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:
No penultimate education-themed documentary episode review would be complete without an immaculate Beyoncé lyric. Tonight’s, from her 2007 hit Flaws and All, perfectly encapsulates the woes of the Year 11 boys portrayed on our tellies last night: “I’m a puzzle yes indeed, ever complex in every way”. It was up to a collection of inspirational, committed teachers to try to unfold the tangled web of kidult complexity, to wade through the distractions of the teenage boys’ bedroom (excellent imagery, Mr Palumbo), to rationalise with the minds of differently charismatic boys and to motivate muted voices in the run-up to the crescendo of their five-year secondary school journey.
This week’s episode, which at one point looked like it was descending into Jeremy Kyle: Library Edition, introduced us to three men who were frustrated at crucial points in their careers: Paris, Oscar and Mr Skinner. Yes, that’s right, Mr Skinner. Three young (you’re welcome, Mr S) men who inspire and need to be inspired. Ms Smith plans to inspire the capital and it’s become clear that the other members of her team provide the necessary ingredients to better the various recipes for success. It has struck me that since the first episode (and presumably before even that), the intentions of Ms Smith and her team are eternally geared towards high achievement and aspirations, which is fantastic. Despite knowing that these episodes were carefully edited for Channel of the Year ratings and maybe another coveted Bafta, one must acknowledge the hysteria and last-minute interventions to galvanise students’ energies towards the days of reckoning. Is that purposeful? Is a C at GCSE with perpetual molly-coddling and chasing round corridors a truly successful result for schools?
Indeed, light-hearted as last night was, these shows have to catalyse policy questions for those making the decisions in Sanctuary Buildings. Oscar, as an example, is clearly very intelligent and in the eyes of his peers he is an omniscient 16-year-old. His brain is full of “useless facts” (are any facts useless?) provided to him by his impressively academic father, spades of cultural capital and Mastermind-worthy general knowledge, none of which will produce the desired A, B or C grades on his certificate in June. If students are only judged by what’s on the specification and not on their holistic knowledge of the subject and its links to other curriculum areas, are we really serving and assessing these young people well?
The second issue that schools need to contend with is their continuous desire to be the old man in the watchtower in Fort Boyard – overseeing every move by each student, asking abstract questions and doing all that is possible to protect them from falling into the Atlantic. Schools need to try to move away from being hawks and more on building a culture and an ethos where mistakes should be encouraged and failure is part of success (thanks, Mr Skinner). If schools are always running interventions, putting posters up reminding students of looming exams and training students just weeks before “the clock is at zero”, it qualifies the concern that maybe, in the words of pop sensation JoJo, it might just be “too little too late”.
Oscar, who needed to play the system and listen to Ms Higgins, also needed to learn not to fear himself. His eccentricities were highlighted on screen, but underneath the jovial veneer was a young man concerned with his writing ability, the pressure of having an equally, if not more, intelligent younger brother, the expectations at home and the fear of disappointing Ms Higgins. He desperately needed support from the incredible pastoral team at Frederick Bremer, as, despite the intellectual exterior, there was a fragmented interior that could have buckled under the stress of it all. There was, however, promise shown of a young Whitehall candidate; using his intelligence, somewhat geeky charisma (that’s a compliment, it’s my USP) and passion to mount the petition to reclaim the library. Frederick Bremer is nurturing the political leaders of tomorrow, whether it's through Joshua's persuasive puppetry or Oscar's campaign for a dedicated place to revise (an odd concept, if you ask me).
Another contributor to hilarity at Frederick Bremer was Paris, who struggled with English language and so decided that a route into classroom comedy would be the best option. While Paris displayed all the vital signs of an apathetic youth, he did seem genuinely reflective and self-regulating and committed to not failing. Mr Skinner, another resident quote-machine, reminded him that failure isn’t something that should be feared (human bananas, on the other hand, ) but a necessary part of life that should be embraced. These students are so lucky to have Mr Skinner; a man committed to the success of his students – a quality that is so evident to his pupils that they sang happy birthday to him in class. Well done, Mr S.
The penultimate episode has left us thinking about what we can do for our brightest, most needy and most at risk, especially if those characteristics belong to the same individual. Do we seek to inspire them with persistence and support, or do we hound them with reminders of destiny and other Thatcher-esque monotonies? The answer is clearly the former. Mr Skinner and Ms Higgins were our heroes last night, showing that determination and commitment to students’ welfare and success really does make a difference. Oscar may be able to solve a Rubik’s cube, but it takes a teacher to solve Oscar.
Find TES' full coverage of this series at the Educating the East End landing page