Educating the East End's Mr Bispham on Educating Cardiff, episode one: 'Willows High School; you've charmed me'
Another school year is soon to begin, which means another series of Educating... has come around to help us forget those long summer days and feel inspired about getting back to school. For the teachers at Willows High School, though, the pre-term anxiety will only have been increased by what is about to come this half-term. My experience of that last year, as part of Educating the East End, all came back to me when I saw how Twitter responded to the show (on that note, it appeared the entire population of Wales was rooting for them!). If the first episode is anything to go by, they'll have nothing to worry about.
The sun rises every single day, even when it is raining. What an appropriate introductory lesson from Mr Hennessy to begin the series. Keeping perspective on the challenges you face can be difficult anywhere, but for teenagers like Jessicca and Leah, a day at school can make you feel like the sun is never coming back. For Jessicca, the challenges of social interaction were obvious. While seemingly outgoing and personable, she couldn't understand the psychological alchemy that defined popularity in schools. My heart sank when she was confronted by a younger boy questioning her about the suggestions box. The anxiety was engraved on her face.
Pupils like Jessicca need a school that not only prioritises academic achievement but is astute enough to support other aspects of education. The brilliant idea of giving her the editor position on the school newspaper supported Jessicca to feel more confident in who she was and not conforming to an ill-defined notion of popularity did more to nurture and develop her than any closed-text English examination would. She needs teachers who can take the time to help her build people skills. The Aviator did just that. She was inspired and not intimidated by others in this context. Seeing her sense of pride at selling out of copies was one of those moments that Educating... is famed for. It is like they somehow surgically install a grin on every member of the audience at home. I'm still smiling now at the thought of it.
Then there was Leah. Oh Leah. How many Leahs have teachers up and down the country come across? Along with Courtney, her partner in crime, Leah appeared slippery, defiant and abrasive. Her behaviour was the equivalent of sticking her fingers in her ears and shouting "LA LA LA LA LA". She was trying to deal with potential failure by purposefully acting in a way that would invite and encourage it. Yet when probed a little further, the facade disappeared. She displayed vulnerability and and a lack of self-esteem. She came from a dynasty of academic underachievers and felt she was already destined to continue this trend. Why would you bother if the outcome is already decided?
Enter Mr Hennessy. Another example of first impressions counting for little. From the outset he appeared to be part disgruntled police officer and part Eeyore from Winnie the Pooh. Yet, as the programme continued it became clear he was a tenacious and emotional champion of the young people others may have given up on. The first good sign for me was how the pupils reacted to him. In my opinion, all schools need enforcers. The teachers that even the most challenging pupils dare not cross. Those who are in early being consistent and persistent in challenging bad behaviour. He'd obviously garnered a reputation through doing just that, day in day out, for years.
Maybe his experience of school was a great motivator. Maybe he saw something in those girls even when they were acting in a way that would test the patience of the Dalai Lama. Either way, Mr Hennessy championed Leah's cause. Every child needs a champion to help them succeed. Many are lucky enough to have it at home. Some are not. I still find it incredibly moving when I see teachers who have eyewatering workloads and significant personal commitments going the extra mile for pupils who appear to have given up. Mr Hennessy went above and beyond because he thought "something might click". "Might click"? He didn't even know if it would work, yet he carried on regardless. I know Sir Michael Wilshaw isn't a fan of these types of things, but I hope he was watching. Animatroinic autobots with a "15 steps to outstanding teaching" manual are not going to be as courageous and inspiring as this guy.
How very fortunate Leah was that Mr Hennessy stayed on after his day as a supply teacher. How lucky Jessicca was that Ms Ballard and Mrs Bubbins were prepared to think outside the box to support her. How brilliant it was to see both girls achieve academically at school. How brilliant was it to see Mr Whittaker's waistcoat. To paraphrase David Brent, Willows High School; you've charmed me.
And all of that without mentioning the true star of the episode: Harry, the Aviator's undercover reporter. I imagine a certain teacher is going to have to face an awful lot of beetroot in the near future.