Skip to main content

Educating Cardiff, episode 5: 'Willows High should inspire and encourage teachers everywhere'

Educating the East End's Mr Bispham feels a pang of nostalgia as he watches a bright young student struggle with maths in the latest episode of Channel 4's documentary series

News article image

I like to think I am reasonably talented academically. I didn’t try my hardest in lessons and still did pretty well. There were two things about school I remember struggling with: girls and maths. And while I didn’t ever manage to persuade the girl from the school across the road that I was the one for her, I did manage to scrape a C in maths. 

As such, I felt incredibly empathetic towards Benjy. When he described maths as being dogmatic and therefore boring, he could have been channelling the teenage Joe Bispham. This is perhaps what makes the Educating… series so successful and special: that connection to long-forgotten school experiences. Such a mixture of nostalgia and empathy is a heady cocktail for audiences not used to being so emotionally involved with the programmes they watch. Nothing comes close for many people. Those who dismiss the series as being simply voyeuristic seem to miss this connection entirely. I, for one, feel sorry for them.

Benjy was precocious and instantly likeable. He was obviously bright but had decided that maths wasn’t for him and in the process created a self-fulfilling prophecy. I wanted to tell Benjy that he needed to break the habit, that maths wouldn’t go away and, by the time he hit Year 11, he would feel the stress I felt when faced with an exam. I couldn’t, of course, but it only made me will Mr Hennessy on further. The Mr Hennessy and Benjy double act looked like something out of a comedy from the 1950s. I could have watched a whole hour of the sullen master and the enthusiastic but naive pupil crossing swords in the classroom. Yet as frustrated as he appeared, Mr Hennessy kept on going.

'Belief in supporting pupils is contagious'

Seeing the amount of effort that was put into Benjy’s mathematical labours made me realise how far state education has come since I was at school. As an educator, it made me reflect on the dedication I see from staff on a daily basis. At Forest Gate Community School in East London, where I currently teach, this belief in giving everything to support pupils learning is contagious. It appears that Willows High School has caught a severe case of this condition as well, and that should inspire and encourage teachers everywhere.

While I am increasingly motivated by watching this series, I have wondered what the top brass in education would make of the teachers in Cardiff. I cannot imagine these are the images that Ofsted's Sir Michael Wilshaw or education secretary Nicky Morgan have of outstanding educators. That may be presumptuous, but it is based on the evidence of a tick-list, prescriptive culture in the education establishment they have created or continued that is suffocating for pupils and staff. I hope that many teachers will look at Willows and be enthused about what might seem unconventional (particularly in London schools) and realise that there cannot be a one-size-fits-all approach to challenges in schools. We need to open our minds, broaden our horizons and not become prisoners of our own successes.

In the second storyline of the episode, a very different double act was being formed. On one side, a man who is less head of maths, more retired Juventus centre-half. If you presented a non-viewer with Mr Lo Celso and asked which subject he taught, how long would it take for them to guess maths? That’s another stereotype shattered at Willows, then. Opposite him was the all-too-familiar story of Kalid.

It is so hard when you are presented with a pupil who, due to circumstances beyond their control, has obvious gaps in their education. You need to find a way of getting them up to speed quickly to ensure they do not fall further behind. Equally, motivation can become an issue. I cannot imagine how disheartening it was for Kalid to see other pupils racing ahead of him. It was enough to stop him even coming into school. Why would you put yourself through that humiliation every day? Yet, paradoxically, the school is only able to help a pupil realise their potential if they are in the building.

It was interesting to see that through responsibility and achievement, Willows managed to make school a place he wanted to be. With the staff at Willows working tirelessly, and with Kalid attending school, I am sure he’ll catch up soon enough.

Next week, I can expect more emotional trauma as the series makes me relive the other titanic struggle of my school days: teenage girls and romance. I’m going to need therapy by the time the cameras leave Cardiff.

Log in or register for FREE to continue reading.

It only takes a moment and you'll get access to more news, plus courses, jobs and teaching resources tailored to you