Educating the East End, episode seven: Exam fever

17th October 2014 at 16:41

Ms Smith started off this latest episode in fine form. The Year 11 residents of the Frederick Bremer School for the Televisual were treated to a textbook, "It’s time to start bricking it if you aren’t already" speech. Which is fine, rather than cruel: if you were a lobster in a pressure cooker, wouldn’t you at least want to be told? You could tap out a samba while you stewed. Or you could start building a ladder.


The misconception is that exams are a trip to the circus for the more able and a trial for the rest, but the reality is more nuanced. What if you’re bright but allergic to graft? What if you’re too smart to fail? What if your whole identity is built on something that could be dismantled ground-floor-up in one week of external exams?


Meet Oscar, who’s brilliant, on several levels. Not only is he clever as clever, but he’s funny, kind and gentle. He’s just a heartbeat away from being the most annoying student in your room, but like a F1 driver, finds and holds the line that keeps him the kind of student you hope picks your subject for A-levels.


"Do you have any questions about the use of sources in exams?"
"Is ketchup allowed?" Bants, mate, bants.


Oscar can do a Rubik’s cube in under a minute – which he demonstrates on screen – and I challenge anyone over 40 to fail to be impressed by that. There’s a ten-year-old inside me gasping at his mad skillz. He’s even got a Team Oscar – the Library Crew. Presumably they all have a secret handshakes and meet in the janitor’s dungeon at midnight to talk about guns. The library, according to Oscar is, "The place to be." Which tells you all you need to know.


Students like Oscar often don’t get the attention they need in school, because…well, because of the culture where as long as you're doing well enough, you’re doing well. They’re victims of the hellish A-C culture we devolved into recently, where borderline C/D students, like floating voters, were all that mattered, and everyone else – the banked grades and the lost causes – could go to hell.


Thankfully Frederick Bremer is more enlightened, and Oscar gets the kind of hassling and nagging and attention he needs. In some schools, he’d be ignored until he started to visibly drown. I have a huge soft spot for kids like Oscar and their troubled, child/adult brains; wrestling with just as many issues and problems as anyone else. They’re often damned for their perceived gifts, but the reality is that they need mentoring and guidance just as much as their peers. Firepower is no asset if you have no aim.


Tenacious Miss Higgins made the right pitch: "What will you do if you fail your exams and you don’t get into the college you want?" There’s clever and there’s clever. And there are a lot of clever boys who weren't so clever and ended up stacking shelves. Nothing wrong with stacking shelves, but I want my kids to know they can do a lot more than that.


One Fight in Paris


Did you see Pancake Day in the SLT meeting? Actual pancakes? Nutella? Comrades, this sort of decadence will not be tolerated come the new dawn. While they feasted on their imperialist treats, Bad Boys, Bad Boys were swapping beats in the library. Why Oscar didn’t swoop in, I don’t know, but the library crew were nowhere to be seen. Mr Palombo had to ride in, and with weeks away, the school was faced with an awful choice: to bin or not to bin?


That, and a heap of trouble, meant that the doors to the library were forever closed to Year 11s. You could almost hear Oscar pop a vein, and he launched into something that I had previously believed only happened in Grange Hill: they started a petition, trawling the school for votes. (Including "the radiator crew", who were the cool kids from last week. "Do you want to sign our petition?" they shouted. "I don’t care about the library," said Yasmin, who would no doubt have fought to the last bullet had the radiators been fenced off.


Petition day, and the Library Crew took their petition to the High Court of SLT morning meeting – also scandalously dripping in chocolate cake. (Have they no shame?) "Let’s roll," said Oscar, as women swooned, and the theme from Shaft played in the background.


But, as his physics teacher wisely pointed out, "Without the research, it’s meaningless." You can be the cleverest boy in Asda. Without the graft, it’s just wishes and butterflies.


‘Can I get a GCSE in Klingon? It’s a modern foreign language.’


Meanwhile, in a scene that could only be seen in a modern school, Dominic and Paris, who yesterday had been punching seven shades of hell out of each other, found themselves in a cookery class holding knives and wearing aprons. Classic. But what could have turned nasty became a textbook moment of blokey reconciliation: a couple of Bluds and hugs and it was all love, it was all good fam. Palombo made the call that exclusion at that point would be far less worthwhile than keeping them in supervised internal exclusion. And I’d totally agree. That’s why we have rules AND judges, so that the law doesn't steam roller justice.


Loved Mr Skinner (can we clone this guy?) telling off Paris like a mensch: "You have to grow up – this is a childish thing." Perfect pitch: strong, honest and adult. Paris was lucky to have someone so patient who would neither mollycoddle nor bully him – and often the kids only realise how lucky they are years later. That’s the job: don’t expect cuddles (although we nearly saw a hug) and glory. We saw Skinner and another teacher give him yet another pep talk: half dressing-down, half building up. So many of our kids learn only as well as they believe they can. And if they think they’re a clown, then a clown they’ll be. It’s sad when you find that, sometimes, you believe more in your students than they do themselves. And that’s also the job.


As Mr Skinner said to Palombo: "I’ll leave the miracle stuff in your hands." But he’s being modest. He’s as much part of it as every teacher.


I don’t know a teacher worth their rations that doesn’t feel exactly like Higgins and Skinner on exam day. You can’t walk into the hall and write it for them, but, god, you wish you could. Paris’ pass in English and Oscar’s A in history might have been a tight edit for the sake of narrative inspirationalism, but who cares? A win is a win is a win, and when you’re a teacher, if it goes in the back of the net, it’s a goal. Take it where you can, and start again in September. Which is also the job.




  • Loving the ABBA: The Museum bag in the history room. There’s a dark back story there.
  • Can I get some love for Nico? He’s the loveable Puck of this series, popping up every episode with silent physical comedy. Anyone that can carve an iPad shaped hole in a textbook deserves some form of award.
  • Mr Skinner’s response to a lovely Happy Birthday from his class: "Get on with your work." Stone cold killer.
  • Non-uniform day. Or ‘non-work day’ as I call it.
Find TES' full coverage of this series at the Educating the East End landing page