An education for everyone - perhaps even ministers

Headteacher Jenny Smith on the roller-coaster ride of TV filming
24th October 2014, 1:00am


An education for everyone - perhaps even ministers

Over the past eight weeks, Channel 4 has allowed viewers to share in the highs and lows of teaching and learning at Frederick Bremer School in Walthamstow, East London.

Fly-on-the-wall documentary Educating the East End is the third in the Educating. series, after the original Educating Essex, based at Passmores Academy, and Educating Yorkshire, set in Thornhill Community Academy.

The final episode of Educating the East End aired last night. Below, Frederick Bremer's headteacher, Jenny Smith, shares her thoughts on what participating in the series meant for students and staff, as well as what policymakers might be able to learn from the show.

Ms Smith writes:

We have been sitting a tough exam over the past eight weeks, undergoing the Educating. test. We have held a mirror up to ourselves and shared our daily lives with a national audience - the professional equivalent of being naked on a stage with every blemish and wrinkle exposed.

But the process of being stripped bare has also revealed our core values and the foundations on which this school is built. I have learned a lot, and not just about the state of my shoe collection.

It is a strange time in education. The norms and values of our system have been dismantled around us at a relentless pace. The idealism of the Every Child Matters initiative has been ground into the dust in the drive to catch up with the "highest achieving" schools in Singapore and Shanghai. Sceptics have been labelled the "enemies of promise".

I have occasionally doubted my sanity in stepping up to headship and have questioned the claim of Vic Goddard, headteacher of Passmores Academy, that "this is the best job in the world". But I have to admit that he is right. I work with the funniest, most interesting and most inspiring group of staff and pupils and I am incredibly lucky. My spirit took a pounding in the Govian era; Educating the East End has helped me to get it back.

Staff, students, parents and onlookers have had a unique exposure to the complexities of running a school and the challenges some young people face. We all have a newfound respect for one another. We have developed a new level of empathy after watching individuals try to conquer their own personal difficulties. And pupils are under no illusion about how hard we work for them.

Since the first episode, the reaction has been overwhelmingly positive. I have received countless emails and tweets from adults inspired to go into teaching and even headship. Our pupils' stories have resonated widely. After the episode featuring Acacia and her mother's illness, many young carers on Twitter thanked her for sharing her experience. Another student, Charlie, has been inundated with responses from other anxiety sufferers - and even hugged on the street.

I have had too many offers to mention to adopt Louie and Halil. And the empathy and compassion strangers have shown is overwhelming - I know I am not alone in having shed a tear in every episode.

The word "values" has been much vaunted recently. Schools will now be judged by how we promote a nebulous and deeply uncomfortable concept of "British values". I am unsure what is so uniquely British about mutual respect, gender equality, tolerance and democracy (education secretary Nicky Morgan's definition). Westminster may be struggling to locate its moral compass, but it could rediscover it in a small corner of E17.

Universal values and human qualities are written on our meeting room table - integrity, fairness, respect, tolerance, compassion, responsibility - and you don't have to look very far to see them in practice in our school.

We saw the compassion shown to Acacia and her honesty in facing her difficulties. There was the responsibility of the head boy and girl candidates, and the resilience and self-belief demonstrated by the underdogs Sheneil and Joshua in putting themselves forward. There was the limitless perseverance and dedication of our teaching staff in getting Paris, Charlie and Oscar to the exam hall against the odds.

In the final episode, the public were introduced to one of the most extraordinary individuals I have ever had the privilege to work with: Christopher, who is autistic. He has taught me an important and life-affirming mantra: "If you think positive, you will be positive."

Teenagers never cease to amaze me, and we saw only a fraction of their talents, creativity and humour in this series. But they are also tough, exhausting and frustrating. They will put up every obstacle to prevent their vulnerable core from being exposed.

Schools go to great lengths to get to that individual talent hidden within. It's a tough old world out there, but it is much easier to deal with when equipped with values and self-belief. At least we deserve an A* for effort - as well as for achievement.

Educating the East End is available to watch on 4oD. To read a longer version of this article, visit

Magic moments

Mr Bispham: "My teaching style is 50 per cent stand up and 50 per cent motivational speaking."

Ms Hillman pinpointing reasons for lateness: "General muppet."

Student Lamar on arriving for a detention, despite proclaiming his intention not to do so: "My mum made me come in."

Head boy candidate Joshua's response when asked for the time: "Analogue or digital?"

Ms Hillman during a senior leadership meeting: "What is wrong with putting a kid in a bin and rolling him down a hill?"

A teacher tells his students it's time to grow up: "This is the adult world. You need to learn that now you're 12."

Georgia discussing her love bite: "It was an accident."

Ms Winter: "Was he hungry?"

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