Can a change of environment make a difference to the lives of excluded children? John Davies watches a televised experiment that aims to find out
Channel 4, April 6, 8.20pm
If anyone can claim to have had his life changed by television, Ryan Bell can. Once a 14-year-old school dropout in south London, he is now doing well as a pupil at a fee-charging boarding school more than 100 miles away.
(You may have read about him last autumn under headlines such as "Tearaway becomes top of the class".) All thanks to the ambitions of the TV production company that chose Ryan and two other children excluded by their secondary schools to be the subjects of a documentary series, Second Chance, which aims, in the words of producer Ambreen Hameed, to "show that excluded children can do really well". It's a message much in line with the sentiments of Second Chance's executive producer, Trevor Phillips, recently appointed head of the Campaign for Racial Equality (Friday magazine, March 7).
The first episode of the much-postponed series, due to be shown on Channel 4 from Sunday, documents Ryan's one-year progress from hanging around his local estate in September 2001 to attending Downside, the Catholic school near Bath (boarding fees pound;12,000 a year), excelling at rugby and Latin.
The second programme follows another excluded London teenager, Tammy Watkins, as she attempts to make the most of her second chance at St Marylebone girls' school in the London borough of Westminster. But a third episode, about a boy relocated to Preston Manor school in the London borough of Brent, had to be abandoned when he changed his mind about being filmed. So the final programme in the series is not about one excluded pupil; rather, it focuses on the charity Kids Company - again, London-based - and some excluded children it is trying to get back into education.
"You can make loads of programmes on school exclusion, but they won't necessarily show anything positive - you could follow excluded kids about and see how they get into trouble," says Ms Hameed. "But most surprising to me was just how easy it was to find children who have potential - in Ryan's case, demonstrable potential.
"One teacher said to me, 'We exclude charismatic children', and you can see what she's talking about. There are a lot of children who are too much for the classroom, in a good way, in the way that Ryan and Tammy were."
Given the life-changing nature of the Second Chance project, did the programme-makers take care to deal sensitively with their young subjects? The answer, gratifyingly, seems to be yes (an answer less likely, one suspects, in the case of other recent Channel 4 documentaries such as Girls Alone). A panel of three experts oversaw the children's treatment, and in programmes one and two we see them mull over Ryan's and Tammy's progress.
"We wanted them to work, not for us, but for the children - to make sure that nothing we did interfered with their education, and that we were not putting them at risk in any way," says Ms Hameed. "We told them if anything does go wrong, advise us as professionals. If you say 'Stop filming', we stop filming. If you say 'Take them out of that school', we will. I think it's unprecedented for a television programme to have a panel that is instructed to protect the participants from the programme-makers."
Paul Roper, head of pupil referral services in Brent, was a panel member, although not in an official capacity. He is pleased with what Second Chance has done. "The programme will highlight the difficulties facing everybody involved with exclusions," he says. "Finding the perfectly matched school for every young person in difficulty is time-consuming and difficult, with no guarantee of success."
He agrees that Ryan's switch could have been problematic. "Purely in terms of his own family, the more he got into life at Downside and the more attuned to the ethos and the background of other pupils, the more difficult we thought it would be for him to adjust to being with his family again.
But the last time I saw him, he was making the adjustment well."
Downside's headmaster, Dom Antony Sutch, was also initially wary. "I made some conditions - this is not a guinea pig, this is a guy I want for at least three years. I told them you can't move him in and out. I'm a risk-taker - indeed, it's in the rule of St Benedict that if you're offered a chance, go for it. So after consulting my governors and staff I said yes, we'd be interested."
From the point of view of advocates of mainstream state education, it is perhaps unfortunate that Ryan's story will get the most attention. As Ms Hameed says: "The issue wasn't private schools versus state schools, it was whether these children's potential was being wasted. We wanted to show there are a range of schools (including Preston Manor) with very good practices. It diminishes the issue if you start getting into why school one works and school two doesn't."
Father Antony echoes this. "I get angry when people ring up and say, 'It's wonderful the independent system's doing so well'. That's not the point.
It's not state versus independent, it's one particular school being able to cope with (Ryan)." He reports that Ryan has been "progressing well" in the nine months since filming finished, despite being suspended for two weeks in March after being accused of stealing another pupil's mobile phone. He sits his GCSEs next year. "I think quite a few will be As. But he's not a saint. He'll get angry, he'll disrupt - no more, no less than the average."