. Every act of malice and schadenfreude is crime against humanity. There are two compassionate directions the human heart can take: altruism and egoism. Egoism can be innocent- doing things for oneself is harmless when you’re making yourself a sandwich- and altruism is an ideal we can aspire to. But egoism makes monsters of the best of us when we require others to feed it. 
‘We’re not talking to you, yeah?’
That was what is so vile and vicious in these cases: there is the barest attempt to justify the passive aggression by claiming that the victim of the exclusion has broken some social more that entitles her to be punished. In this case, it was- apparently- the grim, medieval charge of being a sket. I can’t tell you how depressing it is to see women tear each apart over sexual misdemeanours, when their ancestors have struggled for centuries to weaken and loosen the shackles of a patriarchal world that binds them with propriety and customs that benefit only their captors. As one gallows piece of gender humour has it, ‘What do men and women have in common? They both hate women.’ There is a depressing feminist truth curled up in the heart of that apparently misogynistic quip.
Whether the poor girl was innocent or guilty of a seemingly victimless crime is irrelevant; the girls just wanted to feed, and it was her turn. There’s a mob mentality similar to the Salem trials that put me in mind of McCarthyism, as girls frantically lined up with the perceived Big Beast of the battle, Carrie, in an effort not to suffer banishment along with Ashleigh. ‘I don’t know her!’ they cried, as the cock crowed three times and their former friend was crucified by the crowd.
‘Who’s still speaking to her?’ asked one of the henchwomen. And everyone agreed: no one was.
Ashleigh, being a teenage girl and a human being, was crushed by their restructuring, and in the middle of lessons went over to her former friend to find out what it was, in fact, she was being excluded for. Carrie’s brittle blanking of her was heart breaking. She cut her off as cleanly and neatly as the most committed of Victorian moralists.
And yet, this is human nature, and barely worth even mentioning, except of course it takes place, not in a vacuum, but in the rarefied atmosphere of a school. As Vic Goddard, who played a backstage role this week said, ‘It’s like a stone dropped in a pond, and the ripples spread outwards’ Which is where lovely ICT comes into it, because back when dinosaurs stalked the DfE, pupils had to rely on mouth-to-mouth in order to clone their bile. Now, it just takes one teen talon to tap out a tattoo of hatred on their BBM, and Taliban Trainees in Tehran know that Ashleigh’s a ‘fackin sket’ or something. Auto translate THAT, Siris. I imagine a Bedouin in Jordan, wondering ‘Who is this Ashleigh? And why are we not talking to her anymore? Ah. She is two-faced. An untouchable.’
Carrie was frighteningly frank about the process in interview. ‘We’re all two-faced. All of us.’ It was scarier than Gordon Gecko’s ‘Greed is Good’ speech, less noble, and also less reflective. Of course, we are all- all of us- excellent at this kind of retrospective justification. It is rare indeed that we hold ourselves to blame for anything. But this kind of critical introspection is vital for us to become moral adults. The belief that our actions are blameless and just, is the mind-set of an infant, the cruellest creature of all, the very avatar of thoughtless egoism. To see it sustained in the mouth of a young adult was distressing. And somehow predictable.
Of course this had an effect in the world beyond the Sucker Punch microcosm of teenage Fantasy Fight Club; Ashleigh’s education suffered as she (presumably) ducked a little school to hide from the torment of social exclusion. Teachers’ time was taken up dealing with the fallout, and the masterful Stan was seen in full flow as he counselled Brad, Ashleigh’s on/ off-kind-of-it’s-complicated boyfriend. I saw an excellent comment online this week about kids who set their relationship statuses on Facebook as ‘it’s complicated’: ‘It’s complicated? How? Did he steal your Haribo?’
A cuddle and a shove
Stan is my Educational Hero of the Week, one of the ninja masters of pastoral tone. It was just the right register of concern, tough love and a dash of ‘Oh well, best get you back to lessons.’ It’s harder than it looks. It’s so easy to overshoot and try to be the subject’s chum, when what they need is listened to, and then spoken to in a caring, authoritative way: a cuddle and a shove. If Stan ever tires of listening to sullen children moaning about f*ck-all, he can get a job with the NYPD talking jumpers down from the Brooklyn Bridge. He’s THAT good.
