Educating Cardiff and edu-television: Should schools allow cameras into the classroom?

Ahead of the final episode of Educating Cardiff, Educating the East End's Joe Bispham and teacher Tom Starkey debate the merits and pitfalls of allowing a television crew into a classroom

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What do you think is behind the surge in popularity of television shows set in schools?

Tom Starkey (TS): It seems to be a strange mix of nostalgia, voyeurism and the need to find tidy narratives where really there aren’t any. Schools are the perfect setting: everyone has been to one, so there’s a ready-made form of investment – whack in a nice tidy arc that plays itself out in time for some adverts and you're on to a winner. These shows offer glimpses into a world that non-teaching adults are largely shut out of, and that can be fascinating. But, if I’m being totally honest, I think it’s less about being interested about what’s going on in schools and more about entertainment. And that makes me deeply uncomfortable.

Joe Bispham (JB): Tom calls it "voyeurism" but I call it curiosity. Personally, I have always been of the belief that we should encourage this and be proud of the hard work that teachers do.

Schools are brilliant places to work and the stories that can be told there can tug on heartstrings, enrage and enthuse all at the same time. Yes, it is entertaining, but I don't think that in itself is a bad thing. Kids aren’t exploited, manipulated and forced to comply with the programme: the reality is far more sedate and far less Machiavellian.

What are the benefits and dangers of such programming?

JB: Schools – and the people in them – will be for ever associated with the documentary they feature in. That may be risky, but it can be positive as well.

The children involved are the most vulnerable to the scrutiny of a wider audience. Ahead of Educating the East End, pupils and parents at Frederick Bremer went through a rigorous process, both before and after filming, to make sure they were able to cope with the pressures involved.

I think the pupils benefited in several ways. They were provided with an opportunity for self-reflection. They saw some of their worst moments on screen and this made them confront aspects of their behaviour in a way that I think helped many of them.

TS: The reflection aspect is interesting, but I’d argue that most behaviour strategies have better, less public ways to get kids to self-reflect. I do believe there are dangers – I wonder how being observed changes behaviour. Kids have a lot to deal with at school as it is; I’m not entirely convinced that it’s beneficial to add to that burden.

As for the benefits, promotion of the profession has to be up there but that’s only going to last as long as the producers think heart-warming is the way to go. More recently we’ve had shows like Are Our Kids Tough Enough? Chinese School, which took a more combative approach.

Given the medium, do these programmes offer an accurate portrayal of what goes on in schools?

JB: Educating… is about the emotional side of school rather than pedagogy. Because of this, the details can often be inaccurate or changed to suit a specific narrative. A few teachers on social media were critical of the "good" judgement I received in a lesson observation in the first episode. They saw about a minute of teaching and felt able to judge my practice against the Ofsted criteria.

TS: I think ultimately the medium, to an extent, fictionalises. At best, there can only ever be a simulacrum of the complexity of what goes on in schools up and down the country day in and day out. Our job is sometimes amazing, sometimes not – the complex and the mundane in quick succession. I’m not sure any programme could capture that accurately, or that anyone would watch it if it did.

Is there an agenda behind these programmes and, if so, what is it?

TS: I have no doubt that schools approach these things with the best intentions. They see an opportunity to highlight the good things going on in their institution, perhaps even teaching in general. I’ve got absolutely no problem with that. The problem is that the school's agenda is not always going to be the one that the programme-makers follow. There will always be the danger that in the pursuit of entertainment, a school, its reputation, its staff or, most worryingly, its kids will suffer – I think that’s too big a risk.

JB: No matter how positive a relationship you have with the production team, signing over editorial control to them is daunting. However, if a production company wants to create an ongoing series they need to work with institutions. Put another way: would Thornhill's governors and Jonny Mitchell have agreed to make Educating Yorkshire if Educating Essex had been manipulated to paint a negative image of that school? Handing producers editorial control is vital in making sure it isn't an hour-long advert for teachers being amazing. Any chance to publicise what we do well should be cherished by teachers. I wholeheartedly believe that Educating... has had an impact on the education debate.

What do you hope teachers get out of watching?

JB: I think most teachers get very little out of it. It is about the public's perception of schools, not teachers'. I received a grand total of two negative comments from non-teachers in my entire time on the show. One was about my stubble and one about my lack of tie. Teachers, on the other hand, were saying outrageous things about the show, the pupils and my colleagues. It was unfounded, unfair gutter stuff. This internal vilification damages our profession’s solidarity, serves the purposes of those who want to disempower us and is entirely counter-productive.

TS: If there is to be true solidarity among teachers then as many voices as possible should be heard, even if they are critical. I think teachers approach these programmes a little differently from the rest of the viewing public. This is where we live, baby! As such, shows like this are a unique opportunity to discuss practice and some of the wider issues surrounding education openly. I spend more time than is healthy on social media and some of the discussion is broad, wide-ranging and encompasses a plethora of different views. Sure, there’s point-scoring and pettiness (as there is in all walks of life) but there is also real debate going on. I don’t think that’s a sign of a lack of professionalism, I think it’s the opposite.

JB, would you do it again?

JB: In a heartbeat. I learned so much about myself as a person and as a teacher (not that the two are mutually exclusive). All in all, I had a good time, learned a lot and I think I did a good turn by the profession, the school and the kids. Not a bad year, if you ask me.

TS, would you do it at all?

TS: Good grief, no. I don’t even like being observed by Ofsted, and that’s usually just one or two guys with an overdeveloped sense of judgement. I’m far too much of a fragile flower to open myself up like that.

Saying that, if there were big cash prizes involved... well... never say never. 

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