If you were feeling starved of TV about teachers, you’ll be nourished by the latest edu-telly offering from Channel 4 (I call it the "school procedural"): Mr Drew’s School For Boys. I really wanted to like this, because Stephen Drew is such an avuncular and authentic hero of education, and it would have been dismal if they’d made a cat’s arse of it. Fortunately, they didn’t, and mid-week telly has something to offer between Game of Thrones and Mad Men (I’ll confess an interest: I was asked to take part in this, but the birth of my first child inexplicably pipped the possibility).
You can see the Darwinism of TV commissioning in full bloom here: years ago, Jamie’s Dream School took a chance on the odd confluence between the Gourmand of Clavering, celebrity unteachers, and last-chance school interventions…and it worked, gloriously, as telly, and a warning that good intentions and nuclear ambition isn’t enough to educate the unwilling. Educating Essex followed, and then Yorkshire. London is next. Nothing succeeds like success, and nothing is more guaranteed to oil the perineum of financiers than a hit. The danger is that the market throws up a pale copy rather than something more fit.
Mr Drew’s School For Boys is closer to Jamie’s Dream School, in that it’s a fly-on-the-wall documentary about a very special school indeed, a boutique month-long experiment to see if children "at risk of exclusion" could have their behaviour amended in some way. By the end of the episode, the only thing they were at risk of was a frying pan around the chops. Like the Dream School, this is a pop-up institution. Unlike Jamie’s Magic Cluster Hug of Wishes, the kids are mid-career: eleven 11-year-olds, still with the chance to pull back from the brink before they detonated their life chances. Oliver’s glorious, forgivable mistake was to assume that the only reason kids went off school was because the teachers weren’t amazing enough, and that if only Johnny Ball or someone were teaching them maths, or Alastair Campbell could teach them how to be evil, they would have blossomed like little butterflies.
Drew doesn’t make this terrible error, mainly because he’s actually a teacher rather than a restaurateur – who would have thought that would be important? I’ve met him, and been in the school from which he emerged – Passmores – as an unlikely TV star in Educating Essex. He’s utterly the real deal: a drop of Mary Poppins, a soupçon of the Terminator, a pinch of Mr Bronson, a rag, a bone, a hank of hair from Coach Carter. The last time I saw him, he was walking around school with no shoes on. He’s that good.
So, he’s recruited a team of actual teachers rather than assemble a first 15 from a PR’s rolodex: Mark Grist, who will be known to some as the rap battler from Don’t Flop (which I encourage you to watch (although some of the language is decidedly NSFW) – he’s astonishingly good, and I say that as someone who appreciates tight flows and dirty beats. And Baileys), maths teacher Lindsay Skinner and PE teacher Dominic Volante. They all certainly have the chops for the job. There’s also Tracey Campbell, who’s described in her website as having been excluded six times from her school – we didn’t see her up to much in this episode other than watching classes and saying, "This behaviour’s really bad" a lot, but it's early doors.
And the twist is, of course, that the parents will be onsite with the kids (a twist foreshadowed by BBC3’s Wait 'Til Your Teacher Gets Home from a few years back, for which I was a consultant. TV producers love the idea, apparently. Teachers would shudder at the prospect). But it can also tickle teachers, some of whom would dearly love for more parents to see what little spanners their children can become away from the nest, although it was clear that most of the parents knew exactly what their little acorns were capable of.
Much has been said about the shortcomings of these parents to allow their children to develop such vile behaviour patterns, and certainly it’s hard to avoid the conclusion that the adult is the chief architect of the child’s character. But it’s also difficult to watch their shame and frustration without empathising, without wishing that things had been different from them. Some mistakes are well meant, but hard to put right.
On the surface, most of what these children seemed to lack was simply the understanding that the world did not revolve around their whims. We saw Tom and Zane ("I WANT A HOT CHOCOLATE, I DON’T WANT WATER"), and the two Maxes (what are the odds?) and Dominic ("I accidentally called my teacher a dick") and Clark ("I can’t help myself! I’m a problem child") and a wrecking crew of little boys with frighteningly precocious senses of entitlement and dwarfish capacities for empathy.
And Drew himself, lean and rippling, as relentless as a metronome, is just the man for the job. He isn’t a Tony Robbins figure; he doesn’t weep and cartwheel. He just gets the job done. Confronted with the yobbish chaff that paints our days in school ("You’re fat", "You’re a dick", ad infinitum) he did what had to be done, rather than the obvious thing: he kept his wig on, he focussed on what the pupil had to do, and he never retaliated, never escalated. In a sense, he wore his charges down, until they knew the stars would freeze before he changed his mind or took their bait. Used to reactions, he gave them none. Looking for the spotlight of attention and notoriety, he switched the lights off. Craving a stage, he took away the audience. It was lovely to watch. Such a simple skill, but so easily misjudged. These kids don’t need shouting, they need seriousness. They won’t be amended by intimidation; they need to see that the world will turn despite them.
First week, and it was all a bit messy, especially in drama, where the kids ran around a lot and fought each other (isn’t that all drama lessons?). Tantrums blew like storms, and parents melted in dishonour ("He’s a dick," said one tearfully, truthfully). It was hard to watch. Harder still was seeing Drew flying down a waterslide in his shirt sleeves as his Irregulars chanted DREW! DREW! DREW! At him. A scene you’ll find repeated in special schools up and down the country, I have no doubt.
Time will tell if this peculiar summer school will have any real impact. But it won’t – for once – be for lack of trying. Roll on next week.