What happens when you let the cameras roll

13th March 2009 at 00:00
When Glenalmond College participated in a BBC documentary, the headteacher hoped the programme would `demystify' boarding school life

Instead, it committed `sins of omission', he says, and led to letters from angry parents.

It is Friday and the last day of term at Glenalmond College before the holidays. A mother, accompanied by her daughter, who looks barely 10- years-old, enters the office. They have recently arrived from Bangladesh, they tell the school secretary, and are here to spend the break with the girl's older sister.

"Is that `Moonlight Sonata'?" asks the little girl, referring to the classical music which plays in the background.

"Yes! Well spotted!" replies her mother. "Can you remember who the composer is?"

"Beethoven," she answers.

This is perhaps the kind of civilised exchange the public would expect to take place within the walls of Glenalmond College. It is the second most expensive private school in Scotland, where parents pay up to pound;24,800 a year to send their children.

But a BBC documentary, broadcast last autumn, highlighted the bullying of the only pupil in receipt of a free place; the frequently choice language of pupils; and their apparent lack of motivation.

While the programme showed that some pupils made it to Cambridge University, teachers were filmed questioning academic standards and a member of staff complained that pupils who had vandalised his car had been allowed to "buy their way out".

"Posh school bullies exposed by TV crew"; "Bursary boy's `bullying' seen in film" and "`Chav hunt' school shamed again as class warriors pick on new boy", screamed newspaper headlines in the run-up to the programme, Pride and Privilege.

The school always knew it would not be getting an advertisement, says Gordon Woods, the warden (headteacher). But the documentary committed "sins of omission", he argues. "I'm pleased we did it, but could it have been a better piece of TV? I think it could. Could it have been more representative of the college? Yes. To call it a year in the life of Glenalmond was a misnomer. It was a year in the life of half-a-dozen people at Glenalmond," he says.

Head of drama and Skrines housemaster Charlie Youlten was also angered by what was left unsaid in the documentary and the "whipping up" of the press before the programmes were aired. He featured in the documentary and was responsible for the welfare of Tom Files, the only pupil at the time on a 100 per cent bursary, when he stayed in Skrines during his first year at the school.

Money and class were not behind the bullying, he argues. The boys were all, bar one, like Tom, from state primary backgrounds and none was "dripping in money", he says. Tom and his tormentors were in Glenalmond's "junior entry group", a small number who join the school a year earlier than the other first years, because state primary tends to end a year before prep school.

This was never made clear to the viewer, Mr Youlten says: "They were hinting that he was the only state-educated child."

At the end of the documentary, viewers were told Tom was moved to a different house, where he had "grown in confidence and been making new friends". But many boys in the junior entry group change house when the rest of their peer group arrives at the school, Mr Youlten points out.

Peter Barber-Fleming, the director of Saltire Films, which made the documentary, and an old boy of Glenalmond, maintains Tom's background was "quite different" from the other boys but admits the programme could have been "more rounded" and "broader".

"That could have been done without losing the central half-a-dozen main stories," he says.

Overall, however, Mr Barber-Fleming feels the programme was "fine". It would appear though, that some of his old school friends disagree, since the silence following the programmes has been resounding, he says.

But why did the school decide in the first place to let the cameras in? Mr Barber-Fleming's status as a former pupil helped, admits Mr Woods. "I suppose that made us think: `let's see what it involves', rather than dismissing it out of hand."

Mr Woods also felt a documentary was a chance to show modern-day boarding is not all cold showers and fagging. "I've worked my whole career in boarding schools and have a passion for what they can offer. But so often, opinion is formed and shaped by people who have had poor experiences.

"If you believe in what you are doing in terms of the quality of the education, why not?"

The publicity was also a factor, he admits. "To survive, we need to be slightly less mystifying. Our traditional market has to be expanded."

The timing of the documentary means it will have no impact on admissions this September and by next year, thanks to the credit crunch, the school will no longer be comparing like with like.

However, there have been a few enquiries from parents who saw the series, and hits on the Glenalmond website rose by as much as 71 per cent in the wake of the programmes.

