Of course I watched it. I promised myself I wouldn’t, but ended up breaking my own cardinal rule (‘don’t watch school related TV programmes, they’ll only make you angry’) because of staffroom banter, most of which was fairly positive. Educating Essex, a warts and all documentary based in an Essex comprehensive, is compelling viewing and, as I thought it might, it has polarised opinions in the most predictable way.
Just as the insouciant and strangely indomitable Mr Drew, deputy head of Passmores, predicted in episode 1, people who still work in schools have recognised the daily ebb and flow of working in school and have had a fairly warm reaction to the frank portrayal of behaviour, routines and behind the scenes camaraderie. Those who don’t, including the more right of centre press, have focused not on the school’s relentless drive to build self esteem and effective relationships, but rather on the occasional footage of teachers calling their students “scumbags” and behaving in what they consider to be a frivolous fashion behind the scenes. The Daily Mail is particularly outraged.
Is the show a realistic and useful presentation of comprehensives in the 21st century, or, as some colleagues have pointed out, a final nail in the coffin for any respectability the comprehensive system may have remaining? My own reaction has been surprisingly gentle. I have watched two episodes now with the sincere hope that people see the school for what I believe it to be – a happy place, where children are allowed to be children and where the pressures of society are not only acknowledged, but dealt with by people with years of experience, who genuinely care about young people and their futures.
The ‘backstage’ humour, the conversations that staff have with each other are all immediately familiar. Is it even fair to criticise the staff for maintaining a sense of fun in what they do? Since when did having a bit of a laugh and a joke at work become such an issue? I have visions of teachers and I know and love maintaining their teacher personas in the staffroom at break time. “Miss Kara, do you intend to drink that coffee or are you going go let it go cold?” An pointed enquiring stare at the cup, and a look that instructs me to drink up as I have very little time left of break. It would be ludicrous because we know, those of us who teach, that the teacher persona is simply that, a persona that is created for the benefit of children and cannot be maintained indefinitely.
Critics have argued that allowing the backstage to be seen, by raising the curtain on the banter and relationships, the show inadvertently or otherwise, influences children to behave in a similar way. And I should hope so. I hope that children grow up to work in environments where they can socialise with their peers, make bad jokes – perhaps even rude ones – because that’s what people do. As this issue has caused the most controversy, I asked my students what they thought. We watched extracts from the show, including some of the silliness by the staff. The response was pretty unanimous. One child, a Year 10 student, said: “I’d love to go to that school.” When I asked why, he said: “Because they look happy.” I showed them the footage of the teacher dismissing a class, calling them “scumbags”. My students dismissed this immediately. “If he didn’t have a good relationship with them, they wouldn’t let him call them that,” they explained. “you’d probably see them kicking off or swearing or something.” Fair enough, I thought, a good point. I remember a teacher affectionately calling us “nuisances” when I was at primary school. I don’t remember being that bothered, to be honest.
If anything, Educating Essex shows the broader public the human side of teaching; in the current political climate, this can only be a good thing. People need to know that even schools designated as ‘outstanding’ are run by real people who face real dilemmas and who deal with them with a combination of seriousness and humour. People need to see that their own experiences of school, in some cases as parents and as people who went to school a long time ago, are entirely different from today. The show allows people to see the daily struggle to educate children who are individuals and not just categories – Free School Meals, ethnic minority, boy, girl, literate, middle class, deprived. It also allows teachers and their students, those who experience the education system first hand, to have a voice.
I’m sure there are other arguments as to why Educating Essex is a terrible idea – inevitably, the viewing public will disagree about editing decisions, the personalities, the school’s discipline system – a whole host of things. The fact remains that Passmores shows teachers who care about their students, regardless of their behaviour or their background. They get good results and they believe in what they are doing. Why else would they have allowed the documentary to be made? This isn’t a whistle blowing operation by disgruntled supply teachers looking for vengeance. This is pride in achievement and an unbending belief that Passmores provides quality education and support.
We should be celebrating them, if only because not many of us would be brave enough to do the same. I can’t wait to see what happens next.