Tom Bennett looks back on Educating Cardiff, episode 2
I like to repeat this on an annual basis: I have no idea who these people are; all we have is the TV versions, and I assume that the real people might be very different to their representations. An edit can be cruel or kind. So when I write about these people, especially the children, I’m writing about them as cyphers and art rather than assuming we see anything more than their reflections. The last time I didn’t repeat this, one of the kids emailed me and threatened to "lay me out". I waited for hours at that bus stop at four o’clock.
The journey of a thousand miles begins with a single pigeon – or catapult pen. This week’s theme was transition; jumping at Warp 9 from primary to secondary like confetti fired from a clown’s cannon. And you know how neat and precise that is.
A rugby roar of welcome to this week’s educational hero: Mr Roberts, 15 years a veteran of the War of the Willows, and head of the House of Raglan. He asked one of the kids how old they thought he was. "56," they said, reminding us never to ask. If you’re over 25 they basically just assume you listen to George Formby LPs, wear incontinence pantaloons, and smoke a pipe.
Mr Roberts was a formidable figure: he showed his mettle when, upon hearing of Assad’s lesson-dodging tactic of feigning thoracic collapse, he took one look at the pint-sized thespian and called bollocks. While the office staff fretted and cooed and cuddled and love-bombed, Roberts X-rayed his bullshizzle with the seasoned super-senses of a veteran. "If he can breathe, he can go back into lessons." Semper Fi, Sergeant Roberts. Quite right: the vulnerable will always need our compassion and industry, but I was shouting at the telly as three grown adults gurneyed him along the corridor on a swivel-chair like they were prepping him for theatre.
Assad divided audience opinion; for some, he was an innocent who needed a cuddle; for others, a itch that needed scratching. I saw a kid who saw making sport of his classes as his in with the crowd; who hadn’t been told often or sincerely enough that his behaviour was not just wrong, but intolerable. See, it’s easy to tell someone off, but if you just allow them back into the same spot, to do it all over again, you tacitly teach them that it’s ok. Fill your boots, pilgrim. If patience is bottomless, it loses value; if forgiveness is eternal, it is never sought.
Which is why I was heartened to see Roberts and his colleagues start to take Assad’s behaviour seriously. Sympathy and understanding have their place, but sometimes, it’s possible to spend too long on understanding and not long enough on helping them to understand. And it’s a vital lesson for kids like Assad – and one borne equally out of compassion: if he doesn’t mend his ways, he leaves school with no GCSEs and a clown’s pocket full of detention slips to keep him warm in a world that doesn’t have a lot of time for cheeky chappies who can’t lay off the LOLs. The warning that he could be thrown out was one of the best things he could have heard. No school wants to do it, but the threat needs to be real so that we have to do it less.
At one point we saw him in detention, casually pretending to read the Ha Ha Bonk book, which he tossed in a basket as he left, and you could feel the cries of a thousand watching teachers raging into the evening as he did so.
"Does detention work?" asked the interviewer
"No," replied Assad the Eternally Innocent, "They try to stop you being naughty, but it doesn’t."
You might as well ask a flower why it rains. Assad’s opinion, while interesting, isn’t authoritative on this matter. He doesn’t get why he’s in detention, mostly because he doesn’t agree with being there. What kind of child would say, "Yes detention makes me a better person"? It’s a deterrent; it's there for the far greater number of children who didn’t tell the teacher to go stick their lesson up their backsides. It’s like having a bouncer in a nightclub. If you never need them, they did their job. And with most kids. they tire of the privation.
By the end off the programme – as if by magic – we saw Assad surviving to the end of the term, winning a spot on the coveted Outward Bound trip. Perhaps we were supposed to infer that having his slate wiped clean was the source of this redemption. But it’s worth pointing out that he still picked up negative referrals on the camp. Do you know how naughty you have to be to get a negative referral on a school trip, let alone one in a campsite? You practically have to shoot someone. Wait: he did, earlier, with a BB gun. For that he was excluded, thank God, and many a school would have dropped him like a hot Pop Tart for that.
I sympathise with kids like Assad, because I’m human, I like children, and I want to see them all succeed. But you don’t help kids like this by endlessly allowing them to misbehave. That doesn’t teach them good habits of character; it only entrenches bad ones, and helps to guarantee that the rest of their lives will be locked in the same patterns of selfishness, incivility and egoism. No, I want kids to know when they’ve been mean, or selfish, or lazy. I want them to know that it matters to me. And when they know that, they will know that they are cared for, not perhaps in a way that means they get hugged all the time, but in a way that aims towards their good, and more to the point, offers assistance to achieve it. It’s ok to be 11 and think mucking about is the best way to be cool. It’s ok to be wrong. It’s not ok to be an adult and tell him that’s ok too. God bless Mr Roberts, and all those crushed by his relentless juggernaut of behaviour management.
Only the Lonely
On the other side of the world we had Aaron, Lost Boy, and the sweetest lad who ever told a pigeon to f*ck off. Going up to Big School is, for some kids, like landing in the bazaar in Istanbul at 4am dressed as a spaceman. It’s even tougher if you don’t have a landing party with you, and Aaron wandered, lonely in the crowds. This isn’t automatically a bad thing. Not everyone wants the paving stones to light up like a disco when they walk; not everyone wants to be in the chorus line. Some kids like the music in their own heads, and watching the rain, and the calm certainty of one’s own company. The intervention point for adults who care is when that disposition tends towards disability; when it limits rather than releases the potential of the child.
Aaron was mentored by the calm, mature Jack, captain of House Raglan, and I’m thinking CAPTAIN JACK – come ON. Alas, Aaron proved to be an immovable force; the pigeons got more conversation from him. You could feel the lad’s awkwardness through the fourth wall. But I was an awkward boy at his age, and I know what he needed: an awkward squad. And so it proved, it seemed; by the end he was doing card tricks for his fellow nomads in the dining room. And, in this brave new world where the geeks have inherited the earth, there’s a place for him now, trailblazed by unpopular boys of my era who played role-playing games before they migrated to MMORPGs and it became cool to like Tolkien. You’re welcome. In a few years time, Aaron will probably be a YouTube superstar, lighting his cigar with girls’ phone numbers.
And suddenly something dawned on me: when was the last time you saw anything about learning on Educating...? For a program about schools, there’s bugger all education going on. This reflects two things: the rapacious desire for narrative that constitutes the perceived thread of the audience’s interest, and the fact that children, frustratingly enough, repeatedly fail to enter school without back stories and circumstances. One thing this series is good at showing is how much of our time is spent dealing with everything apart from education.
- Aaron’s pen that doubled as a catapult. "You can put things here and flick them," he enthused to a boy. I’ll take a dozen for next Inset.
- The member of the office staff who was girlishly excited about getting fags for her big night out. Keith Richards’ bacchanalian crown surely faces some stiff competition this year.
- The kid who sneered at Aaron for getting a pen for Christmas. I hope he got some blu-tak flicked in his direction.
- Assad’s excuse for being late: "My mum bought me a new bag". Your honour, release this man.
- Mr Roberts’ face when Assad tried to pull said excuse
- The lad (Benji?) busting some particularly fine chair dancing, notably his most excellent hip-hop arm wave. Cut it any way you call, that’s cool as Fonzie.