Tom Bennett tunes into the latest school under the telly microscope
And so to Cardiff, where we lay our scene. The fixed-rig telly school circus is back in town, and this time it’s pitched its tents in Cymru capital Cardiff. Hometown of Shirley Bassey, Shakin’ Stevens and Roald Dahl, and twinned with Luhansk in the Ukraine, Cardiff is already showered in honour. And now, the Educating x franchise, where x is equal to the value of a recognisably marketable locus: Essex and Yorkshire (counties), the East End (an already fictitious crypto-geographical Walthamstow) and now Cardiff. Next time, I expect nothing less than a wholly invented hamlet in Narnia.
Wales, where the cloud cover is so enduring that you could forgive any teacher explaining (as one did in tonight’s opener) to his class – serious as an embalmer – "The Sun rises every day; just because you can’t see it doesn't mean it isn’t there". Civilisation is a suitcase of learning we have to pass on every generation, or it gets lost on the carousel. "Where’s Switzerland?" said one pupil. "New Zealand," said another, confidently. Teachers, the world needs you more than ever.
So far Channel 4 have done something with this series that often eludes programme-makers: create fascinating telly that doesn’t centrifuge school life into a series of High School Musical memes. It’s sailed close to melodrama at times, but still tells a truth, using the lie of the edit. It feels authentically schoolish; bureaucratic, procedural – as sexy as an expenses form. It may be a Frankenstein’s monster of a school, stitched together on a slab and lit up in the lab, but at least the parts are recognisably, authentically human. It has a school’s eyes. It certainly has its heart.
Like the first episode of a box set, we’re eased into the characters before it becomes complicated and we all start wondering when the dragons are going to fight the White Walkers. This year’s Game of Phones introduced us to the pupils and priests of Willow High; a secondary comp run by headteacher Ms Ballard, a relatively recent émigré. As with previous series’ headteachers, she’s clearly an outlier. You’d have to be: five years before, the Willows High A*-C GCSE pass rate was 14 per cent, which is approximately what you’d get if you just pinned the papers to a wall and trained zebras to spit jam at them as they cycled past. Now it’s an impressive 50 per cent. ‘We want [the students] to leave as fully rounded human beings,’ she said, and I thought, sure, but it would be super awesome if they also learned something in seven years. Fully rounded human beings is a tall order. I’d settle for giving them a few curves.
Some people have criticised Educating... for being formulaic: each week focuses on one teacher, one or two children, often intersecting, and ending up inevitably in a GCSE results day closing scene. But I have no problem with formulae when they work. Whether they can keep it fresh is the programme-makers' main challenge. Series one launched like a rocket with the charming, televisually moreish Reeves and Mortimer of Essex telly schools, Drew and Goddard; it achieved peak telly with the stuttering restoration of Musharaf by Mr Burton in Yorkshire. Where can it go?
The series might not have a fountain of youth, but the portrait in the attic for this series is the infinite variety of human stories that schools supply, which coincidentally is the same reason that – despite the apparent repetitive monotony of delivering a curriculum – the job can be endured for decades. If the programme is to last as long as a teacher's career, the producers need to remember there are more kids in school than misunderstood, under-achieving scallywags with tragic back stories and hearts of gold, who only need a Mr Miyagi mentor in order to succeed.
But there’s no worry of that, as we meet Leah, a Year 11 who one day will feature on a set of Panini stickers of "World’s top bunkers", and Mr Hennessy, the maths teacher and head of year who apparently spends 115 per cent of his waking hours alternately scolding, chasing and encouraging her. We first meet Leah sloping into her lesson half an hour late with her doppelgänger Courtney, snorting about how rubbish school is and why they’re just there for the bants. And thousands of teachers watched it and thought, "Ah, it’s her," having met a thousand Leahs already. Then we met Hennessy, who is that perfect blend of couldn’t-give-a-damn and couldn’t care more. "Is it important for pupils to like you?" he was asked.
Child worshippers will howl at this brute for giving the correct answer, but this is the man who phones Leah’s house every day to make sure she’s coming in. Tellingly, he initially refused to be filmed for the show, and only gave in when he tired of people seeing the school in a bad light, and determined that he would show the rest of the world what he saw in Willows High. This is the forgotten superpower of the best teachers: to see what could be; to see an ideal form inside each pupil. Famously, the root of educate’ is translated/mistranslated as, "to lead out". But that doesn’t mean knowledge, as if wisdom was some buried treasure; it means people. That’s the buried treasure inside everyone: the best we could be inside the worst of what we’ve become.
Leah and her chums appeared to dedicate their lives to twerking nine to five, dodging any possible learning, and discovering new ways to make themselves invisible in smokers’ corner. She loved drama – of course. But she hated being there. "It’s this school – it just makes you so depressed," she tearfully confided in Courtney. It made me sad; if she felt depressed in school – somewhere she is surrounded by people who want to teach her, and care for her, and support her – then she’ll hate the frosty, careless world beyond the gates, which spares no quarter for cheeky girls with no GCSEs who can’t turn up on time.
But persistence paid off; she finished the year with 8 GCSEs at B-C grades, which from the canyon of low expectations the editors led us into, was some kind of miracle. No doubt Hennessy mixed himself with a nice coke and poured himself over some ice when he heard that. He's this week's educational telly hero.
A good start, Educating Cardiff. What else you got?
- A sensible, studious shout-out to Jessicca, Leah's mirror image and the kind of kid you need in your class if you want to stay sane. And congratulations on selling out all those free magazines.
- Jessicca's recruitment instructions at the inaugural editorial meeting for the school mag. "No negative people," she recommended, and I thought, boy, is she going to get a surprise if she goes into journalism.
- The kid who, when asked why he wanted to work for the school mag, said, "Er...my cousin's on it." See, he's got it already.
- The tiny proto-journo who, sent to scrape up school gossip, hung around like a wrong 'un outside the SLT meeting, eavesdropping. Give him a few years and he'll be ironing crumpled bank statements raked from celebrity bins and setting up consultancy stings on backbenchers.
- The fruit of said eavesdropping: we discover that the senior leadership phobias include "anything that scuttles", "beetroot" and "cider", which suggests a fortune to be made for a Welsh psychiatrist somewhere. Presumably the list also incudes "an agenda at meetings."
- Jessicca, correcting her teacher's spelling of affect/effect. A prosperous career on the internet beckons. Or editing bloggers.