‘I’ve seen things you wouldn’t believe. I try not to dwell on them.’
In the end, the storm blew out of port as promptly as it hit; the school did the grown up thing and called a summit where the girls apparently negotiated a cease fire. This was foreshadowed when, upon returning to school, Ashleigh found that the evil alliance forged by her expulsion was already tottering like Gadhafi, and some of her former peers were sliding back to her camp. One of them even visited the Head of House to complain about the situation. Ms Conway looked at them with the tired eyes of a veteran (and I might add, a woman, so she probably understood what the hell was going on a bit better than me). ‘So what do you want me to do?’ she said, basically indicating that her preferred option would be to somehow arrange them all to be locked in a dark room with crowbars like Battle Royale Essex).
Ashleigh’s chum knew exactly what should happen. ‘They need to be taught a lesson,’ she said. And you could see hate multiplying. Whatever happened, someone had to pay…. 
As Ms Conway said, ‘They just want some drama. And they want to be in the centre of it.’ If it was drama they wanted, she took away their audience and forced them to talk it out, lance the boil and get back to normal. And so it proved. They were back on camera, talking about how they ‘didn’t even know’ what it had all been about, and a million male viewers nodded furiously and said, ‘Yes, us too.’ One of the boys at school made a comment, ‘Girls can be so horrible to each other, and then next day they’re mates again. How can you be mates with someone that’s so horrible to you?’
Together: ‘Love ya.’
Join the club, pal. By comparison, we men are simple beasts. If a guy doesn’t like you, he doesn’t talk to you. Or he smacks you in the coupon. At least you know where you stand.  The staff this week were great, as always, and no body was harmed in the making of this program. Just Ashleigh.
But in a million schools across the world, a million girls are bullying a million Ashleighs for sport. For amusement. Because life isn’t dramatic enough, and in the place of excitement, they’ll take the thrill of the foxhunt over the slow-burning pleasures of friendship and learning. And in many ways, that’s what we’re here for: to save them from themslelves.
Last word to Vic: ‘Pupils aren’t happy unless there’s drama. As long as it’s not them.’
Other highlights:
  • Mr Drew dealing with the parent’s complaint of one student sending another an email containing ‘Three gay men taking a shower, playing with each other’s genitals and having sex. Which is really quite a lot of descriptive detail. Isn’t the internet lovely?
  • The ‘What is Pi’ moment came and went; but like a good trailer to a bad movie, we’d already seen the funniest bit. That and the eyelash extensions like Venus Flytraps that girls so admire these days.
  • Dr Nicholson the science teacher, resplendent in his lab coat: Old School. Pony tail: Rock School. We also saw a beautiful insight into the world of the gifted pupil who wants to stay behind and talk about neutron stars and stuff. Dr Nicholson was an old hand at it, responding with, ‘If it doesn’t scare you, you don’t understand it.’ Presumably he was talking about the EU bail-out.
  • Another member of staff parenting an episode’s protagonist? Is everyone related in this show? Educating Utah?
  • ‘Pneumonia’s wee’ isn’t it?’ Sociable Carrie, possibly talking about ammonia. Or Paul Newman.
  • ‘Its burning my spot!’ Ashleigh’s undoubtedly accurate reply.
  • Brad walking into a world of pain at school, ‘Cause I drew some proper fuckin’ detailed picture of a cock.’ Give that boy a BTEC!
  • This week’s montage: eating crisps, ending with Drew hoovering up what looked suspiciously like the crumbs from the lid of a tube of Pringles, you gannet.
  • Dr Nicolson’s comment about bitchy girls: ‘With chemicals, there’s no hidden agenda.’
  • The corridor cut-scene where some gormless wretch tried to karate kick his chum in the stones, fell over in the process, before getting an appropriately ironic toe in his own charlies from his target. Who says there’s no justice?
Clear off, scumbags.

