Editorial - Let's give viewers a flawed star of education
Channel 4 is casting the net for a new school to star in the follow-up series to its hit Educating Essex. No doubt several publicity-happy heads will volunteer to have the hidden cameras installed (pages 12-13).
But perhaps the channel should consider a more ambitious project. It is time to ditch the tired reality format and go for something classier: an educational drama with a central character arc spanning decades. The kind of TV that appeals to people who like Danish political thrillers and HBO box sets.
The first series tells the tale of an idealistic young left-wing teacher who starts out at a tough comprehensive in a Yorkshire mining village in the 1970s. Let's call him Bruce. He rises through the ranks and ends up taking charge of a failing boys' grammar school, which he transforms dramatically. The series ends near the start of the new millennium, as Bruce receives a knighthood for his work and is feted by the Labour establishment.
Some TV critics are not convinced. They have seen the hero head story before ("It's just Hope and Glory with a touch of Our Friends in the North, isn't it?" one reviewer mutters). But wait till they see series two, when the setting switches to the murkier political world.
Our protagonist has become the main adviser on a controversial project dear to the prime minister's heart: expanding the new academies across England. Sir Bruce believes it is a just cause, knowing from personal experience how schools benefit from freedom. So he works tirelessly to bring schools together with sponsors, while union activists protest outside.
Another former head is arrested after telling a pretty undercover journalist that sponsoring an academy is a fast route to a knighthood. But Sir Bruce makes no such blunders. Even when a pesky publication for teachers reveals a potential conflict of interest (he is also director of a company that headhunts senior staff for academies), it does not prevent him from being appointed England's first schools commissioner.
However, our hero's luck runs out in the darker third series. He leaves the government amid whispers he has been pushed out by an aggressive education minister. Yet Sir Bruce has a new mission: to take over a scandal-hit academies chain and turn it round, just as in the past he transformed schools.
Our protagonist wants to end the chain's reputation for misusing taxpayers' money, but soon the press is criticising him for becoming the highest paid person in the schools sector. When his hefty expense claims for taxis and luxury hotel rooms are exposed, the former idealistic teacher is derided as a "well-fed" educational fat cat.
Yet he carries on in his crusade to spread the academy gospel - and this is his undoing. He presses to set up 250, but the chain's board decides that the figure is too ambitious and unrealistic for it, so his exit is arranged (page 10).
Here a Channel 4 commissioner might ask if the drama had an obvious political message. Is it a swipe at the creeping commercialisation of the public sector? Or - conversely - is it a tragedy that illustrates how the educational establishment blocks those whose dreams of reform are too radical?
Of course, modern television dramas thrive on moral ambiguity. So we would leave that to the viewers to decide.