Educating the East End, episode eight: 'The true heroes of this series have been the support staff'

TES Opinion

Oliver Beach, former star of Tough Young Teachers, and now second-in-charge of economics and business Studies at Central Foundation Boys' School in London, writes:

Over the past year, the nation has gathered around their televisions to watch a panoply of fact and fictional education-themed programmes, from Mr Drews School For Boys and Tough Young Teachers through to Bad Education and Big School. And, of course, over the last eight weeks, Educating the East End. The young people watching try to empathise with the students, the teachers pray that the shows truly document the complexities of teaching and the parents watch in hope that the learning being delivered in our nation’s classrooms is inspiring the adults of tomorrow.

This heartwarming final episode of Educating the East End solidified in my mind that the true heroes of the series have been the support staff; the den mothers, the never-negative cheerleaders and carrier pigeons of hope for the young people who need them the most. We should applaud these people in our millions, but, as we return to our lives and the memories of the series start to fade to black, let’s never forget how inspiring those pillars to our youth are in supporting those who may find life a little harder than us.

Frederick Bremer’s mission, a vision that all schools should have, is to prepare its students for their future. One of my Year 8 students said to me yesterday that "teachers open the doors, but students have to walk through them". While I am flabbergasted and inspired by his eloquent articulation of a famous educational quote, tonight showed us that not everybody can walk through the door on their own. Christopher – or Mr Positive, as he must now be titled – was the standout character of tonight’s episode by a country marathon. I’m going to go as far as to say he should be recognised in the Queen’s Honours List for services to kindness. We were so lucky to have had the privilege to sit in our onesies in our living rooms and be inspired by Mr Positive. How wonderful would the world be if you were greeted with, “I hope you have a positive day” as you set foot into work? Bankers would give their bonuses to charity, criminals would put the loot back in the bank, dentists would use less traumatic drills and people would text you back after a date to let you know that you’re a wonderful person but not their cup of tea – it would all happen because we’d have a positive day. We should all aim to have such an optimistic outlook on life, especially within the confines of the school walls.

Positivity aside for a moment, the most crucial reason why he had that mindset was thanks to Ms Ayesha, aka the best teacher in the world. A real-world propagator of growth mindset theory in action, Ms Ayesha never gave up on Christopher and always told him to kick the negativity out of his mind. The support that the students receive at Frederick Bremer is why they have a similar attitude to the children at Miss Honey’s school in Matilda – why would you want to leave a nurturing, familial environment that makes you feel safe? You wouldn’t. Sadly though, they must. Ms Smith is right that we shouldn’t wrap them in cotton wool, but there is no harm in giving a child a school experience that they will look back on fondly in their years ahead. 

With the cyclical pressure that teachers are under from looming Ofsted inspections, changing exam specifications, average point scores and GCSE outcomes, I don’t think it would be a stretch to say that perhaps we sometimes forget those that support us with the students that we find the most challenging in our classrooms. It is the inclusivity in schools like Frederick Bremer that should be applauded, not just by us at home, but by the decision-makers and inspectors. Without the support staff at Frederick Bremer, Christopher would not have been able to go on a day out or have become emotionally stable after being mocked at school.

Before I move on to looking at some of the other characters of last night’s episode, I’d like to list some of the lines Christopher delivered in case you want to make someone smile/feel inspired:

1) You’re meticulous, you’re the man, you founded the name ‘man’.
2) Have a positive day!
3) I love your shirt. I love your fringe. It looks so great on you.
4) Live for now, not for the future.
5) What is normal? Normal doesn’t exist, it’s a man-made term.
6) To every young autistic person out there, you can be successful in anything you aspire to achieve.
7) The more scary it is, the more exciting it can be! 

Another student who was fortunate to be championed by her teachers was Makeda; this time by Ms Kelly and Mr Bispham, the former giving her the emotional support, courage to believe in herself and platform to build confidence and the latter in pragmatism, precise praise and honesty that Makeda needed. Joe was right, it is scary that the life chances of 16-year-olds are categorically changed by the outcomes of one set of exams and for students who feel trapped, like Makeda, this pressure must be overwhelming. Fortunately for Makeda, Ms Kelly believed she deserved the spot preaching to a full audience of Year 11s for International Women’s Day. Even though Makeda didn’t get the C that she wanted, she developed self-confidence and courage that will be crucial for her in the next stage of her life.

And so, another series is over with a cornucopia of lessons learned. Lessons about the role of pastoral teams in the emotional development of young people, lessons about what really goes on in a child’s life when they go home from school and more lessons about the tireless work that teachers do for their students. Even Ofsted may have learned to be less focussed on quantifiable outcomes and more on the values instilled in schools and the social progress of students; sometimes it is more about "bantaaa than workaaa". Most importantly though, we’ve learned that no matter their race, gender, age or socio-economic class, young people deserve the best education and support to help them achieve what they believe they can and, in the inimitable words of Dr Seuss, will they succeed, yes they will indeed, 99 and 3/4 percent guaranteed.



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