Ten out of ten: Tough Young Teachers - Episode six review
I used to stop reading beloved books at the last chapter, so that they would never end. Tough Young Teachers has been so entertaining, such a carnival mirror on our profession, I felt like recording it and leaving it for Christmas. But I'm not 12, so I watched it with resignation. Goodbyes never get easy.
This week was also about endings. School years always are; who achieves what? Who survives, thrives or simply skives? Like the exams this episode covered, it was a time of testing – and every good test should reveal something that was hidden or tell us something that has changed. The students had their tests –mock exams, module exams – and so did the teachers, with final observations and gradings that would quantify how they had done over the past year. With their ambition and vigour, and given that Meryl had squeaked through her gauntlet, we knew that failure wasn't an option, so we turned to the next best cliffhanger – were they as good as they hoped? And would anyone buckle?
Back in Charles' classroom, Walid was up to his old tricks, a repertoire that seems to consist mainly of being a capering mountebank. No comedy door is too broad or obvious for such students to walk through. Given, perhaps foolishly, the opportunity to lead the class, he took the proffered hand of responsibility and gnawed it off to the shoulder, ordering Charles himself to sit down and behave. Frankly, the calm ice-giant Wallendahl deserved a VC and a pay rise for not chinning him on the spot. The man-child Walid in his shiny suit doing work experience down at Specsavers was a marked change to the Walid we saw huddled in the doorway of his RS lesson, bleating like a baby because LOLZ. At that point Charles must have been thinking, Angel, stay my hand and spare this child.
No court would have convicted you, mate.
Nicholas and Meryl continued their double act this week. “The two trainees have grown close,” said the commentary, archly, and you could practically see the narrator mugging like Graham Norton with an 'if-you-catch-my-drift' manner. Nick didn't help by saying, “I feel a sense of unity with her,” which in some parts of the Shetlands commits you to wedlock and is legally binding. “We've done our late nights together,” he added, and even I'm thinking, BOY GET A CLASSROOM.
But it was only editing magic. Nick, we learn, had the audacity to have a beautiful fiancée waiting for him in France, Anne-Laure. She didn't understand Nick's passion for teaching – “all his friends earn more and work less” – and his dad looked as if he hoped teaching was, like marijuana, homosexuality or communism, just a phase he was going through. The implication was that Nick viewed teaching as a two-year adventure with an open door at the end of it.
Meryl, by contrast, had been planning her teaching career since her second trimester, viewing the job as a“lifelong commitment to address educational disadvantage”. That IS commitment. A lot of people criticise Teach First for promoting an attitude of disposability to the profession – like a costume. But how many teachers can claim Meryl's drive? Many, I'm sure, and that's the point: I'm sure that there are just as many non-Teach Firsters who enter the profession with ambivalence or few long-term goals. I have no axe to grind for or against the programme – I think it's a perfectly valid route for some – but it's clear that no route into teaching monopolises the best intentions.
So, what happened in the end?
Claudenia was observed, and her tutor marvelled at her progress: we didn't seriously worry she wouldn't pass, despite the wobble in episode five. Wobbles are standard in the first year. If you haven't wept into a pile of unmarked books by February, then you're not doing it right. Even Claudenia's pupils grudgingly admitted that she was better. Oliver was also observed, and nailed an outstanding. He finally came into his own this week, from his striking dress sense (“Nice bow tie, sir.” “Thanks, I have a pocket square to match.”) to his awkward, Raj-era awkwardness (given outstanding in his grading interview, he offered a high-five to his tutor, who looked like he'd been asked to tug off a horse. “Let's just shake hands,” he said from an iceberg, a million miles away).
Chloe, ending her second year, wasn't under the swinging scythe of judgement; rather, the drama from her was her own itchy feet, yearning for the road. “I might want to travel,” she said to the camera before meeting her line mangers. Her school were practically stapling her to the floor in an attempt to prevent her leaving. “At least you're not one of those ones who wanted to travel,” said the deputy head, with the comedy timing of Ronnie Corbett selling fork handles.
Meryl passed, and I had every faith she would: education sparkles in her eyes and there's teaching in her bones. And Nick? Well, Nick was the surprise ending. Being unable to be with the woman he loved for a year proved, unsurprisingly, a deal breaker: marry and live with the love of your life in France, or wet nurse surly children in Uxbridge through their FFT predicted grades? That decision must have taken negative seconds to make.
His head wasn't happy and spoke bitterly about betrayal but, Christ, give the guy a break. In any other movie, this would be the happy ending. He wasn't a dropout, or a weak link, he did a great job for a year, made a difference and moved on to other things. Rather than *** about nebulous, unquantifiable “losses to the profession”, we should celebrate his contribution, be happy for him, and get a life.
Mind you, the camera impishly lingered on Meryl's reaction to the news, as she bit her lip and wished him well. It was edited like the balcony scene of a Royal Wedding. “Kiss her!” the fictional crowds chanted. But there would be no kiss. Besides, Meryl was no single lady, and the producers were anxious to undercut their own narrative by reminding us of Meryl's own boyfriend, a priest so groovy he blessed her car for her, and then blessed her. If only he'd blessed her first car before she turned it into a Meccano set.
There are, in life, of course, rarely real endings; such things are only defined retrospectively. At the time they simply feel like life. But the narrative art of a television series offers a frame and a focus to what we have seen and what the players have been through. An inevitable montage of prom, a sports day, a results day, reinforced what teachers already know – our careers are built on a river of humanity, flowing, foaming one way without pause. We usher one cohort in and see them out again, cheering them on and scolding them as they need.
Some manage to grab the life belts we throw them – all of Claudenia's class romped in with A*-C – and some do not. A regretful Caleb, refusing to discuss his grades, admitted that he would have done everything differently, but too late, too late. We are midwives to both triumphs and tragedies. Oliver's class had stumbled; Archbishop Lanfranc had their worst results. Perhaps, as Caleb said, everything happened for a reason.
Claudenia's final act provided the sharpest and most inspiring counterpoint to what had gone before: an invitation to 10 Downing Street to meet David Cameron for a celebration of another ten – ten years of Teach First. She took a student with her, which provided an exquisite moment of comedy as D-Cam mistook student for teacher. “So have you been through your training yet?” he asked Josiah in Year 11. Another two minutes of that and you could have made a decent Thick of It sketch.
It was difficult not to share her pride at such an touching symbol of possibility and potential – from CrownWoods School to Downing Street. Half an hour on the tube, or a million light years, depending on how things go in the first act of their lives. As teachers we play a small but important part in that, which is an honour, often a pleasure, sometimes a misery and always an enormous responsibility.
I think that this programme did a good job of showing all of that. Some people have told me it's put them off teaching, some that it's turned them on. Given that I think it was honest, nuanced and intimate, I think neither of these is a bad thing.
Well played, Tough Young Teachers, well played. Come back next year.