Educating Yorkshire: Return of the King and Ting

6th September 2013 at 12:32


David Walliams is once again swimming through a river of turds to provide entertainment for the less fortunate, apparently for charity. But enough about Big School. After a drought of decent Teacher Telly, exemplified by the aforementioned BBC1 laughter abyss, and Jack Whitehall's anti-gag vale of tears, Bad Education, we have the return of the King: Educating Essex is back. Only it moved to Yorkshire. Just pretend it regenerated, like Doctor Who.


The first series was a beautiful triumph: funny, touching and best of all, educative, at least if you don't work in a school. Vic Goddard and Stephen Drew, the Batman and Robin of Passmores Academy, became overnight heroes of education, and despite the tired efforts of a few blue stockings to froth controversy from the often raw depictions of teacher/ student relationships, it just worked. Despite the dangers of sensationalisation, Passmores and the staff, came out looking ... well, like most teachers actually are: dedicated, human, compassionate, frail and professional.


But can lightning strike twice in the same staffroom? Goddard turned down a second series on the grounds that now everyone knew how it worked, it would be a different experience for the school, like Big Brother after everyone realised you could make money out of it.


So, this time we're at Thornhill Community Academy in Yorkshire. Goddard has regenerated as Mr Mitchell, a new Head Sheriff come to clean up Dodge. Perhaps in an effort to sell him as Daily Mail bait, we see him at first capering around empty corridors to 'There may be trouble ahead'. But it's clear from what cloth Mitchell is cut. 'If kids don't walk out as decent human beings, we've failed them,' he says, channelling Goddard and Gandhi. 'My style is traditional,' he says. And so it is. By the time he describes how behaviour is fundamental to good learning, I'm on board already. It's amazing how anyone in education can fail to accept this self-evident axiom, but then I suppose not everyone in education actually has to teach challenging children.


Kids will be kids

The kids..well, the kids are kids. We see them punching each other, in the way that only best friends can; hard, on the arm, both smiling, swearing, throwing things at each other, and flipping each other the bird, with the frequency of blinking. That thing kids do where they pretend to wind in a fishing line as their middle finger slowly elevates, is never not funny, never. The program makers treated us to a selection box of characters from the school corpus. If you can't find a handful of caramels in 1,000 pupils and teachers then you just aren't trying hard enough, and they didn't let us down.


We see Mr Barrowclough, wrestling with an octopus of tangled headphone leads, and doing the classic give-the-job-to-a-nice-kid thing, beloved of nice kids nowhere. Mr B busts a smokers' ring wide open, pleasingly describing himself as Elliot Ness as he does so, the kids oblivious to his allusion. The good thing about smokers at school is that it isn't hard to know whom to cuff; the tell-tale breath is enough evidence to convict.


And the sentence? Waterloo Road has the Cooler, and Thornhill has ISOLATION, which resembles the language booths we used to have when I was doing O-Level French. Exclusion rooms of this sort are common in schools, where misbehaviour has to result in some form of isolation to denote impropriety from community norms.


Bailey, a Siouxie Soux Year 10 describes isolation as 'Death,' hopefully melodramatically. Bailey was my favourite in this show before it even transmitted. Like many teens, her attitude to make-up seems to be 'all of it, all at once', but I am old, and personal experience tells me that Bailey probably exists perfectly occupies the bullseye of the zeitgeist.


I shaved off my eyebrows

It is impossible- especially if you don't teach her- not to love Bailey, because she represents something that I think many of us in the profession find more irresistible than free money. From how she's portrayed, she's clever, and a bit cheeky, but possessed of ambition and heart; bursting with the potential that radiates with such little guile at that age, perched on a tight rope between the child and the adult. 'Do you like my eyebrows?' says Bailey. 'I shaved them off,' she says with glee. And so she has. I don't know why some women, and Rylan X-Factor do this. Nobody does.


Then the camera swooped down from the sweet to the sad; Kamrrem, an obviously troubled boy, is a recidivist misbehaver. The dilemma Mitchell faced dealing with him was a microcosm of the teacher's role as judge, jury, executioner - how do you administer law? A scuffle in a toilet, with accusation and counter accusation  muddied by claims of racist abuse ... standard terms of engagement for a teacher.


Mitchell showed his mettle by the care with which he interrogated the claims, until with enough witness statements pointing the right way, he could see who was more sinned against, and who more sinning. It's often a thankless job, but a necessary one. I used to know a veteran Head of Year who would pull the full Sweeney when he had a perp in for questioning. 'We know you did it, Mugsy,' he'd say. 'Your so-called pals have squealed already. Tell us what you know and we'll go easy.' Worked. Every. Time. This was, surprisingly, wonderful telly, inventing a new genre for TV: the school-procedural. Next week: the PA to the Head processes admission forms in time for the governor's sub-committee meeting.


Kamrrem popped up in a depressing incident later on, as he and his mates pelted an old couple with snowballs, mocking them. It was as sad as it is commonplace; cruelty is too often the vertebrae of group amusement and peer grooming. Best of all, Mitchell showed he was prepared to confront the behaviour without appeasing it, which is easier; Kamrrem was removed to another school to work in isolation for a spell.


School is like Seinfeld

By the end of this episode we saw him contrite - at least on camera - and we were reassured by the end montage that he hadn't re offended, at least by transmission. I'm not sure if I enjoyed this over-neat summary at the end; I think I preferred Educating Essex's longer view. School is often, to paraphrase Seinfeld, a place where no one learns anything but everyone hugs.


I particularly enjoyed how the cameras pleasingly showed kids grassing up their colleagues beautifully. I'm no psychologist, but I know enough about kids to have a guess how they'll be received by their peers tomorrow. Maybe the producers should have some kind of witness protection program.


And after the set-up movies, the team-up: Mitchell and Bailey met to discuss the latter's application to become a prefect on the JLT, the Junior Leadership Team. (Bailey later described the JLT to a friend as 'You have the power of the SLT, but in a junior way'. So that'll be f***-all, but less of it, then). 'You should go for it,' he said. 'Nobody will mess with you,' which made it sound like an invitation to join the mob.


So: a strong start to the series. A complete joy to watch because, despite the artifice of fixed rigs and editorial narratives, it satisfied Salvador Dali's maxim that art 'tells the truth with lies.' As a teacher, Educating Yorkshire rang absolutely true. Moving, sad, and as rough as a teenager's mascara, it felt like I was watching my job. And it provided a lesson, if one were needed, that the best way to make funny, moving TV about schools is to film one. Someone tell the BBC Comedy Unit.


Other highlights

Ryan, of course, Ryan, the man-child who wants to be either an actor or a fireman because he wants 'To Help or Entertain', which I believe is the motto of the LAPD school response unit. From his heart-breaking pity-plea for JLT votes, to his one-liners ('A big man fights, a bigger man walks away') to his Martian precocity (his response to being invited to stand for JLT: 'I'm intrigued.'), if we don't see more of him, it'll be a tragedy. He's this year's Film Club.


The teacher who blew his stack and delivered a perfect hair dryer to a kid: 'Do maths!' He screamed. I'm getting T-Shirts printed already.


The teacher, muttering with disgust as he tried to work out how to turn a digital radio over from 50 Cent singing In Da Club.


The teacher who, confronted with a snowy playground, made the unforgivable error of throwing a snowball at another teacher. I assure you, this provides a tacit cue to every pupil present that Hunting Season has just begun, and you have just unleashed Hell.