The land of the dragon has, at last, entered the ring of education telly. After the wider narrative on Wales’ performance in the Pisa tests, it’s about time that their schools’ stories were told – and what a first chapter this was.
The headteacher of Willows High School – the passionate, quirky Joy Ballard – began by vocalising the purpose of teaching: no child’s postcode should limit their success in life. Our first display of this mission is her keenness for perfect uniform, with a mirror conveniently hung on a door in the corridor. Mirror, mirror, on the wall, who is the best dressed in this hall? Jessicca.
Jessicca cavorts merrily around Willows, eyes firmly on the prize of success. I do hope this success is realised. Summoned to the quirk-chamber of Ms Ballard, Jessicca receives the job of editor of the staff-created newspaper. Overwhelmed with glee that, one day, Meryl Streep might portray her, she leaps to the challenge and interviews prospective candidates for her team. Jessica proved quite the leader: she delegated well, understood the skills of her team members and seemed enthused by the project she had undertaken. I’m sure that those skills, which were nurtured by Ms Bubbins, will be very useful in the next chapter of her educational journey.
Leah, on the other hand, is having a somewhat different educational journey – one of truancy, lateness and a questionable approach to uniform. As with many difficult students, Leah is clearly wise beyond her years, torn between image and inner values and frustrated by the system. That being said, her story is filled with cataclysmic bad decisions and should act as a deterrent to other young people who opt for last-minute GCSE revision and choose Twitter over textbooks. These shows are great opportunities to highlight the reality of the easy mistakes that young people can make at school.
Fortunately for Leah, she has Mr Hennessey, who is clearly committed to the welfare of his students. Mr H’s starter for 10 for Leah was, “Were you in school yesterday afternoon?” “Yes, of course,” she replied, “and I also read Anna Karenina whilst listening to the QI Elves podcast.” I’m no expert, but questions about attendance should probably be geared away from producing the wrong answer. However, despite this, Leah is fully aware that Mr Hennessey is a patron of quixotism, driven by noble ideals to get Leah into school.
Why, though, are many of the students not going to school? Educationalist Rita Pierson would have argued that this is the result of negative peer influence, poverty, drugs or low self-esteem. I wonder about the role models in these students’ lives. Mr Hennessey, Ms Ballard et al are trying to act as role models, but they also have to balance the complexities of their jobs. In 2011, Tremorfa, the area in which Educating Cardiff is set, was classed as economically deprived by the UK Census; 91 per cent of residents claimed unemployment or disability benefits. If the local picture is still this bleak, these young people are faced with monumental hurdles. All students need champions who will never give up on them and will believe that they can achieve whatever they put their minds to.
Willows High School itself is clearly caught up in a maelstrom of difficulties, though it has made considerable progress in recent years, some of which we have seen this evening. As an educator, it’s difficult not to pick at some of the issues on the screen, such as behaviour and uniform. It is, however, just the first episode. Already we can see glimmers of hope: a headteacher with incontrovertible passion for the success of her students; a head of house with incorrigible care for the most challenging; students who do have a thirst for success.
Crucially, Educating Cardiff serves as a reminder that challenges on screen shouldn’t merely be seen as a source of comedy or a post-prandial activity for Gogglebox viewers. This should be a call to action, a clarion call for educators to step up, paratroop into schools and share best practice. We should, as schools, be providing the discerning, opinionated home audience with fewer opportunities to berate teachers for the state of comprehensive education. The Channel 4s of the world will continue to edit and produce great edu-dramas; we need to act as a profession, otherwise the national perspective of education will continue to be based on constructed narratives that don’t necessarily reflect our reality.