Education isn't usually served well by television. It's either "edutainment", like the recent programmes in which Jamie Oliver coaxed celebs to convince unruly teenagers that learning can be fun, or documentaries like Panorama's badly researched "expose" about the need to weed out rotten teachers.
But I have just watched the first episode of Educating Essex, and it's in a different league. The secondary school it features bravely agreed to warts-and-all filming, using content from the school's CCTV cameras and additional no-holds-barred documentary footage. By the end of the programme I was hooked. It was a rare and honest look at the problems secondary schools face.
The first programme centred on the highly capable deputy headteacher, Mr Drew. Looking back, most of us would agree that the teachers who taught us best were fascinated by their subject, eager to enthuse, amusing - and a little eccentric. Mr Drew covered all those bases. He followed children around the school purposefully, homing in on poor behaviour and inappropriate clothing. "Dead animals shouldn't be worn in the corridors," he mentioned lightly to a girl wearing what looked like the skin from a cheetah.
We watched, fascinated, as Mr Drew taught a history lesson, talking animatedly about public health conditions in times past. "You have no idea," he said to his class, "how much I love teaching you." Actually, I think they had; their attentive enthusiasm and affection was aptly demonstrated. Several times we cut to teachers chatting and enjoying each other's company. There was much laughter and, at one point, the head hid behind a door to surprise Mr Drew. "Mr Gove and people watching," Mr Drew observed, "will probably think we're fucking mad."
He doesn't do a great deal of teaching because most of his time is taken up with sorting out challenging children, something he seems exceptionally good at. "At the heart of every difficult child is a nice person, and we have to find it," he said.
We watched him politely but firmly wearing children down, until they ended up smiling at him and agreeing to try connecting with the class teacher one more time. Mr Drew recognises the tightrope situation, because not all teachers are as good as he is.
And then came the most extraordinary sequence. A particularly disruptive child who had been given repeated chances to alter her behaviour accused Mr Drew of shoving her in the corridor. The head of year conversed with the parent and then put the phone down after being subjected to verbal abuse. The headteacher became involved, explaining to the child that he took all such allegations seriously and that what she was alleging could be checked by examining CCTV footage, which he then did. The child was lying and the parent was phoned again, the head explaining apologetically - far too apologetically in my view - that the child would be sent home for the next few days but could return after Christmas. The sequence forcibly demonstrated what a teacher is up against these days. Years ago, the parent would immediately have sided with the teacher and punished their daughter.
But Mr Drew is just the sort of secondary teacher we need to cope with today's challenges. All power to his purposeful walk!
Mike Kent is headteacher at Comber Grove Primary, Camberwell, south London. Email: email@example.com.