Educating the East End, episode 2: Preparation for adult life

12th September 2014 at 11:17




When they filmed Educating Essex three years ago, they broke the mould and...actually, they kept it, and made another one next year. Against all odds, Educating Yorkshire was good, maybe even better. Nothing succeeds like success, and success spells sequels. And here we are – the difficult third album.


By now, the series faces the same problems that Big Brother did. Vic Goddard, patron saint of inspirational teachers, blazed a trail that could have led to disaster, but instead led to glory (deservedly – having seen how he runs his school). Now some schools, rather than queuing up to avoid the black spot of reality telly, queue up to receive it.


And so to London, and Frederick Bremer School, where we lay our scene. It's East London all right, although I think East End is stretching it a bit. That would normally be a term applied to Tower Hamlets (my old lair) and Hackney. Educating Walthamstow probably wasn't quite so sexy; might as well just make it up then. Next week: Educating Narnia, from Bridlington.


This series looks, I'm happy to say, another belter. All the old memes are there: the fixed rig panopticon; the distillation of drama and flashpoints that juice the excitement out of what is normally quite a mundane job; the spotlight on personalities; the Countdown 'two-from-the-top-two-from-the-bottom' weekly focus on a couple of teachers, a couple of students. Most of your teaching life will be characterised by taking registers and reminding people where their eyes should be. Not here. It's the same reason why you so rarely see sitcoms or dramas about new parents, because who wants to watch people who are always tired asking each other if there are enough nappies in the car bag? Romance and punches, that's what telly wants.


In the intervention room


This week's troubled souls were Halil, a Year 8 boy with more front than Normandy, and Lemar, an aspirant David Beckham who put anything but sport on the substitute bench (I'll make my annual disclaimer here: whenever I write about the teachers and students in an edu-doc, I'm writing about the telly avatars of them, not the real people themselves. I have no business judging people I don't know, whom I only see puréed into concentrated form by the camera).


Halil was conflicted in a way that many teachers will recognise instantly. Looked after by his granddad, a Cypriot ex-copper, he spoke with incandescent pride about his love and respect for his guardian. Granddad looked like he would take exactly no **** from anyone, incidentally. But Halil also had troubles as old as Jehovah: a temper as sensitive as a mousetrap, class clown syndrome, and – it seemed – being in with a bad crowd. No joke was too broad or too obvious that Halil wouldn't romp into it with joy. At one point he was rapping, "Chestnuts, I make ya do press-ups" and I was reminded that it's been a long time since kids sang about London Bridge falling down, yo.


I was also reminded of how much sport kids can make of each other's discomfort when Halil gifted the more boorish of his peers with a dodgy haircut (or so he thought; the track lines looked fine to me, but then I'm probably not the intended audience). Ah, haircuts: the public wound that bleeds eternal, and in a world without hats, there's no place to hide. Halil took his beats like many kids do: by launching himself at anyone, however tall, like a catapult. Frogmarched into the head's office (the estimable, apparently tireless, Ms Smith, of whom I'll have more to say in the future), Halil sat glumly at what I can only describe as the Round Table of Restorative Justice (a fascinating thing, apparently inscribed with virtues – I caught integrity, honesty and compassion. I'm assuming underneath it's covered in chewing gum and pictures of knobs carved by protractors). "Sorry," he said, with the air of a man buying a bag of onions. "We're sorry too," said his antagonists. Everyone was sorry.


But Halil's troubles ran deeper than the odd scrap. Lifted by the Feds for hanging out with a gang of phone-snatchers, he spent an evening in the can, which the school nobly reacted to by calling in his granddad (who glowered like a hot coal at his feckless descendant) and the school police officer (who gently reminded him where his path ended up before offering him a place in a police cadet programme, like the FBI catching hackers so they can offer them jobs).


Then there was Lemar, who thought school was moist. Mr Abberly, his PE teacher, worried about him, because he had the same ambition as "10 billion other kids" – to be a pro-footballer. And this is the worry for us as teachers: so many kids have a lottery ticket attitude to their futures. They seem to expect that one day, like in the films, they'll open a door and their lives will be the third act of a fairy tale. Life is frequently less kind than this, especially to people with no Plan B. Mr Abberly valiantly drilled that letter into Lemar's head, offering him the chance to coach Year 9s, which is exactly what he needed. That's PE teachers for you; always on the look out for the next generation of PE teachers. That's how they recruit, there isn't even a teacher training process. At the end of their careers they get recycled and turned into Adidas trainers, or Vic Goddard.


Educational hero of the week


But the week belonged – as if there was any doubt – to assistant head Mr Palombo, a man so possessed with behaviour management that he got Lemar to come in on a STRIKE DAY. I was whooping and air punching at that. Palombo was extraordinary: he was the Terminator. He was Joe Dredd. He made Mr Drew look like a Care Bear. Men like him are carved from diamond in the DT rooms. If a school had nothing but Mr Palombos it would be a salt mine. But without at least one Mr Palombo, it would be a jungle. He's Jack Nicholson in A Few Good Men. The Sheriff of Nottingham, the kids called him. The Sheriff of NAUGHTY-ham, more like, LOL.


He might strike some as a tyrant, but if he is, he's a necessary one. Schools run on structures. Children's lives are hung on the frame of such things. And institutions disintegrate without rules, and men and women to enforce those rules. Best of all, Mr Palombo suffered from poor eyesight, so he seemed to have developed a radar sense for misbehaviour and deviance from community norms, like Daredevil. He only had to smell the air and he could tell you who was cussing whose mum behind the science block.


And the kids need this, especially at school if they don't get it at home. At times like this, kids like Halil and Lemar aren't best served by cuddles and biscuits. They need to know that if they hang about with gangs, they'll go down with the gang. That if they pin all their ambitions on a million-to-one chance, don't be surprised if you crash into the cliffs of life's indifference. They need people to be honest enough, to care enough about them, to tell them the unvarnished truth, and to show them that actions have consequences. And, as long as we have them in our care, we show them a better way, and help them to find it. That's preparation for adult life, not the anodyne lessons on graffiti and voting they get in between what I call real school.


Sometimes we can't do much as teachers. Sometimes we seem to have no influence at all. And sometimes we're the grit in the oyster that makes the pearl. Sometimes.


This series had me at the Mitsubishi advert. Roll on next week. And all hail Palombo.


Find TES' full coverage of this series at the Educating the East End landing page