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Educating Cardiff, episode 4: 'A demonstration of how tough life can be for teenagers in modern Britain'

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What makes a good rugby captain? Leading by example? Respect? Trust? Vision? There probably isn’t a definitive answer. I am a keen and experienced sports fan, and consequently realise that different captains and leaders demonstrate different skills. You find your own way to lead. Last night’s superstar teacher Mr Sage was symbolic of that idea. Good teachers, good leaders and good pastoral carers come in all shapes and sizes.

Mr Sage was not your stereotypical PE teaching head of house. That description conjures up images of wannabe sergeant majors barking orders at pupils, regimental approaches to uniform and a steely-eyed glare that would pierce even the most resilient troublemaker’s armour.  Not so Mr Sage, a head of house who wore his heart on his sleeve and spoke quietly and compassionately to his pupils. In return, even the most challenging pupils trusted him seemingly unquestionably.

One such pupil was Linda. Linda was a walking contradiction: obviously bright, yet unable to complete seemingly straight forward maths problems. Stubborn and explosive, yet vulnerable and frightened. Small in stature but having a huge impact on learning in the classroom. The heartwrenching scenes when her brother moved aboard demonstrated how tough life can be for teenagers in modern Britain. It is often easy to forget that many have devastating situations to deal with and when in the safety and comfort of the school gates, they can take their frustrations out on those trying to help them. Mr Sage recognised this and invested his time and soul into solving the issue.

A theme this series keeps returning to is that of individual teachers championing the pupil that others have seemingly given up on. These relationships are the lifeblood of a successful school operating in challenging circumstances. They feed pupils often starved of adequate emotional and social support and are what make British secondary schools special places. Mr Sage’s commitment to Linda, and his willingness to take risks that could lead to criticism from bosses or colleagues, was inspirational to see. You could see that it impacted him as well. He looked concerned to the point of being exhausted at times. He gives his job his all.  Someone buy that man a bloody pint!

While I love the tales of pupils seemingly on the edge of self-destruction, turning things around with the support of staff, it was refreshing to see a slightly different narrative playing out in the corridors of Willows. The friendship of Corey and Gethin was not going to breakdown over the school captaincy, instead they embraced the decision and seemed to become a formidable leadership team. Corey was a cracking young man, funny (the description of his father being "five foot and a fag butt" had me), silky foot work on the rugby field (he looked like a direct descendent of JPR Williams) and maturity beyond his years. He will probably learn more about himself and about life from that disappointment than from any classroom lesson that year.

This is what makes these series particularly special. In another review, Tom Bennett noted that we actually see very little educating in an Educating… programme. That may be true but, in many ways, it is far more of a privilege, much more enjoyable and a greater testament to the staff and pupils at Willows to show young people grow outside the classroom. As was alluded to by Ms Ballard, sometimes other things are more important than academia.

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