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Educating the East End: 'Westminster is struggling to locate its moral compass; they could rediscover it at our school'

Jenny Smith, headteacher of Frederick Bremer School – the setting for Educating the East End – writes:

We have been sitting a tough exam over the last eight weeks at Frederick Bremer, undergoing the Educating… test. As a result, we are in a contemplative state. We have held a mirror up to ourselves, and shared our daily lives with a national audience, the professional equivalent of being naked on a stage with every blemish and wrinkle exposed. But the process of being stripped bare has also exposed our core values and the central foundations on which this school is built. We have grown wiser, stronger and more self-aware as a result. I have learned a lot, and not just about the state of my shoe collection.

It is a strange time in education; the norms and values of our system have been dismantled around us at a relentless pace. The idealism of the Every Child Matters initiative has been ground into the dust in the drive to catch up with the “highest-achieving” schools in Singapore and Shanghai. Doubters have been labelled the “enemies of promise” and coerced into silence. I have occasionally doubted my sanity in stepping up to headship and questioned the claim of Educating Essex’s Vic Goddard that “this is the best job in the world”. But, not for the first time, I have had to admit that he is right. I work with the funniest, most interesting and most inspiring group of staff and pupils and I am incredibly lucky. My spirit took a pounding in the Govean era, Educating… has helped me get it back.

I am often asked the question, “Was Educating… worth it?” And while it is too early to judge whether it has had a tangible impact on the school in terms of Year 6 applications or staffing recruitment, there has been a perceptible shift in attitudes. Staff, students, parents and onlookers have had a unique exposure to the complexities of running schools and the challenges that some young people face. We all have a newfound respect for one another. One pupil commented to me after the first episode that he had no idea what some girls went through, and what he previously dismissed as ‘drama queen’ behaviour was actually the result of private anguish. We have all developed a new level of empathy after watching individuals trying to conquer their own personal difficulties, and pupils are under no illusion about how hard we work for them.

Since episode one was first broadcast, the reaction I have had has been overwhelmingly positive. I have received countless emails and tweets from adults inspired to go into teaching and even headship. Our pupils’ stories have resonated widely. After Acacia’s episode, many young carers were on Twitter thanking her for sharing her story. Charlie has been inundated with responses from other anxiety sufferers, and even hugged on the street. I have had too many offers to mention to adopt Louie and Halil. Every time I walk into a café or shop, I am asked a question about the welfare of one of our pupils. The empathy and compassion strangers have shown is overwhelming, and I know I am not alone in having shed a tear at every episode.

Once again, the Educating… series has managed to tap deeply and sensitively into our schools, and the reaction has shown the deeply held attachment to the purpose of our education system. The word ‘values’ has been much vaunted recently. We will now be judged by how we promote a nebulous and deeply uncomfortable concept of “British values”. I am unsure what is so uniquely British about the values of mutual respect, gender equality, tolerance and democracy (Nicky Morgan’s definition). Westminster may be struggling to locate its moral compass, but they could rediscover it in a small corner of E17.

Universal values and human qualities are written on our meeting room table (integrity, fairness, respect, tolerance, compassion, responsibility) and you don’t have to look very far to see them in practice in the school. We saw the compassion shown to Acacia and her honesty in facing her difficulties. There was the responsibility shown by the head boy and girl candidates, and resilience and self -belief demonstrated by the underdogs Sheneil and Joshua in putting themselves forward, despite not fitting the perceived stereotype of candidates. There was limitless perseverance and dedication of our teaching staff in getting Paris, Charlie and Oscar to the exam hall against the odds. As for gender equality, I think Ms Winter summarised pretty clearly how things stand: “us women, we run things” – I am pretty certain that Yasmine will be demonstrating that as an outstanding barrister in the years to come.

In the final episode, the public were introduced to one of the most extraordinary individuals I have ever had the privilege to work with: Christopher. That he is a fully accepted member of our school community is testimony to the fact that difference really does not matter in our community. For me, he epitomises the importance of a values-infused education system. Enabling Christopher to develop the resilience to take a bus and the confidence to buy a cake is not measured in any league table or GCSE certificate, but those are triumphs nevertheless, triumphs of perseverance and resilience, not to mention conquering doubt and fear. The tolerance, kindness, honesty and understanding that Christopher both models and inspires is a lesson to us all. He may never fully understand the impact he has had on our school, but he has taught me the most important and life affirming mantra: “If you think positive, you will be positive”.

Teenagers never cease to amaze me, and we only saw a fraction of their talents, creativity and humour in this series. But they are also tough, exhausting and frustrating. They will put up every obstacle to prevent their vulnerable core being exposed. They will hide their perceived weaknesses with bravado, swagger, anger or denial. Schools go to great lengths to get to that individual talent hidden within, and school staff (both teachers and non-teachers) put in extraordinary efforts on a daily basis.

It is a tough old world out there, both for us as educationalists and for our pupils, but it is much easier to deal with when equipped with a pocket full of values and a smattering of self-belief. At the very least, we deserve an A* for effort as well as for achievement.

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