"Brave" is the word I’ve most often heard to describe our decision to participate in the BBC2 documentary series, School, which features three of the seven schools in our trust. The decision to participate was taken after very careful consideration, but our motivation was simple: we wanted to improve public awareness of the challenges facing the education system.
Although there have been other documentaries looking at school life, not least the excellent Educating… series, they have focused largely on the relationships between individual students and staff rather than offering an insight into wider educational issues. There has been limited public understanding of the decisions that are taken on a daily basis to balance all the different priorities that schools have to manage.
The reaction to the series has been enormous and varied. On the days following each programme, we were inundated with emails, cards, biscuits and cakes from parents who wanted to thank our staff for their amazing work. At the Castle School, 150 parents have set up a friends group in response to the programme. Hundreds of former Marlwood students have set up an alumni group. A local flooring company has replaced the old staffroom carpet without charge.
More widely, we have received thousands of messages from around the country from teachers, school leaders and parents for whom the programmes have resonated strongly with their own experience. The series has reflected issues that are faced by primary as well as secondary schools, rural as well as urban, and maintained schools as well as academies.
It is natural that many viewers have watched the series through the lens of their own perspective on the education system. Those with strong opinions about funding, Ofsted, academies or any of the other issues raised, have found material in the programmes to support their views. Twitter has provided an immediate response, especially from those working in schools.
More nuanced have been the quiet reflections of members of the public, who have seen the programmes and then approached us at the supermarket checkout or in the local park. They’re not education professionals, but as parents, grandparents, taxpayers and voters, they have as much invested in our education system as we do.
Opening up closed debates
There are two sides to every debate. For each viewer who sees cuts to pastoral care as a moral outrage, there is another who wants to see the return of traditional discipline. It is important for us to recognise that different views exist outside of the vigorous, but sometimes closed debate we have within the teaching profession.
Is it the job of schools to provide welfare support to young people or should we have a purely academic role? Is the new curriculum broadening or narrowing horizons? How far should we adjust our expectations of young people who struggle with aspects of education that their peers take in their stride? These are the questions that those working in schools grapple with on a daily basis and they are directly relevant to everyone in society.
Some have criticised the series as a negative portrayal of schools. The programmes certainly don’t shy away from showing the challenges that our schools faced last year and the pressures that they were under. Our trust includes schools that are better than average, and others that are working hard to improve. The majority of our students thrive at school, achieve great outcomes, and have a rich and fulfilling experience during their years with us.
Did the programmes lack balance by not featuring enough of these students? Perhaps, but these students are already well represented in the media and feature prominently in every school’s local publicity. Less well understood are the challenges faced by the most complex young people, which, when overcome, give us great optimism for the future.
Staffing in the spotlight
Will the series deter applicants to teaching? I hope not. Teaching is not an easy job, but it is immensely rewarding. I think the programmes show both sides of that equation. I hope that the debate prompted by the series will help over time to relieve some of the pressures that teachers face, aiding both recruitment and, perhaps more importantly, retention.
Funding is a genuine concern for us. Our schools are all located in South Gloucestershire, the lowest-funded authority in the country. We have avoided the temptation to complain about funding in the past, but we are now at the limits of what can be achieved with the resources available. Education enriches the lives of children on a daily basis, but it is also an investment in our country’s future.
In the short term, I hope that the programmes help to make the case for immediate relief in the areas of greatest pressure, especially special educational needs and disabilities funding, support services for vulnerable young people, and capital investment in our building stock. In the long term, we have to make education a higher national priority, and that needs to be embraced by the public at large, not just the education profession or the government of the day.
It’s a surreal experience to watch the programmes many months after the events shown took place. I can say without hesitation that our schools are in a stronger position today as a result of some of the challenges that we overcame last year. Of course, with the benefit of hindsight, we would do some things differently, and often the programmes show how we learned from our initial mistakes. But my overwhelming sense is of pride for the remarkable work of our staff, and the resilience of the young people in our schools and their families.
We can be very proud of what we achieve in our schools on a daily basis, but we will only sustain this in the future by being open about the challenges that we face. School is already fulfilling our intentions by prompting this debate about the education we want to provide for the next generation.
William Roberts is chief executive of the Castle School Education Trust
School is available on BBC iPlayer. The final episode will be broadcast at 9pm, Tuesday 12 December, on BBC2