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Educating the East End, episode one – Vulnerability: A game the whole school can play

Vic Goddard, principal of Passmores Academy – the setting of Educating Essex – writes:

Let’s get it out in the open: I am a bit biased when it comes to the Educating… series. I like the people that make the series, Twofour, as they have integrity – a word that is sometimes hard to link to the media. I also have the utmost admiration for the schools that say yes to taking part in the series, as they now know what they are letting themselves in for.

I feel that the series is not just a window inside our schools; it is also a reflection of the society that we have created for our young people, as well as the fact that day in, day out, schools deal with the ups and downs of family and the environment that our children are raised in.

As I sat to watch the first episode of Educating the East End, I was really nervous; nervous for the young people, the school, the community and the profession that I love being a part of. Let’s be honest: we already know that certain papers are going to hate it, they have to. They feel it is part of their purpose in life.

In the usual way, the stories were told beautifully tonight; taking me on a journey that at times had me shaking my head – in particular, the lovely Mr Bispham describing his style as “50 per cent stand up and 50 per cent motivational speaking” had me fearful of a David Brent parody being played out in the classroom – but, overall, I marvelled at a tale that showcased the vulnerability of the adults and young people alike.

Meeting the new staff that we are going to journey with brings out the sweeping generalisations from all of us, but who exactly did we meet?

Miss Smith, the first-year head, came across as confident, assured and human, but anyone that has moved into a leadership role will know just how susceptible you are to the ups and downs of the people you have been employed to work with and the young people you serve; throw in a few cameras and millions of people watching and her position can only be described as vulnerable.

Miss Hillman is a very impressive character. She demonstrated the challenges that are unique to being the deputy, but also showed how you can balance being the member of staff that can be both enforcer and advocate at the same time. I like her: if tonight was her interview, she got the job. Her vulnerability was demonstrated with how she had to deal with the completely unacceptable behaviour of Acacia on social media, but then take into account the life that the young person was having to deal with at home. I know that many people would be saying it shouldn’t matter – what she did was unforgiveable and illegal. To those who say that: you are right on the legal position, but wrong about the rest. We’ve all been there as teachers; what looks like a straightforward discipline issue with an obvious sanction turns into something much bigger, just as you think you have made the right decision. If you still think that Miss Hillman was wrong, then I doubt whether you have had to deal with the grave illness of a parent – it hit me hard even as an adult, goodness knows what it would have done to me as a child. Bravo, Miss Hillman.

The young people featured tonight, Tawny and Acacia, were both stereotypical in some ways – if you have ever taught Year 9 girls, you will know exactly what I mean. Tawny was one of those young people that some, probably non-teachers watching at home, would find it hard to be positive about. However Tawny showed just what she was when she didn’t get into ‘Brit School’: a child. I don’t mean that in any way as a criticism; childhood is great and being a child is great too. Tawny, like lots of adolescents, doesn’t want to fail and, even more so, doesn’t want to be seen failing. The sight of her being unable to hide her sadness in being unsuccessful in her application was something that in made me smile as, with the mask of bravado dropped, you could see the vulnerability of the transition from child to young adult and it made me like her instantly. I do hope to see her in Eastenders in the future.

Poor Acacia, who cared more about other people than herself, highlighted one of the challenges of schools that reach out beyond their boundaries to support their young people through the turmoil of life outside. Acacia was sadder for her brother and that he hadn’t seen their mum at her best than she was about herself; empathy is one of the most important things we as humans can develop and to see this depth from someone so young was heart-warming and heart-breaking in equal measure.

Finally, the undoubted star of the show: Mr Bispham. Mr Bispham was vulnerable from all directions and demonstrated how hard it is when you start teaching and how it must be even harder when you are thrown in at the deep end. I really wanted to see him get his Year 9 class to be quiet while he was talking; I needed to see him show that it is unacceptable to disrespect him and their own learning journeys. We’ve all been there. The self-doubt of the job – the “I don’t know if I can do this” feeling. If you then throw in the headteacher and an inspirational colleague letting you know that they are coming to observe you with THAT class, suddenly curling up under the duvet and forgetting all about it seems like a cracking idea. Although we don’t get to see the lengthy feedback that Mr Bispham would have received about his chosen pedagogy, we do get to feel the relief and sheer joy when Mr Bispham hears his lesson has been ‘good’. He almost floats out of the building – even missing his bus wasn’t enough to dampen his elation. Sure, he made mistakes – thank goodness for that, or else how does he progress? He fell into the trap of not realising that we are allowed into certain parts of our young people’s lives and not others when Tawny took exception to his mention of the Brit School, but he dealt with it. Seeing him take the opportunity to talk to Tawny about her not being successful in her application, but using it to let her know that he was looking forward to being her teacher for longer was brilliant and didn’t he get it back with the loyalty his class showed him when he was the one being weighed and measured through observation? Mr Bispham is obviously a man of great passion and good intentions; I really want to give him a big hug and say don’t lose those qualities while continuing on the never-ending journey of self-improvement.

I am looking forward to next week already.

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