Nobody has withdrawn their child as a result of the documentary, says Mr Woods, but some existing parents had "views" and "a handful wrote".

They complained in the main, he says, that Pride and Privilege was not representative of Glenalmond and that it failed to show the college in a good light. They were pacified, he claims, when it was pointed out that they were picking on "a handful of tiny segments in each programme".

He says: "When I asked: `What was it?', it often came down to teenagers being teenagers."

Many took issue with the swearing. But parents don't usually get an insight into how youngsters behave or speak when they are together, points out Mr Woods. The documentary provided that window into teenage life. For some, it was an unwelcome revelation.

"That's it, that's reality - wake up," Mr Woods continues. "As parents, we sometimes think our kids don't do teenage things and we blindly hope they don't. I've worked for 30 years with teenagers and I love them. They are infuriating, fascinating and stimulating, and they emerge from it."

The "10 seconds" that proved most controversial, according to Mr Woods, were those featuring 15-year-old, wannabe model Tamsin, whose ambition in life was to marry a rich man, get her hands on an estate or two and then divorce him.

According to Mr Woods, the film failed to show Tamsin was not being "altogether serious".

Of course, pupils were always going to play up to the cameras but were some comments made by staff harder to forgive?

David Armitage, the new head of chemistry, appeared to be criticising academic standards when he said the school was as guilty as any of trying to squeeze a lot in and sometimes that had to be "at the expense of academia".

"I'm glad the heads of department are saying: `Wait a minute, what about work?'" says Mr Woods. "But what a lot of people see as extra-curricular, I see as just another part of our curriculum - music, drama, sport, whatever; the pupils do things other than work, which is healthy."

The cameras arrived at Glenalmond in September and filming took place seven days a week, with the crew - which consisted most of the time of only the director, Stephen Bennett, and his assistant - living-in much of the time.

In February, the cameras headed off to America, following the four Glenalmond pupils who won places on an exchange to Brooks School in Massachusetts. After that, they were on the campus less regularly, says Mr Woods. Ultimately, they collected more than 200 hours of footage.

Saltire Films made it clear from the outset that it would focus on the lives of a few students and staff and that the documentary would contain "light and dark" moments, so why be irked when that's the final result?

The warden says Glenalmond College knew the documentary wasn't going to be an advertisement for the school, but undoubtedly that is what the school had hoped for.

So what would Mr Woods's advice be to schools considering opening their doors to a camera crew? To go in with their eyes open and not to be naive, he replies. The implication is that Glenalmond College was not naive, but the jury `is still out'.


Snow is wreaking havoc in England. At Glenalmond College in Perthshire, the temperature is hovering just above freezing. A smattering of snow covers the school's 300 acres of lawns, playing fields and the countryside.

Here, where most pupils and staff live on campus, snowfall does not bring with it the prospect of a day off. Conversely, it can prevent pupils getting home for the holidays. With chaos at airports down south, that's the threat on the last day of school before half-term.

The weather isn't a problem for captain of the college (head girl) Pim Hannay, or prefect Hamish Houston. Pim's parents live in Singapore but she is spending the half-term in Edinburgh; Hamish's family lives in Perth. He started at Glenalmond as a day pupil, but when he entered sixth form he became a boarder and "a different person", he says: "When you become a boarder, you are able to get right into the life of the school."

Hamish is the quintessential public school boy. Well-spoken, polite and courteous, with rosy cheeks, he oozes good health. It is hard to imagine him getting drunk and swearing, though, as Mr Woods says, who knows what teenagers do when adult eyes are averted?

All of Glenalmond College was glued to the TV, when the first episode of Pride and Privilege was aired. Pim was a "little disappointed" with the documentary and its failure to include a lot of "good things" the school does.

Hamish says they made stereotypes out of the pupils they followed - Antz the rugby lad, Bryn the thespian, Amber the academic - failing to show the other facets to their personalities.

Amber studied hard but she also re-wrote a Shakespeare play that was staged by another sixth former, and is an amazing singer, he and Pim point out. "There was a lot more they could have followed up about the six characters they chose," he says.

Some pupils have reacted by filming their own spoof of the documentary.

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