Educating Essex 4.5: You shall not pass!

Off to speak at an education conference in Spain about Cyberbullying for a few days, so the Educating Essex blog will drop sometime on Monday. Unless they get 4OD in Leon in which case I am ON THAT THING. Incidentally, Vic Goddard kindly let me know that the Film Club were watching… Lord of the Rings. Of course.

Clear off, scumbags.

Educating Essex 3: Suffer the little children

‘Suffer the little children to come unto me, and hinder them not; for the kingdom of God belongs to such as these.’
Luke 18:16
‘Listen to Iron Maiden baby, with me.’
The Kingdom of humanity, too, given time. The child becomes the man, and inherits the earth from his ancestors. But as teachers, we often see more than most the grisly, grimy ways in which the soil the seed is sown in is spoiled by neglect and the absence of a gardener.
This week’s episode was played in the minor scale, and almost entirely dismissed the Daily Mail-teasing fireworks of the first. We met Vinni (no, I didn’t know you could spell it like that either, and neither does my bloody spell-check. Down, boy) who was an odd mixture of idiot-savant: idiot because in a frantic race to press his own self-destruct button, he pressed every one else’s too; savant because he possessed something that it’s sometimes unfashionable to mention- intelligence. He sat GCSEs early, was in the top sets, and in his own words used to be ‘a good boy’.
It’s strange to see someone describe their own previous  behaviour as good, implying that now some of their behaviour is bad. That kind of introspection requires intelligence, all right.  Idiots can’t assess their own actions with the eye of the observer; fools don’t possess self-awareness enough to critique their own actions. ‘It is the mark,’ Aristotle said, ‘Of an educated mind to be able to entertain a thought without accepting it.’ Vinni knew what his behaviour was like. Of course, Vinni wasn’t odd at all; teachers see scores of Vinnis in their paths, something that Vic revealed as much to Vinni in one of their seemingly endless rounds of pastoral discussions. The ‘good boy gone bad’ trope isn’t exclusive to Rihanna and Star Wars trilogies. Just as adult alcoholics fall off the wagon, so too do children. Progress is neither automatic nor one-way.
If Vinni’s plight didn’t touch you then I suggest you need touching more often: the smart, quick-witted boy (and he was), going off the rails like a train falling over in slow motion, by degrees, and everyone could see it, including him. The program was at great pains to suggest that the source of Vinni’s dissolution was a generational fracture; the parental break-up, the loss of paternal esteem. And maybe it was. Unlike many, I don’t feel qualified to commentate on Vinni, his home situation, OR the reasons for his self-immolation. Vinni doesn’t need my criticism or my half-baked theories. So I’ll comment instead on the television character we saw on screen on Thursday, because the moment we forget that we look through a mirror darkly on television, we lose perspective, like children unable to discern that the Teletubbies are just sweating actors in dark, furry pastry casing.
With that proviso, I can continue. The TV Vinni was a charismatic mess; dodging lessons with the practised art of Fagin, and playing everyone else for a fool. That’s the sad scary thing about a trusting, loving environment- it’s so easy to abuse. Like Ricky Gervais in the audience-repelling ‘The Invention of Lying’, if you find yourself the only dishonest man in a world full of angels, you possess an enormous advantage. I remember visiting Canada some time ago and finding that in some areas people left front doors unlocked, cars with keys ready to turn, and wallets on the sand while everyone went into the surf, and I thought, ‘I should come back with a van and some Cockneys and rob THE ENTIRE COUNTRY.’ Still do.

