Lessons from the Street

7th October 2005, 1:00am
Libby Purves


Lessons from the Street

The BBC held a conference last week about how entertainment broadcasting can be an educational tool. My favourite bit was about the soap operas: apparently, there is an artfully placed case of illiteracy in EastEnders and a cancer plot in Holby City (a nurse gets it, which is obviously more serious than the patients they knock off every week).

It was also revealed that my own drug of choice, Coronation Street, is involved in a deliberate attempt to boost the Government's push on volunteering.

I never knew that, and it made me feel naive. When dotty Clare the cabbie got involved in re-planting a children's garden in the Red Rec, I assumed that, as usual in this finest of soaps, the script team was playing it for laughs and looking for an excuse for Clare and Janice to have a violent mud-fight, which they did.

I am more alert to the more obvious education links in the Street. Last year, I was excited when it looked as if young Todd was going to Oxford.

Normally, Street characters never go farther than the local tech, because once they go to "uni" they become too upwardly mobile to stay.

But they had it all worked out: he was going to read law, and between Excellence in Cities grants and benefits and access policies, his girlfriend Sarah-Lou and her baby could go with him.

Only she was such a drip that she didn't want to leave, and he gave up Oxford to work as a hospital porter, whereon he fell for a male nurse and decided he was gay. Which, incidentally, was played at the conference as an example of TV soap being educative: these days coming out as gay scores rather higher in the PC educational stakes than a boring old law degree.

Now, however, the Street redeems itself with a fabulous plotline that teaches a vital lesson: that schools can improve without most locals noticing. All heads know this: once you have a reputation as a "sink", it takes far longer to recover your good name than it does to reform your actual school. This is probably why some authorities take the nuclear option: raze the buildings to the ground and re-open as a city academy with a whizzy new name.

In fictional Weatherfield, this hasn't happened. Thus, when snobbish Sally decides that her second daughter can't join her sister at the posh private school Oakhill, not least because the brat scoffs at blazers and boaters, the mother makes a blithe assumption that the local comp is open to all, doesn't bother with applications and dispatches the child off there in September thinking that Weatherfield high will be pleased to have her.

Sophie comes home crestfallen and embarrassed: she wasn't on any list, didn't have a class to join. Mother storms round to the despised school and finds it all smartened up, with mission-statements on the wall saying things like "Trust, Try, Triumph" and a piously zealous head saying that he is absolutely full up, got waiting lists, hasn't she heard, they're rising up the league tables, centre of excellence... It then transpires that Sophie will have to cross town to go to "St Paddy's", the latest holder of the local palme d'or for academic chaos.

Poor Sally. If there is a moral to her misery, it is that when we momentarily turn our back on local schools - not having any appropriate children to send to them - they may go up in the world, or down, without us noticing.

Old images die very hard: any rumours of disaffection or drugs, rowdiness or chaos, will follow a school for years. I heard someone refer to one school recently as "the one where the boy had the sawn-off shotgun in his locker", and just by chance I happened to know that it was a one-off prank three years ago and brilliantly handled. I don't even think the brat had any bullets. But the legend lived on.

Conversely, I have heard of at least one school which used to be the one everybody fought to get into, and which is now a mere whisker away from failing its Ofsted inspection. Yet, people still say, "Ah, St Gollum's, that's nice..."

Shakespeare got it right. Filch a school's good name and you damage it for years. I was hoping the Street would carry on to run a plot in which the comp beats Oakhill in the league tables and gets a royal visit.

No such luck. These mischievous Mancunians subvert everything, just as they did with the mud-fight. I switched on the next episode but only to find that Sally has, after all, got her daughter into the comp by blackmailing the head when she finds out that he sneakily sent his own daughter to the private school.

Coronation Street! They're just not on-message, are they? I find that strangely reassuring.

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