Oliver Beach, former star of Tough Young Teachers and now assistant head of business studies at Central Foundation Boys' School in London, writes:
“We don’t need no haters, just try to love one another, we just want y’all to have a good time, no more drama in your life.”
Tonight’s dose of Educating the (North) East End could have been sponsored by resurgent Family Affair hit-maker, Mary J Blige. Unfortunately, her pertinent lyrics were a message lost on the young Shakespeare-loving Jebb, the protagonist of the evening. Episode four marks the halfway point in the series – a series that is taking us on a popcorn-feasting journey through peaks and troughs of emotional trauma, gleeful laughter and momentary reflection. It’s difficult to become desensitised to the tribulations of Britain’s youth and, perhaps more so, the teachers in our schools. Our TV screens are plastered with the heroes and villains of the education world, a pantomime of theatrical realities. You couldn’t write the script because you wouldn’t believe what you’d be writing. It’s just a taste of what happens when the school bells ring; pupils at Frederick Bremer are incredibly fortunate to have a leader and a team who provide the support crucial to protecting their school lives and their futures.
Business studies students across the country would have been feasting on the critical path analysis of Jebb’s decision-making. Which of his actions would cause the most damage to his end goal? “WTF”, “Mr Bellend”, classroom-leaving refusal, an incredible soft-toy throw, a 10-day holiday or swearing in class; the options are seemingly endless. Perhaps I could apply to be Jebb’s PA, as he seemed to be piling up misdemeanors too quickly to be able to dish out all the apologies necessary in a timely fashion. HMP Frederick Bremer, as some of the students refer to it, showcased the complexity in disciplining the most challenging of students. Mr Bispham echoed my concerns in episode one of Tough Young Teachers: if I ask the student to leave the classroom and they say no, what do you do? I now feel the question is deeper than that; it’s a school-wide issue. There have to be structures in place where students know that that route of dialogue isn’t an option. But then there are some occasions where even the most regimented of routines couldn’t overcome the overwhelming challenges in a 14-year-old’s life. This week, Sir Michael Wilshaw said that headteachers are too soft on unruly pupils, yet tonight’s 45 minutes showed the opposite; a perpetual firefight of a consistently firm-but-fair approach to a student with clear emotional issues.
Jebb, sadly, was failed by the system, not by his school. He’s failed by underfunded state schools’ inability to really provide for his issues. Wouldn’t it be great if schools had therapists on hand at all times providing free emotional head massages? Not just for students, but teachers too. Xanax at break-time, anyone? Jebb was fortunate to have Hazel – who shared her own heart-breaking story – to soften the blow each time his fuse overloaded. Hazel demonstrated how crucial non-teaching staff are in schools; necessary ears to young people who don’t feel as comfortable relaying their fears to authority. How do you solve a problem like Jebb? While I don’t have the answer, and it would be foolish to suggest that I do, I was inspired by Mr Bispham’s rationale of leaving the (t)issues at the door. He gave Jebb the platform to be a normal young person in his classroom, to involve him in lessons, rather than bringing the issues to the table. Mr Bispham knew that Jebb needed consistency and stability in his life – what better place than the safety of the classroom and the magic of Shakespeare?
Summer, Jebb’s younger sister, who was experiencing the same issues, championed the idea of not making mountains out of them. Summer wanted tranquility in the midst of the storm and it was fabulous to see her discover her poetry skills; something she managed to do without having to storm out of class to the bathroom (unlike me). Thank you, Summer, for showing the nation that poetry is a powerful medium to channel one’s emotions. The ending for Jebb might have caused frustration for many, but it was clear that Ms Smith did all she that could to give him the opportunity to improve his behaviour in school. While she may bear the weight of her decision, there are many more voices in the 900-strong crowd that she will save, many more young people whom she will inspire and many more young people for whom – as with Jebb – she will do the right thing.