September 29, 2011 Educating the Daily Mail
Caulorlime watches a real British hero in action and is dismayed by the press response
Regular readers (hi, Dave) will be aware that I don’t really like much. My longer pieces for this blog tend to consist of me ranting about one of the many things that have annoyed me. I write pseudonymously because the school that employs me, the students I teach and the parents that entrust me with their offspring will all sleep better in their beds if they don’t know what a bile-fuelled, potty-mouthed misanthrope I am. Who would benefit from the knowledge that I am so irritated by advertising and reality TV that I regularly find myself shouting, in another room, after a rage induced black-out? What does it profit a man to discover that I truly believe my greatest achievement in life is that I have never used the word “Cunt” in a classroom*? No-one and nothing, that’s who and what. Information like that will only lead to funny looks in the staff room (and I get enough of those) and ultimately to my losing my job. And I like my job. As I said, I don’t really like much, but my job’s alright.
Obviously, it isn’t perfect. Every good job has its downsides. I believe that soap actors object to people calling them by their character’s names, for example, and fashion photographers often describe a sense of ennui at being fellated, once again, by a selection of the world’s most beautiful women. For teachers the downside is being universally derided. The teaching profession is one of the British media’s favourite whipping boys. If the right-wing press is to believed there is barely an educator in Britain that isn’t tedious, incompetent, sleazy or lazy, or all of the above. Teachers are portrayed as politically-correct, sex-obsessed, illiterate, cowardly, doctrinaire, over-paid, under-worked individuals whose pensions are a personal insult to every hard-working family of middle England. We are what is wrong with this country.
This, frankly, gets a bit wearing. It is to be expected that newspapers will focus on the negative stories, after all, “woman does job competently” is right up there with “dog bites man” when it comes to unappealing headlines. But when the man does bite the dog, and teachers commit such minor infractions as smoking crack or moonlighting as sex workers then the alacrity with which the media falls on the story is unseemly. A product of the British media which focuses on education, and is fair and open-minded, is both rare and refreshing; but that’s what I saw last Thursday with the first episode of Channel 4’s Educating Essex.
The education in question goes on at Passmores school (now Passmores Academy, apparently**) in Harlow, Essex. The school allowed Channel 4 to install 60 cameras, and gave them access to their own CCTV footage. The staff and students also agreed to be interviewed for the program. Crappy title aside, this was a serious and mature attempt to document the education of a group of 15 and 16 year olds in their final year of compulsory education; and in doing so, to offer an insight into the working of a vital and ubiquitous, but still largely opaque institution, that of the state secondary school. It quickly became clear to the viewer how seriously the film-makers had taken their task. This was no prejudiced and fictional piece of crap like Jamie’s Dream School, rather a sober yet light-hearted documentary in the classic observational style. One of the principle feelings I experienced as I watched the slow establishing shots and heard the “voice-of-God” narration was nostalgia. Educating Essex is made how documentaries used to be made, but without ever feeling dated. Nonetheless, it is still a four-part prime-time series, and so there is narrative and editorial shaping. There has to be, really. The sheer amount of footage garnered by 60 plus fixed cameras, wandering camera crews and CCTV footage, over at least a term, would be measured in months, if not years, so there had to be judicious editing for it to be in any way coherent. I have a pretty good bullshit radar though, and I didn’t feel manipulated. In so far as a documentary can ever truly be realistic, this one feels like it is. It also feels extremely familiar to me, and I work in one of these places.
