Outnumbered? Please keep it in perspective

7th September 2007 at 01:00
Stephen Petty is head of humanities at Lord Williams's school in Thame, Oxfordshire

You will, perhaps, have heard the story recently of the teacher who insulted an overweight Muslim boy who had been eating during his history lesson "It's a shame for you," he told the boy, "that Ramadan isn't all year round." His jargon-drilled headteacher, anxious to placate the boy's Chair of the Education Committee father, urged a "child-centred solution" a "managed outcome" that would oblige the unrepentant teacher to write a "letter of regret". At least, that's where we were at the time of writing.

The teacher in question was one of the central figures in Outnumbered, the nightly comedy drama on BBC1. It finished on Wednesday, but is bound to be back, if the widespread acclaim in our staffroom is anything to go by. We loved it. Apart from anything else, teachers adore being able to stay up late during weekdays in the summer holidays just for the hell of it as, for once, we do not pay a price in lessons the next morning. This week's concluding episodes may, admittedly, have caused a few yawns at the start of term, but much of the time has been Inset so they have passed unnoticed.

Apart from it being a highly engaging and elegantly written drama, just why has Hugh Dennis's portrayal of a history teacher been so much more absorbing, plausible and poignantly superior to any of the other recent television depictions of our profession? Particular teachers in Hope and Glory, Waterloo Road and Teachers have surely offered us much more grit, wit and wisdom? But that is precisely why many of us have enjoyed Hugh Dennis so much more. As teachers, we have been waiting for a television teacher who was just normal. For once, we have watched a subtle, gentle and complex portrayal of a wholly believable person, with a similarly credible, if disturbingly challenging, set of children of his own at home.

His character is so real because we see how his job is just one small part of his emotional life even when there is a letter of regret to write to the chair of the education committee. So we see nothing of his horrific-sounding school, where the school holiday saw five arrested, two pregnant and one shot. We have not yet seen him teach, mark books or prepare his lessons. The really important issues are in his life outside.

Surely every teacher, especially those of us who are parents, could identify with some of this? We cope emotionally with the ups and downs of school because the joys and challenges of our personal lives override everything. School, however good or bad a place, is something detached from us or it should be. In fact, it is our lives at school that should feel like the soap opera. It should feel like a sub-plot that does not, and should not, matter too much. It might sometimes take up an excessive amount of our time, yes, but we should not lose sleep over it. Not now term has started.

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