That’s kids like Vinni in a school where everyone wants to save him. They lope around from corridor to corridor, dodging the guards and the CCTV by simply playing off every teacher against every other one. I once looked up ‘Belvedere’ in a dictionary, and it said, ‘See: Gazebo.’ So I looked up Gazebo, and the dictionary said- I fuss you not- ‘See: Belvedere.’ The internet couldn’t happen quickly enough. That’s how kids manage it: ‘Mr Smith sent me here’, ‘Mr Beddow sent me here.’ ‘Mr Beddow sent me to Mr Smith,’ and so on. To be fair, it doesn’t require the wit of Fu Manchu. I used to watch war movies set in POW camps and think how the F*CK did they manage to build tunnels and forge passports IN A SHED? If human ingenuity can allow a blind Donald Pleasence to reproduce Swiss work visas from cockroach blood and wasp spit, then a child can lose themselves in the endless labyrinths of the most grid-like of schools.
‘I AM my note, Fritz.’
To be honest, even though I despaired to see the effort he put into evading education, you’d have to be made of stone not to salute the perpetually funny ‘man-walking-down-stairs’ trick when he went past the office window. But even with his undoubted charm and nerve, there was a tragic core to this story; talent and potential being wasted- an infinity of alternate possible futures collapsing into a handful of half-choices and blind alleys, and all wilfully done by the person who stood to lose most by their reduction: Vinni. Tragic, tragic, tragic.
But there’s a B-side to this ballad: everyone else. Schools aren’t vehicles fuelled by bottomless resources, they’re institutions driven by engines of necessity and invention, populated by endlessly labouring staff desperately trying to juggle as many balls as they can without letting any drop, and knowing that inevitably, some will. For every second a teacher spends on the trail of Vinni, a second is stolen from thirty other kids. If kids like Vinni (KLV) want to come into lessons ten minutes late, then everything stops for KLV, no matter the damage to everyone else’s education. Every time the Head, or the Deputy spends a minute, an hour, a day coaxing him back from the ledge is a minute invested that can never be reclaimed. This is the tight-rope act that every teacher knows and lives with. Because we all know that up to a point, it’s necessary; children are, as Mr Drew observed again, not adults. They make poor choices, and we must be robust enough to observe, perhaps roll our eyes, and help them pick themselves up. We don’t throw them to the wolves.
But a point is reached when the effort invested becomes too great a burden on the community; and in those circumstances, the community has every right to say, ‘No, we have needs too.’ You may be familiar with the policy of Inclusion, whereby efforts are made to ensure that everyone has access to a mainstream curriculum. It is an entirely noble goal, but as I frequently point out, just because a goal is noble doesn’t mean it is practical. I’d love to see every kid get a great education, and like most, I’ll fight until I’m broken to ensure it for my classes. But there comes a point in a doctor’s career when everything has been done for a patient, and he’s still arresting every five minutes. That’s the point that the surgeons and nurses put down the paddles and admit, ‘Enough. This one is beyond my resources.’ This isn’t an admission of defeat or bad faith: it’s just the truth.
Inclusion was instigated in order to make sure that children with disabilities were guaranteed access to mainstream without discrimination, and rightly so. But mission creep over the years has seen this vision becoming poisoned by the desire to include every kind of syndrome, condition or symptom as evidence of some kind of special need, identifiably medical, and therefore not the student’s fault.
