Imagine all the pupils on Channel 4

3rd March 1995 at 00:00
Harvey McGavin visits Hearts and Minds writer Jimmy McGovern's old school. "No one can write about this school without mentioning John Lennon," laughs Brian Davies, headteacher of Calderstones Comprehensive in Liverpool, and it seems he is right. The staff common room, which used to be the main hall when the school was called Quarry Bank, witnessed one of the first performances of Lennon's pre-Beatles skiffle band, the Quarrymen.

But Calderstones has also turned out another distinctive Merseyside voice, that of Jimmy McGovern, writer of Brookside, Cracker and now Hearts and Minds, Channel 4's powerful drama set in an inner-city comprehensive.

Calderstones, where McGovern was an English teacher from 1979 to 1983, bears little resemblance to the "school of hard knocks" depicted in the series. The main building, a beautiful Grade II listed Venetian Gothic house built in 1867, stands in mature woodland a few miles south-east of the city centre.

It is the biggest comprehensive in Liverpool and one of the best - 43 per cent of its 1,375 pupils pass five or more GCSEs at grades A* to C, the same as the national average, but well above the city average of 25 per cent.

Fifteen per cent of the school's pupils are from ethnic minorities, and its intake covers a broad range of social and economic backgrounds. It is, in the words of its headteacher, "a true comprehensive".

Nothing like the fictional institution of the television series, in fact, but his brief career as a teacher there seems to have left a big impression on McGovern.

Staff who knew him see similarities with Drew McKenzie, the idealistic young anti hero of the series. "I'm sure Drew is based on him," says Brian Davies, who was head of economics and general studies when McGovern taught at the school. "He was a nice bloke who put a lot into his job but he became disillusioned." In common with his creator, Drew has three children, he takes the football team on Saturday mornings and he doesn't drive.

English teacher Pat Mahoney remembers her former colleague as "a great fella, a good laugh" who enjoyed practical jokes and once got into trouble for writing a list of swear words on the blackboard during a lesson. "The kids loved it, but one of them went home and told his dad and he wasn't so happy."

But just how well is McGovern's portrayal of education, 1995-style, going down with his former colleagues? Issues such as increasing paperwork and the pressure of work were, they thought, realistically presented and several staff remarked that the issue of incompetent, unsackable teachers dealt with in the programme mirrored reality.

"A lot of people have the impression that teachers work from nine to four and that's it. They don't see the work that goes on during the holidays or all the marking we have to do," says Pat Mahoney.

But while some scenes rang true, others rankled. "It was the school from hell, wasn't it?" said the head of English, Dave Phillips. "When I've taught in a rough school, there has been an incredible sense of unity in adversity, of fun and humour. None of that comes across."

The way Drew turns in a thieving pupil and his family in episode two prompted particular criticism, as did his altercation with a lippy pupil. "You would be up before the head in no time for something like that," was one comment.

Technology teacher John Whitehead also knew McGovern. "There's no doubt about his ability as a playwright. But the characters are caricatures.

"The overwhelming majority of pupils in schools are smashing kids, nice to each other and to the teachers. I just worry that people will think it is intended to be realistic. But it's not a documentary, it's a drama."

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