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:
Why don’t students like school? It’s a question that is so frequently discussed and debated that Daniel T Willingham adopted it for the title of his best-selling book. Well, in tonight’s Educating the East End, we discovered a whole host of potential answers for that question: the fear of making new friends, the difficulty in transitioning into mainstream schooling, the perpetual pressure of looming examinations, screaming teachers; take your pick. School is like prison, you see, except you get to leave at three.
Fortunately our protagonists, Devonté, Louie and Charlie, are clearly surrounded not just by incredibly supportive people, but also opportunities within school to develop as young people, giving them more confidence, social skills, moments to shine/better Ed Sheeran and transition into a comfortable educational setting – I’d argue that this makes Frederick Bremer less like prison and more like, well, a fantastic school.
Ms Austin is a critical part of that school; our modern day, ever-so-real Miss Honey. A common misconception I’m finding in education is that teachers choose that path because they loved their own school days. Ms A squashed that with her anecdote that her own bad experiences at school motivated her to work in education to provide support and her mellifluous tones to those who may face similar issues.
The Austin-style altruism is incredibly effective; students see her as an agony aunt, a soul sister, a cheerleader for happiness and a sanctuary to solve the Rubik’s Cubes in their lives. Devonté (whose name made me think of Beyoncé, which then made me instantly happy) showed us the impact Ms A had on his attitude to school: “I’ve been trusted to go back into mainstream, so I’m hoping not to fail anyone.” Who that ‘anyone’ is is up for debate, but she’s rewriting the stories of these children’s series of unfortunate events.
The first story worth telling is Louie. Louie arrived five weeks late into school, missing those ever-so-crucial transitional moments for a Year 7. It’s incredible, actually, that he’s acclimatising at all. Schools such as Reach Academy, King Solomon Academy and programmes such as Lauriston Lights place huge importance on those critical moments in a young person’s life. He’s so fortunate to have the support structures in place at Frederick Bremer, such as social club (I thought that was called Facebook?), to make him happy in his new environment. Kudos, Louie, for your excellent eyewear style too, kudos – I know you’ll do brilliantly at school.
Devonté, our rapper/13-year-old carer/mobile-phone concealer/teacher impressionist/amateur poet, is living in a familial nightmare that he can’t wake up from and, as a result, is perpetually capricious in school. He is starving for attention; any attention, which he lacks at home. “I go home and see my mother cry, I wish I knew why, I think she just lies” is not the wax lyrical you expect to hear from a young boy and so it’s unsurprising to see his difficulties in mainstream education.
Frederick Bremer’s Fresh Start provision is tremendous – it keeps Devonté in a safe place to learn, coupled with the ability to socialise in a mainstream setting. “Every child deserves a champion, a teacher that will not give up on them,” cries Rita Pierson in my favourite TED talk. While Mrs A fits the bill here yet again, for me, it was Mr Skinner who was the standout character tonight. He gave Devonté the confidence, positive praise and attention to help him link his love of rap music to his learning, to make school feel less like a prison and more of an environment where “when you write, you’re free”. Amen to that.
Charlie, however, didn’t feel free. He suffered from anxiety brought on by a successful sibling, high self-expectations, the pressure from school, parents and peers for him to get A*s. Again, he’s just 16. But he does need tough love if he is to be successful in the increasingly competitive climate in which he lives, as Ms Yildiran pointed out. Fortunately for Charlie, he has all the raw materials to produce a quality product: ambition, talent, diverse interests, 8 A*s, 2 As and newly-found confidence after proving to the nation that he could be the new frontman of the School of Rock.
Charlie is the champion of his own destiny, the master of his own fate, and if he embraces his passions and applies his intellect, I’m sure he’ll be a success story that Ms Smith and her team will share with students in years to come.
The message tonight was one of hope: hope that persistent love and support will help the students who are most vulnerable, hope that the difference we try to make in our jobs will have the desired impact and hope that all the learning that is done will prepare students for when the all-important exam papers are opened. A team with hope surrounds Devonté, Charlie and Louie – we shouldn't underestimate the difference that a bit of hope can make.
Find TES' full coverage of this series at the Educating the East End landing page