I need to point out that this isn’t so: being argumentative and stroppy isn’t a condition; it’s part of character, just as being dedicated and altruistic is. Being described as ‘Having anger management problems’ is an enormous ontological mistake: it turns a normal, albeit undesirable part of the spectrum of human expression into a virus, a sniffle, a fracture; something that is done to the person, rather than part of the person. There comes a point- there must come a point, when we need to say to a student, ‘This is your fault.’
It’s a bitter place to occupy, and no teacher likes it. But if we don’t then we’re doing nothing but placate and in some ways, empower the dysfunctionality.
And we’re back to boundaries again. Mr Drew rose even further in my estimation than before this week, with his thoughtful admission that in all his years, he considered the need for boundaries for children to be more important than the need to grant them autonomy. In truth, of course, they are inextricable: we encourage children to flourish, but in order for them to do this by themselves, they need a scaffold upon which to climb so that they can reach its summit and hopefully, fly high above. But take away the scaffold and you’re left with children on the ground, unable to see horizons beyond their own eyeline, and doomed to a destiny no further than their own whims and desires will carry them. In effect, they become slaves to themselves. They can do as they please, to quote Bertrand Russell, but they cannot please as they please.
The adults that supported him- or supported his weakness, depending on your whether you subscribe to Marx or Milton Friedman- were avatars of compassion and patience, altruism incarnate. Miss Conway conveyed trust and empathy so powerfully I felt like apologising to her for my bad behaviour and getting back into a classroom. Vic Goddard himself once again demonstrated that if there were an Olympic event for caring about his kids, he would jog through the ticker tape in time for a pint before the silver caught up.
Too much though? I’m not arrogant enough to judge a man when all I have to go on is 50 minutes of telly, plus ads. But purely looking at situations like this one, I reiterate; a balance must be struck at all times with the needs of the many and the needs of the few. Because the many are, of course, a collection of the few. ‘Never giving up’ is an aphorism that trips easily from the tongue, but as professionals we don’t enjoy the luxury of utopian fantasies. Some of our patients live, some of them die, some of them miraculously recover and some do not. We can only do so much before we need to move on to the next admission, just as important as the last one. There are limits to the potions in our pouches.
We can sympathise with the difficulties that KLV experience, and yet still be forced to find alternative provision for them, with clear consciences. Sometimes schools aren’t the best places for them to be. I bemoan the great reduction in special school provision that has accompanied the ascendancy of the inclusion project, because it is a fact that stares me in the mug at times: some kids aren’t meant to be in mainstream schools, just as much as some people need to be taken to prisons, hospitals and care units. Who first thought that the bosom of the community was the best womb for everyone? An idiot, whomever.
Vinni left school, we find from the EE website, with some GCSEs, despite volunteering for care- and did you see everyone stop breathing in horror at that prospect? The state, it is true, makes a lousy parent. But with the support, no doubt, of the school and others, he made it across the very, very thin ice upon which he danced so carelessly. It was a beautiful story, well told, and reminiscent of so many others we face on a daily basis. I certainly don’t begrudge Vinni (or the Telly Vinni, remember) the good fortune he had to encounter adults as diligent and dedicated as Vic, Stan, Tina and Miss Conway. But do we do any good in the long run when we give someone five, ten, twenty-five final warnings? Have we loosened the boundaries so much that they become meaningless. ‘Men,’ Russell Crowe’s character in Master and Commander said, ‘Must be governed.’ And they must, so that they learn how to govern themselves.

