Changing faces of teaching

21st April 2006 at 01:00
We can learn a lot about education over the years from the fictional teachers portrayed on TV and film, says Mike Baker

You might think that silver screen idols are all suave secret agents, streetwise police officers, or interfering private detectives - but teachers give them a pretty good run for their money.

From Will Hay as the new headteacher Dr Alec Smart at Narkover school, in Boys Will Be Boys (1935) to Maggie Smith as Professor McGonagall in the Harry Potter films, teachers have been a persistent, if changing, feature of our screens.

What do these television and film portrayals tell us about schools? Perhaps more interestingly, what do they reveal about our changing perceptions of education over time?

Although these are works of fiction not documentaries, they provide a contemporary view of education from the Thirties onwards. Sadly, very few factual documentaries survive for the same period. Where they do, they often have expensive copyright clauses that prevent anything more than short clips being used on TV today. Moreover, newsreel footage of classrooms was often so staged that it appears more fictional than fiction.

So we must turn to film and TV fiction for a visual insight into schools over the years.

Has classroom behaviour deteriorated? Have screen teachers lost respect and social standing? Moreover, do the screen depictions of teachers affect the public view of the profession or even of teachers' own self-image?

We all have our own favourites, be they heroes or villains. Do you yearn for the rigour of Miss Jean Brodie or the nostalgia of Mr Chips? Does your taste run more to the comic caricature of Kenneth Williams in Carry on Teacher (1959) or the romantic heroism of Robin Williams in Dead Poets Society (1989)? Or are your tastes more post-modern and ironic: appreciating the horror, exaggeration, and soap opera appeal of Channel 4's Teachers (2001-4) or the high drama of the current BBC1 serial Waterloo Road?

I will confess now to a schoolboy-like crush on Angela Griffin's feisty deputy head in Waterloo Road, an affliction which probably blinds me to the merits, or otherwise, of the rest of this rather alarming picture of a modern comprehensive.

If you have more traditional tastes, you may yearn for the relative innocence of the St Trinian's series. My favourite scene involves the pinstriped, bowler-hatted men from the Ministry of Education - having failed once again to close down St Trinian's school - retreating to their office where they wind up the gramophone and enter a trance-like, flower-picking dance in a desperate attempt to hold on to the last vestiges of their sanity. Readers may like to imagine a similar scene being enacted by Ruth Kelly, Lord Adonis and their permanent secretary at the Department for Education and Skills, David Bell, whenever the Government hits intractable problems with its school reforms. However, recalling the long ancestry of screen teachers, from both small and large screens, is more than just good preparation for parent-teacher association quiz nights. A recently published PhD study - Carry on Teachers! by Susan Ellsmore - provides an entertaining, and purposeful, analysis of the screen teacher.

Dr Ellsmore traces the evolution of teachers in screen culture from Mr Chips and Jean Brodie, to the super head Ian George, played by Lenny Henry in Hope and Glory (1999), and the amoral Simon Casey in Teachers.

This is always a controversial area. Over the years, delegates at teachers'

union conferences have been enraged by the dangers they feared would flow from unflattering screen representations of schools. In March, the Association of School and College Leaders attacked Waterloo Road for "undermining parents' and society's confidence in schools". Similar attacks were made on the TV series Chalk (1997) and Teachers. In the latter, staff were regularly seen smoking around the back of the school.

Concerns about the classroom behaviour portrayed on the screen coincided with the start of a more realistic, kitchen-sink approach to school dramas.

No one argued that the arsonists, gamblers, and night club hostesses who spent their daytime hours as pupils at St Trinian's posed any threat to the public image of independent schools. Yet many felt that grittier dramatisations of secondary moderns and comprehensives represented a surreptitious attack on the state school system.

Screen focus has shifted from the private boarding school towards the inner-city comprehensive. Mr Chips and Miss Jean Brodie taught in the private sector, but change began with the provocatively mini-skirted girls and aggressively loutish boys of Fenn Street secondary modern in Please, Sir! (1968), and continued with Tucker and his gang in Grange Hill.

Yet, do any of these resemble reality? In her book, Dr Ellsmore draws some interesting correspondences between the changing fictional portrayal and the reality of the role of teachers.

