As someone with an obvious affinity to the Educating… series, I find myself often being the first point of call for complaints or criticisms of the show. It doesn’t bother me. Even if I disagree with many of these criticisms, I know that they come from the desire to protect children from national scrutiny into deeply personal educational and social challenges. Such a debate is welcome because everyone is focused on pupil welfare.
However, this week, the show seemed to meet the most common criticism I hear head on: that the programme makes the challenges of supporting our pupils academically and pastorally seem neat and straightforward to suit a narrative. It certainly wasn’t the case here.
If episode one was uplifting and reaffirming for viewers, episode two revealed that even with an army of teachers, support staff, parents and counsellors, outcomes are often uncertain and success can be difficult to define.
As such, it was an emotionally tough hour of television. The challenges in front of those three girls and those who only wanted them to succeed seemed daunting.
Educating Greater Manchester's new approach
First, there was Katelyn: a loud, brash and confrontational teen. As I watched her going through the school day like a grenade missing its pin, I was sure many teachers would recognise this behaviour as a desperate cry for attention. We all knew why she was doing it, even if she didn’t. I was struck by her response to Mr Chambers exclaiming he didn’t know what was happening being "neither do I". I am sure Mr Chambers knew that, for Katelyn, bad attention was better than no attention.
Katelyn’s problems were revealed by the new show approach of visiting homes. A child with responsibility for younger siblings who wasn’t getting the chance to be a child herself. We sometimes ask pupils to leave these problems at the door – and rightly so. We don’t want to further empower the issues they face by making excuses for them.
This fine balance between support and giving a child structure to their life was further emphasised by Kodie.
Mr Povey, a new introduction, was the model of patience and compassion with this difficult teen. He perfectly described the final plea to a student who is letting their immaturity and lack of wisdom overtake their need for care as "the ultimate sales pitch".
Yet, while Kodie had suffered unthinkable tragedy in her life, I was torn over whether her loving grandfather was empowering some of her issues by asking the school to give her a chance and appearing to defend her behaviour. The school had obviously given her many chances and if this meeting was the culmination of years of support and behaviour issues, then her feelings of being victimised could be given weight.
What happens after that is the descent into the horrors of depression and self-harm, which are much more difficult to escape. Luckily for this student, there was an array of school support, led by Miss Kay.
Miss Kay is the latest in a long line of non-teaching pastoral staff that these programmes celebrate. I cannot emphasise enough how important these colleagues are in schools. Miss Kay was one of the most impressive you’re likely to see: unflustered in a potential crisis, friendly in times of distress and humane and relatable to parents at home. She was a rock for those young women to cling to when the storm of puberty was threatening to wash them away.
Miss Kay was particularly strong for young Mia and her family.
My heart sank as I watched this child going through such an adult experience when she should be focusing on preparing for life. The jarring image of a heavily pregnant woman having to ask permission from Miss Kay and her mum about going home was the teenage years in a microcosm. It revealed the bizarre time in our lives when we transition into adulthood – in some cases, before we are ready. The work needed to be done to help this girl must be daunting and I hope Mia and her child are supported in the future.
It was an emotionally draining episode, but one where we can celebrate those less obvious successes, not least getting a pupil’s hand out of a set square. Most of all, it was a toast to the network of support for troubled teens in our schools and the need to involve the tripartite of school, student and home to create success. This is welcome new ground for the series and one all people who work in schools can admire.
Joseph Bispham teaches at Forest Gate Community School, and starred in Educating the East End. He worked in politics before moving into teaching and tweets @MrBispham