Tom Bennett looks back on last night's melodrama at Willows High
After a wobbly few games, Educating Cardiff confidently stormed back to form this week. I have more love for this show than most Waterloo Road knock-offs, but it’s been straying dangerously close to cliche with its tendency to lean on the 'bad kid done good’ meme that's starting to feel like an X-Factor back story. Episode four brought us a finer wine: Year 8 Linda, lost in herself, and her trials with family and school, and Mr Sage, a character completely alien to my own childhood: a PE teacher with a heart.
Linda was one of those kids that drives you nuts: cheeky, but funny. Put into bottom sets because of her behaviour, she became bored, which exacerbated the monkey business. She admitted it herself: "I can’t stand teachers telling me what to do." Who does? One of our jobs is to help girls like Linda appreciate which battles you need to fight, and when the battle you need to learn to wage is with your own instincts and inclinations. Rebellion is a fine quality in the face of injustice; it’s less virtuous when someone is holding out a free education to you, begging you to take it.
And did you ever see a head of house try harder than Mr Sage? His compassion was so bottomless that the headteacher Mrs Ballard even confessed that she worried about how he was doing. We all know colleagues who break their heart every day for their kids. Contrast that vulnerability with Mr Hennessy’s approach – the Judge Dredd to Sage’s Care Bear. It’s interesting to see different approaches to pastoral care, and how that intersects with behaviour management. You can show you care in lots of ways. The question is, where is the right point? Crime and punishment can become a gulag when circumstances aren’t taken into account. But love becomes an indulgence when it aims towards making everyone feel good in the short term at the expense of the long-term interests of the child…and the class. And the school. Hell, and the teacher. Working out what works in this context is a judgement that would test Solomon. It's why we have laws, but also judges to interpret those laws.
Linda was a joker, wild. But her brother Florian was wilder still. Excluded after setting fire to a carpet, his poor mother eventually admitted defeat/reality and sent him back to live with Grandma in the Czech Republic. It reminded me of how much children bring their lives into the classroom, and how much the branch is affected by the trunk of the tree long before they even get to you. You can see why so many schools spend so much time unpacking the stitches of children’s lives so we can even begin to teach them/
As Hennessy said, "Sometimes you need to have a more honest conversation." Linda, perhaps unsurprisngly, got worse before she got better, and losing her brother didn't help, nor did moving into top sets as a way to challenge her intelligence. I imagine her new teachers were all high-fiving each other when he suggested that. And, in the end, Linda’s narrative in the programme ended on a positive note, without the need to cook up a Disney stew of happy endings. Things were a little bit better. Some days, that’s as much a win as you can expect, and be grateful for it.
And then there was the hugely likeable Corey, and his mate Gethin, both of whom defined loyalty, as they competed for the captaincy of the rugby team, which in Celtic climates is an honour that entails rolling in dirt while being kicked in the teeth by your pals, in the rain. In the end, Gethin took pole position, but they made a pact of friendship that transcended jealousy, which was quite beautiful to see in two so young. Either that or Corey is planning a slow-cooker revenge scenario that spans decades and involves quicklime and a combine harvester.
What made this programme sizzle was, as always, the people. It also leavened the sad-face melodrama, which often threatens to turn each episode into a drizzly urban production of Annie, with the saffron of hard-luck narratives: humour. The following exchange had me howling:
Linda was in the exclusion room (and presumably in her usual seat), working out how to add 10 to 99. Mr Norman, maths teacher, was her sentry.
Linda: "99 plus 10. That’s 190, yeah?"
Mr N: [deadpan] "I gotta see this."
*Looks at work*
Mr N: "…."
Linda: [In the style of Gollum from Lord of the rings, or possibly Popeye] "You takes the 9 and you swaps it over."
Mr N: "You’re like some kind of maths magician. You’re breaking the rules of maths."
Linda: [Frustrated] "You swaps it over…"
Mr N: "The maths police would come and arrest you."
Linda: "I’d punch them."
Mr N: [Dead behind the eyes] "Who teaches you maths?"
Linda: "Mr Hennessy"
Mr N: "I’ll go sack him straight away."
[Exeunt; summons Mr Hennessy. Mr Hennessy enters]
Mr N: "Mr Hennessy, have you got 5 minutes? What’s 99 plus 10?"
Mr Hennessy: "…."
Linda [shrieks] "IT’S 190, TELL HIM."
Mr Hennessy [demonstrating addition on paper, patience thin]: "Do you agree that’s 99?"
Linda: "Yeah, but.."
Mr H: "Shut. Up. And let me listen. Let you listen….."
*Gods of Comedy fall off their chairs in Heaven*
Mr H: "Shut up and listen."
*Other adults in room dislocate jaws trying not to laugh*
[Later in the day]
Mr H [to person off camera]: "Can I just double check something? What’s 99 plus 10?"
Mr H: "Thought as much."
Educating Essex saw poor Mr King hauled over smug fires by tabloids for his infamous "Clear off scumbags" quote to the class. Fast-forward a few years and telling a kid to shut up will barely poke anyone’s coals. Ah, progress.