The opening episode dealt with the activities of Stephen Drew: deputy head, sometime history teacher and enforcer-of-rules. Two facts were obvious from the opening sequence, which showed him eating breakfast cereal at his desk whilst singing tunelessly along to Fairytale of New York. Firstly, the film-makers were staking a claim to realism, not idealism or demonisation; and secondly, that they had decided that Mr. Drew was going to be their hero. This was a good choice, as, frankly, he is a bit of a hero. An unlikely one, perhaps, as his demeanour, whether talking to colleagues or students, is a tiny bit too David Brent and, more seriously, and as noted by an interviewed student, he resorts a little too easily to sarcasm. He is, however, clearly dedicated and caring, and the honest joy he takes in teaching his students – he tells them “You have no idea how much I enjoy teaching you” – is genuine and a real pleasure to see. He is also a treasure trove of observations and aphorisms. I can’t be the only teacher who feels sure they will, at some point in the not too distant future, echo him by telling a student “you will never, in the rest of your life, meet people more calm and patient than we are with you today.” Most of what we see him doing is repetitive, grinding work – enforcing the school’s uniform code, taking detention, dealing with the same miscreants over and over - yet he approaches it all with the same good humour and certainty that his job is valuable, and valued. The head speaks glowingly of Mr. Drew, describing him as “irreplaceable.” The students describe him variously as a “legend” and as an “evil overlord” – I imagine he’s probably more pleased at the latter moniker. He should be valued, and I’m glad that his school does value him. I could wish that this attribute of Passmores was more liberally exhibited at all schools.
The most memorable sequence in the first episode was when a student made a claim of physical abuse against Mr. Drew. You could, if you listened very carefully, hear the sounds of film-makers whooping in delight in the background as the accusation was made. The school, it should be said, dealt with the accusation in a manner I would describe as exemplary. It was taken seriously, dealt with quickly and when proved to be obviously groundless, the girl was punished firmly and swiftly. She wasn’t expelled, though. Rather, she was excluded for the remainder of the term, which would have been about four days at this point, and would be welcomed back in the new year. Channel 4 also dealt with the situation well – it would have been easy to sensationalise it. They could have interviewed other teachers who have been victims of false accusations, for example, or they could have followed the girl and interviewed her when she was angry, but they didn’t. Rather, they observed the entire episode with an admirable detachment and when they interviewed the girl, which they did after her falsehood had been exposed, they allowed her to calmly explain how she felt. It was, simply, decent documentary making. When Mr. Drew was interviewed about events he dwelt not on the anger he must have been feeling, nor on the fear that he must have experienced as the accusation was made. He didn’t talk about how vulnerable teachers are, or demand that harsher punishments be handed down. He explained that he viewed permanent exclusion as a failure on the school’s part, said he would welcome the girl back in the new year. He assured the camera that the girl would, whether she liked it or not, stay at school and would, when the time came, get “her 8 GCSEs.” He convinced me that he would work as hard as he could to make the life of that girl hugely better, and that in doing so he would infinitesimally improve the lives of everybody in Britain. Like I said, a bit of a hero.
The depressing, and predictable coda to this was the reaction in certain newspapers to the first episode. I hate to link to the Daily Mail as it just gives them hits, but this is so deeply stupid that it makes me want to weep. I won’t bother explaining why they’re wrong on every single point, as it’s obvious, but I will deal with one point they raise about the girl who asks “What is Pi? Where did it come from?” Needless to say, the Mail believes this to be evidence of her ignorance and stupidity. The girl, who they refer to as being “panda-eyed” (really, Daily Mail? Mocking the make-up choices of fifteen year old girls? Nice work.) is wondering at the nature of Pi. Consider this for a second. The film-makers have captured a student, who isn’t off task and is utterly engaged with the lesson, pondering the nature of a number which, as far as her GCSE maths will have taught her, behaves in a unique fashion. She’s perplexed at the realisation that this number, which never ends, defines a relationship which is true of all circles, regardless of their size. She’s confronting the point where the abstract, cerebral world of numbers intersects with the concrete geometry of the world around her. Her reaction, one of perplexity, wonder and a little fear, is exactly what I would hope to instil in a student. Not to be a little dazed at that would speak to me of a closed mind and a lack of mental flexibility. That moment, captured wonderfully by the cameras, was her at the very edge of the zone of proximal development. Put simply, that short clip was education, and I hope when they saw it, that her teacher was very proud. I would have been.
The next episode of Educating Essex is on Channel 4 tonight. I urge you to watch it.
*Well, actually, I have, but I was teaching A-Level students Chaucer, so it’s OK. I certainly didn’t use it in conjunction with “You arrogant little . . .”
**Seriously, don’t get me started.