Educating the East End, episode eight: We're not here for a good time

3rd November 2014 at 23:29

(Bit of a late review, this, but I only just managed to catch the show. But I have an obsessive, collector's soul, so you get it, wanted or not).


There are hundreds of pupils in every school and in this series we get their stories two at a time. Episodes of Educating x (where x = telly gold) are like the Harry Potter series; we get mini arcs each week, and a larger arc that takes us from the first school bell to the last. So this week's episode, the eighth and last, has more work to do than usual. It needs to both introduce and unpick the students, and it has to pilot the whole school, like the Crimson Permanent Assurance, into harbour. It has to be self contained, and a coda. Tall order.


Luckily we got Christopher, in Year 10. He's astonishing. Forget what they teach you in science classes, we just discovered a new form of energy: positivity. He's garrulous, kind, enthusiastic, loves school and brightens up every room. It's like someone engineered a rainbow into a dungeon using mirrors. I should mention that he's also autistic, and instantly the picture changes from the one I was painting, maybe. There's a lot we still don't understand about autism, but then there's a lot of things about everyone else that autistic people don't understand, so we're even. In some ways we just lasso a bunch of symptoms, give it a name, pretend we've captured it, when all we've done is call it something. Christopher isn't autism. Christopher just happened to be autistic.


The programme makers couldn't give us the big finale of the last series, where Musharaf threw away his cane and walked again or something. Christopher wasn't walking away from autism anytime soon. In fact, he wasn't walking anywhere, unless it was to a taxi. Public transport terrified him; that and discord were his only two weaknesses. Normally he bounded around the school high fiving people and telling them to be positive and spreading his elven gold. But Christopher liked order; and when classes became fractious, his nerves shredded. I can sympathise.


Christopher was a beautiful everyman; frail, precious, kind, fearful and capable of seeing everything as if he, and it, had just been made new, in the dawn of creation. When his wonderful TA finally coaxed him onto a bus and into the market, you'd have to have concrete in your capillaries not to be moved by his innocent, guileless wonder. Most people have to drop acid to reach that state of uncomplicated, childlike bliss, but Christopher was hooked into the source. "Everyone needs a spoonful of Christopher," said one of the teachers, and while I don't know how many spoonfuls that would involve, it would never be enough. We should all see the world through his eyes once in a while, instead of living in the dark side of his mood; the anxiety, the monomania, the loneliness. It's wrong to romanticise what Christopher has; there can't be many who wouldn't prefer to retain the more average, fuzzy blend of focus and personality represented by the norm, but as Chris himself mused, "What is normal?" Rightly, he deduced it was a social construct.


Some people ask if schools are the right places for kids like Christopher, but that's the wrong question. We should ask, where could be better? Schools aren't tasked with teaching some children; the mission is to teach all of them. There's nothing about Christopher that should exclude him from mainstream education, some adjustments and accommodations notwithstanding. He wants to learn, he loves structure, and he's got a heart that could power a city. Give me a room full of students like him over students who waste the faculties they do have, any day. Like I say, there was no happily ever after for Christopher, but we did get our happy ending.


This has been, once again, a brilliant series to watch. I can happily sit through days of it, which is a wonder when you consider how much of the real bloody thing we sit through in the course of our jobs. Frederick Bremer was a good choice to host this year's narrative; similar in DNA to its predecessors in telly-schools, but different enough to make the experiment interesting. The headteacher, Ms Smith, has brains, front and, well, more front. She's just what kids and a school like this needs. She and her staff have executed their duty brilliantly in a way that can't be faked for long. This program remains a great advert for the profession; it shows the job in its real light, or as real as a lens can convey. It reminds us that we're not here for a good time. We're here for a long time.


PS Walthamstow: still not the East End.