Never on a Sunday;Talkback;Opinion;Features amp; Arts

10th December 1999 at 00:00
Dennis Richards is glad the latest TVfly-on-the-wall documentary is about to buzz off

As if the Sunday evening anticipation of Monday morning blues were not already bad enough, over past weeks we have also had to put up with Making the Grade, yet another "fly-on-the-wall" documentary about a comprehensive school facing apparently insurmountable odds.

Such programmes are usually essential viewing, if only so that we can thank our lucky stars we don't work there. But Channel 4's weekly offering from Firfieldcomprehensive school in Newcastle upon Tyne, which ends this Sunday, is somehow proving less riveting than similar programmes in the past.

Perhaps it's the Sunday evening time slot. There are two nights a week when no teacher in the land would schedule an education programme - Friday evening (too exhausted from the previous five days) and Sunday evening (too stressed about the five days to come). Firfield or Frasier? No contest. Firfield or Ballykissangel? We'll take the saccharin please.

Or maybe it's the choice of school. No disrespect to Firfield. It's hard, it's tough and most of us wouldn't cope, but we've seen it all before. Television documentary-makers seem determined to prove that comprehensive schools are monochrome institutions where all hell is let loose on a daily basis. And of course we also recall that earlier this year Lenny Henry took over a failing school in Hope and Glory, and had so many exciting adventures that poor old Firfield simply cannot compete.

Sadly, we have become hardened to the sight of struggling, sick teachers on the verge of nervous breakdowns being put forward for what seems like national humiliation. In spite of the National Teaching Awards and other presentations, television still seems to find educational failure more interesting than success, especially in comprehensives.

I vividly recall watching documentaries about successful independent schools - Radley and Benenden come to mind - but can anybody tell me when we last saw an in-depth programme about a high-flying comprehensive school?

Perhaps this is why the wondrously named philanthropist Peter Lampl apparently wishes to donate millions to "set up summer schools and study support schemes in independent schools to encourage comprehensive pupils to aspire to a university education". Oh, Lord. Has nobody bothered to tell him that some independent schools are so bad and some comprehensive schools so good that at least some of his money would be better spent the other way round?

The hectic super-charged life in one of our top comprehensives has never been shown to the nation. It may be partly our own fault. Even comprehensives themselves cannot agree on what constitutes success. The dilemma is acute. Schools that regularly achieve GCSE results up in the high 70s for five A-Cs are invariably seen as "not really" comprehensive. Yet many of them undoubtedly are, and they remain one of the country's best-kept secrets - even, it sometimes seems, an embarrassment. A programme on any one of them would change the public's perception of comprehensive schools overnight. It could even be safely scheduled on Sunday evening. And Lenny Henry won't be needed.

Dennis Richards is head of St Aidan's C of E school, Harrogate, Yorkshire

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