So in Carry On Teacher (1959), the teachers are highly individualistic, verging on the eccentric, from Kenneth Williams as the erudite English master to Joan Sims' portrayal of the jolly-hockey-sticks PE teacher. Dr Ellsmore characterises this as the "age of the pre-professional". Teachers still commanded respect, and if pupils did smirk or snigger, they at least tried not to be caught doing it. Teachers were individuals in authority, not mere delivers of the national curriculum.

Dr Ellsmore describes the next era as the "age of the autonomous professional". This was the time when events surrounding comprehensive reorganisation turned education into a political football. In the Seventies, the newspapers began what Professor Brian Simon later described as "a hatchet job" on schools, focusing on poor discipline and failing standards. Reflecting this, the screen teachers find themselves dealing with a tougher and grittier reality, from Please, Sir! to Clockwise (1986).

In the latter a control-freak headteacher at "an ordinary state comprehensive", played by John Cleese, attempts to make a punctual arrival at the annual headmasters' conference, where he is due to become its first state school chairman. Thus screen fiction starts to recognise the modern headteacher, obsessed with exam performance and discipline, using binoculars and a PA system to impose order on his pupils. Screen life was getting tougher for teachers, but they still chose their own teaching styles and determined their own curriculum.

Dr Ellsmore describes the final era as the "age of the post-professional", when "a customer-oriented ethos has replaced one of public service" and "competition has replaced co-operation". She argues that central direction has reduced the teacher to "technician status". Around this time, the screen portrayal of teachers becomes more bitter and cynical.

In Teachers, most staff have given up the fight. They no longer believe in what they are forced to teach and have lost respect for their head, an officious woman with a clipboard. Pupil respect has evaporated.

The younger teachers just want to get down the pub and get drunk. Not that the classroom teachers get it all their own way; this is, after all, the age of Ofsted, special measures, and the super head. So, in strides Lenny Henry as Ian George in Hope and Glory (1999), a man on a mission to turn around a failing comp in what must rank as New Labour's first film legacy.

Suddenly, performance indicators, senior management teams, and league tables have entered the fictional screen world. The idealism of Mr Chips and John Keating (Dead Poets Society) has been replaced by the "get me out of here" attitude of the modern screen staffroom.

Dr Ellsmore concludes that the visual evidence of fictional TV and cinema is an important source for studying social change. Yet she argues that films do not show the more mundane parts of teachers' lives and cautions that, since teaching does not make "exciting cinema", film is a poor medium for portraying their work. Of course, we cannot read too much into the screen portrayals of teachers.

Equally, it is perhaps unfair to quibble that the mundane realities of school life are not represented. Hours of marking, wrangles over teaching and learning responsibilities (TLRs), parents' evenings, and eating from lunchboxes in the staffroom certainly do not make riveting cinema or TV.

But, setting aside the inevitable fictional telescoping of teachers' daily lives, the changing screen images of teachers does give some clues to the way teachers are perceived by the wider public.

Finally, how does the Harry Potter craze fit into this? The pupils are contemporary, but the ethos is the Fifties private boarding school, with teachers in gowns and mortar boards. Its popularity suggests, perhaps, a desire to escape the indiscipline of the modern school for a warming dose of nostalgia. The pupils misbehave but do not challenge the authority of adults. Good teachers are respected and bad teachers are feared. All is well with the world again.

Left: teachers from the BBC's current series of Waterloo Road, including heroine Kim Campbell (centre); Centre: villain Wackford Squeers in Nicholas Nickleby (1947); Right: heroine Jean Brodie in The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie (1969)

The good, the bad and...


Character Actor Title of filmseries

Dr Alec Smart Will Hay Boys Will Be Boys (1935)

Charles Chipping Robert Donat Goodbye, Mr Chips (1939)

Jean Brodie Maggie Smith Prime of Miss Jean Brodie (1969)

Mark Thackeray Sidney Poitier To Sir, With Love (1967)

Bernard Hedges John Alderton Please, Sir! (1968)

Ian George Lenny Henry Hope and Glory (1999)

Minerva McGonagall Maggie Smith Harry Potter (2001)

Kim Campbell Angela Griffin Waterloo Road (2006)

Villains a

Wackford Squeers Alfred Drayton Nicholas Nickleby (1947)

Brian Stimpson John Cleese Clockwise (1986)

Eric Slatt David Bamber Chalk (1997)

Simon Casey Andrew Lincoln Teachers ( 2001)

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