At last, a TV high school without the hysteria

16th March 2012 at 00:00
A BBC documentary has taken a steady hold on the realities of a Glasgow secondary. Henry Hepburn reports

It's an unusual TV school, Holyrood Secondary: no playground warfare, dictatorial headteacher, pupil insurrections or nascent sociopaths. Popular culture depicts schools as a lightning rod for scandal, a tabloid fabrication of dysfunction and disorder. But that's not what TESS sees when it visits schools around the country, and it's not what viewers see in High School, a three-part fly-on-the-wall documentary which started on BBC1 on Monday.

The school, on Glasgow's south side, is one of Europe's biggest, with around 2,000 pupils, and yet the first episode made it feel almost homely. There was a gentleness to all the teachers we met - headteacher Tom McDonald included - and they shared a perceptive concern for individual pupils' needs and characters; it was a far cry from the stentorian and feckless characters clogging up staffrooms in TV Land.

The pupils, too, were far from the usual small-screen braggarts and ne'er- do-wells: thoughtful and independent-minded, but proud of their school; confident and articulate, but bashful and sweet-natured. That may be partly because much of the first episode was spent with candidates for head girl and head boy, but one first-year boy mused that, were it not for maths, he might have submitted a complaint that he didn't get to go to school every day.

There were glimpses into the difficulties of school life - and the trailer for the second episode suggested more to come - mostly in the case of first-year pupil Liam, who has Asperger's. Liam emerged as the star of the first programme: eloquent and contemplative, with a gift for memorable turns of phrase.

"They were all gobsmacked," he recalled of reading aloud to impressed classmates at primary school. "I did it with expression, like a full-time adult would."

But with off-screen bullying escalating, Liam's knack for telling observations took more poignant form as he struggled to comprehend why some pupils were not like his friends at primary school: "I just want to be me - the real me. I like myself, I wouldn't want to change any of it."

Another pupil finding things difficult was Gabby, who is Romanian and speaks very little English; a "welcome" sign at the school, translated into umpteen languages, subtly implied that his situation is far from unique. Gabby skips classes without telling his mum, and discovers that Holyrood staff are firm when they need to be: he will have to work hard to ensure a long-term future at the school.

Ironically, High School's narrator is actor Alec Newman, who plays the headteacher in Waterloo Road. There are bumps along the way at Holyrood, but none of popular TV drama's cliffhangers or personality clashes permanently set to "boil". A good school does not make a good soap.

`High School' is being shown on BBC1 on Mondays at 9pm, 12-26 March.

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