‘We’re not included…and we don’t care…’

There is a frightening assumption in society these days that schools are an extension of the social services. Of course, we must liaise with such institutions because children’s lives don’t exist in convenient compartments, and Vic described how often, at multi-agency meetings, it is the school which will bear the brunt of responsibility for the child’s welfare. If they’re not breaking the law, or being specifically abused, then all else falls to us. Of course; how expected. But schools are imperfect families, and the burden of making sure that the children are fed and housed is too great for us to bear. And we’re not trained to do so. Dear God, we’re just trained enough to teach our subjects and run our own lives. If you want us to bring them up too, you’re going to have to build a bigger school. If you force us to do everything else too, then something has to give. Oh look- it’s education. Funny that.

Other Stuff:
  • Children in care get £3.10 every day pocket money. Good luck with that. But £7.50 on a Friday? I presume that’s to cover the White Lightning and 20 Mayfair. Get the party started.
  • The school choir singing ‘Teenage Dirtbag’ in the manner of Scala the Belgian girls’ choir. Then Mr Drew humming along as he went to obliterate some new law breaker. Ah, Brave New World.
  • The queue of penitents waiting for Drew to deliver his divine justice, one after another. ‘Can you tell me which teacher asked you to download ‘Thirteen Days in Hell‘ into your user area? No? You are banned from accessing the internet until January, except from a list of approved educational sites…’ This, over and over again. Beautiful.
  • The slight tension implied between Drew and Goddard in their approaches to discipline; boundaries versus autonomy. Drew chipped it out of the long grass with a masterful admission of faith in his line manager’s judgement, even if he himself had reservations. That’s not craven, that’s professional, and that’s how teams work. Save criticisms for private discussions, and work with the chain of command unless your values are irredeemably lost by doing do.
  • Vinni, asked for a note to explain his stalking the corridors: ‘I AM my note.’
  • ‘How many times have you got your skirt rolled up?’ said Drew to, apparently, one of the Saturdays. Takes a brave male teacher to tip-toe  through that minefield. 
  • Loved the ‘lunch’ montage; it was like the bit in Rocky when he’s building himself up into a comeback Titan. OK, it wasn’t very much like it.
I’ll play you out with poetry:
Philip Larkin – This Be The Verse
They fuck you up, your mum and dad.
  They may not mean to, but they do.
They fill you with the faults they had
  And add some extra, just for you.
But they were fucked up in their turn
  By fools in old-style hats and coats,
Who half the time were soppy-stern
  And half at one another’s throats.
Man hands on misery to man.
  It deepens like a coastal shelf.
Get out as early as you can,
  And don’t have any kids yourself.

Educating Essex episode 2: Saving them from themselves

‘…and he says, ‘The ARISTOCRATS!”

“Man is least himself when he talks in his own person. Give him a mask, and he will tell you the truth,”

Oscar Wilde.

Has there ever been a more prescient warning about the vicious, vicarious delight that our Brave New World furnishes for some in the cloak of anonymity afforded by the internet? Wilde played Cassandra to this week’s Thursday-clobbering edu-media Leviathan when he talked about the veneer of custom and manners that chains our urges, the pinch of shame that prevents us from returning to a Hobbesian state of nature.

This week, the nominal focus was bullying, but of course it could have easily have been about cruelty, or envy, or a million other angles on the human condition. That’s why fixed-camera documentaries still have an enormous appeal for us; there are few things more fascinating than our own reflections, and reality programming affords us a fairground mirror into the lives of others. How often do we stare at people playing out their personal soap-operas, only to look away when their gaze is returned and we turn from observer to participant? In many ways, reality TV has made voyeurs of us all, and I refer you again to Wilde’s quote at the head of this piece.

Brilliant second show: the program makers have collaborated with Passmores to create something nearly unfilmable; the experience every teacher knows of dealing with a pastoral problem, the Sisyphean trudge through interviews, paperwork, phone calls and corridors in order to resolve some fracture in the social discourse of two of your charges. And best of all, the fish eye lens allows us a God’s-eye view on the narrative, like some kind of municipal omniscience.

Gabby, the Head Girl, is living in her personal circle of Dante’s Hell; on one hand she’s articulate, mature, dedicated, driven, intelligent and focussed. If you’re anything like me, you’re immediately playing Fantasy School Register (I can’t abide football) and composing an imaginary class, and Gabby is sitting pretty much on every seat. Students like her present a particular joy for committed teachers- the pleasure of playing to the top of your game academically, because such pupils need that and more if they’re going to flourish at their personal level. On the other hand, because she’s intelligent, nice etc, she’s become a lightning rod for some unwanted attention in the form of texts, ranging from odd to creepy to intimidating.

The response of the school to this bullying was, I have to confess, breathtakingly efficient and proportionate. The easiest thing in the world would have been for some pastoral gonk to shrug and say, ‘Kids, eh? See if they stop doing it.’ But no, Vic Goddard, the Head, portrayed the Platonic ideal of the benevolent monarch. Senior management are often called upon to intervene in broad brush strokes with the running of a school; but sometimes it’s urgent that that they put everything else aside and turn their telescopes into microscopes, which they did here. It was edifying: the Head, the Head of House, the ubiquitous Mr Drew, all jumping into pastoral roles, and best of all, keeping in contact with each other, with the family, and most importantly with poor Gabby herself.

How depressingly routine such things are. Hannah Arendt famously coined the phrase ‘the banality of evil’ to describe how the great crimes of history weren’t carried out by psychopaths and monsters, but perfectly normal people convinced that what they were doing was right, or at least acceptable. And so it proves here.Chloe and Grace, two sisters not unknown to the victim, had decided to have some sport at Gabby’s expense. The manner of their capture was about as banal as it gets: Chloe- no Moriarty, surely- sent a subsequent text to her victim with the comment, ‘Are you all right? Chloe x’ You’re nicked! Tell that girl to avoid a life of crime; only super villains leave clues to their identities at the scene of the crime, and even then it usually isn’t just ‘Dear Cops, it was me. Love,  Bob Penguin.’

‘Would you like to know where your pen is?’

Dante would have had to invent a new, sub-Judasian level of Hell for the one that waited for the two girls- their MUM worked at the SCHOOL. Sam’s countenance was waxing wroth, yea. Personally I would have been bricking it in the manner of a Lego factory. Yet even under her gaze, there were still surprising sunspots of defiance and self-justification- ‘It was her that wrote it….it was just a joke…I don’t care…..’ The usual.

We are all, I think, experts in these games; the self-justification. The retrospective absolution that ensures that few things we ever do are wrong, and that most things others do are right. There’s an effect I’ve observed in almost every walk of life, which I call the righteousness of relativism. It’s what you experience when you’re driving along behind a motorist who stubbornly refuses to speed up, and you think, ‘This is appalling- they’re crawling along!’. But is someone comes up behind us, they are, without question, speeding maniacs. Which oddly enough, is exactly how they see us in identical situations. It’s the same effect on busy pavements, when a group of people are arguing about volume levels on a telly, and indeed every other arena of human behaviour I can think of. Very rarely do we pause and say, ‘ I chose poorly.’ Very often we say, ‘I chose as I had to,’ or sometimes, ‘The bitch needed taking down a peg or two; pass me your phone. Let justice be done.’

Dr Jeckyll’s hypothesis about human nature was that all men were possessed of dual natures: the diabolic and the holy. His experiments were a chemical attempt to distil one from another, and decant the sediment of sin from the quintessence of angelism. He found to his cost that the relationship between our darker and lighter sides cannot be so easily set aside, and what Stevenson demonstrated so ably in literature, Educating Essex does by the artifice of documentary.

Witness Sam, the maverick year 11 who drags his enormous logs on both shoulders around like a sullen, misanthropic pariah. Our first encounters with him (and probably the intention of the producers) is to see him as an enormous counter-culture emo-bully (ah, how far we’ve come, that the marginalised, introverted inheritors of the Romantics’ legacy can also inherit the knuckle dusters of their former oppressors. The jailed become jailers). And indeed, he doesn’t disappoint to begin with: the nihilism, the lies (*chucks pen* ‘I don’t have a pen!’) the man-child observation that Chitty-Chitty-Bang-Bang is one of his favourite movies. Stay clear, people.

Except Dean, his amiable classmate apparently has a death-wish, because one of his favourite hobbies is hugging people. Not just anyone, but the girlfriend of our hero Sam. ‘I’m a hugging kind of guy!’ he tells us. Yes, with a death wish, mate. Go hug the girls that don’t have enormous anti-social boyfriends, and live.

‘Ugh! A beastly comprehensive!’

Sam doesn’t disappoint again. ‘Fatty-Bum-Bum,’ he mutters as Dean walks past. There’s a confrontation on the stairs. Calls are made. Families rush in. What was a low-level dispute gets a free upgrade from economy to First-Class, and then into the pilot’s cabin, all in the space of what appears to be a few hours. But he’s not a bully: ‘I’m not a bully,’ he says. ‘I don’t go out of my way to start fights.’ Then he adds, ‘Any more.’ Group hug.

Mr Drew makes a very apposite observation: before social networks and mobile phones, such disputes would have simmered at spitting distance. Some would have got hotter, and some would have cooled off. But, as with Gabby’s harassment, an unkind word, a dead-eyed cuss, gets carved in the stone of the internet, and lasts longer than the Dead Sea Scrolls (which incidentally, are also online as of this week…). The mask of anonymity afforded by the phone allows us to speak to each other without recognition; the convenience of the phone allows us to communicate every thought, however desperate and thoughtless, into immediate utterance. One school I taught at had a policy of no phones at all, for just those reasons; families were routinely summoned every day to settle classroom scraps, dirty looks and imagined insults. Oh, the humanity.

Once again, the school team has to be applauded for the seriousness and the speed with which they dealt with the dispute; families in, phone calls made, pupils pulled from lessons before words turned to actions and somebody got a sore face (which I suspect would have been Dean in the first instance. Probably the second too). There was a considerable controversy on ‘t’internet over the eventual result: Mr Drew pulled the Man In Black into his office and told him that his last word was he had no alternative but to exclude him for a week (which, we were told, was one of Sam’s solemn vows he’d made to his mum). Sam’s reaction was touching: he did care; he did give a shit about school, and every institution wrapped around it. He wasn’t a loner; he was just alone, tall and awkward, out of step with many of his peers and feeling it. But he wasn’t alone- he had his girl, his family, and the consideration of the staff who cared so much about him that they were prepared to spend half a day trying not to exclude him.

We can argue (and I could) that it is a mistake to say you’re excluding someone and then go back on it so publicly, because it suggests that the boundaries are more flexible than you’d like. While that may be suitable for some schools where the students are broadly biddable, if you tried that in a rough school they’d tear you a fresh cloaca. Perhaps done in private, the effects of such inconstancy are minimal, but the all-seeing-eye of telly is unforgiving, and I can understand the teachers who watched this and cried foul.

At the same time, there has to be room for interpretation; Mr Drew could see that the exclusion was a game-ender for Sam, and decided to use the mere threat of it as the sanction and behaviour modifier. So perhaps he could have merely threatened it, instead of dropping it in as a done deal, and then saying, ‘Aw, not really,’ when Sam’s shaggy head bowed? It’s easy to dissect a situation from your sofa, watching it on catch-up and thinking about how things should have gone. Perhaps, as fellow teachers we can understand, and appreciate that, in this instance, the outcome seemed positive.

Very positive in fact; we were left with closing scenes of Gabby and her tormentors sitting like Dagenham Destiny’s Child. Sam and Dean were practically waltzing together on Strictly Come Dancing.  I think we all learned something. Perhaps Dean had learned not to hug other people’s girlfriends? It was like the closing scene of a sitcom; everyone hugged, everyone went through a journey, everyone was friends again. Drew correctly recognised that these weren’t adults; in many ways they were still children, and they didn’t respond to situations as you would hope the fully mature could: they fought; they squabbled; they cussed, and their enmities were- to them- Olympian; the Earth shook with thunder when they fought. From the outside, they looked as petty and transient as two children fighting over a rattle.

We are all the protagonists in our self-penned melodramas; more, we are the heroes. Nothing is more important than our narratives, and nothing is more sacred than our need to be at the centre of them. Maturity is, I suspect, the process of realising that other peoples’ stories matter too. These two stories were far, far, from the worst kind of bullying that I and many others have seen in schools- stories of such cruelty and relentless, miserable vice that you close your eyes to think of the pointless misery of it all. Some of the stories, like Gabby’s, show that some of it is clear-cut; nastiness getting out of hand, fuelled by a hundred reasons related to ego. And sometimes, like war, we find that the sides are not so clear. God help the teacher.

Remember, Thor, you make the curriculum.

Other highlights:

Sam: ‘I’ll put her on her arse.‘ A catch phrase is born, at least in my virtual staffroom.

Sam: ‘I can’t do [detention on] Wednesday, I’ve got counselling.’
Note on Mr Drew’s office wall: ‘REMEMBER VIC, YOU MAKE THE WEATHER’ Apparently Mr Goddard is Thor. No wonder the school’s outstanding. We’d ALL behave if the Head was the God of violence, drinking and thunder. I have literally no idea what this note means, but it terrifies me.

Roll. On. Next. Week.

Educating Essex, episode one: Things can only get worser

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.