The latest series of Waterloo Road is upon our television screens. For those who have yet to witness this, tune into ITV on a Wednesday evening where you will be able to watch a gritty drama about a Manchester Comprehensive School.
Now in its fifth series the school has survived threatened closure, a head teacher accused of fraud, arson and, at the end of the last series demolition by a disgruntled parent. It has tackled a range of issues from cyber bullying, death, teenage pregnancy, HIV, sexuality, Aspergers’ Syndrome, sexual intimidation, murder, alcoholism and illegal adoption, amongst a multitude of other issues. Most recently, following the latest episode the series has been implicated in promoting a copy cat incident of ethanol abuse among a group of school pupils in Walsall. The series embodies all that is feared about Comprehensive Schools. Attainment is below average, aspirations of many of the working class pupils are low, pupils are disruptive, a number of its teachers are lazy and incompetent as well as promiscuous. In short the school is a ‘dangerous place’. This is an image of Comprehensive Schools found elsewhere, and has been identified in Sociological research, for example in the work of Diane Reay.
Yet, just how realistic is the representation of reality portrayed in Waterloo Road?
This current series began with Waterloo Road School having being repaired following the demolition at the end of the last series. An influx of middle class pupils was in evidence following a ‘merger’ with another school while off-air. The school name ‘Waterloo Road’ remained along with its original pupils wearing the familiar burgundy school uniform, contrasting with the green and blue of ‘John Fosters’, the middle class school. Unsurprisingly current storylines feature the clash of school cultures polarising the disruptive working class of Waterloo Road with the hard working, well groomed John Fosters pupils. A dramatised version of the polarisation thesis explored by Hargreaves and others is being played out on our screens. Surely the LEA and senior management could have foreseen such problems and sought to ease the transition to a new school? Perhaps they could have looked at the launch of Academies where apparently new schools are launched on the site of an old ‘failing’ school, often incorporating pupils from more than one school which has been closed down. As part of the launch there is a new name, often alongside a new distinctive uniform. This is well documented and the efforts at rebranding are an attempt to create a new school (or academy) identity and avoid the dominance of one school culture over others. Perhaps the LEA and staff responsible for Waterloo Road should become more aware of common practices around school mergers?
The suspension of reality goes on: In the first episode we saw a police officer who appeared incapable of relaying bad news to the children of a murder victim. How did he manage to reach the position of Detective Inspector in a murder squad? In the next episode an alleged rape was investigated for what seemed like most of the day before the police were called. When the police were made aware it was malicious allegation they were met with a ‘sorry for wasting your time’ from the pupil, they appeared happy to leave, and the malicious accuser was sensitively escorted away to ‘collect her things’.
The executive head, responsible for a number of other schools in addition to Waterloo Road (who never seems to attend any of his other schools) launched a volunteering scheme and administers punishments without the knowledge of the schools’ head teacher. Not only that, but he is emerging as a sexual predator. Is that reality?
Returning to the ethanol, a large amount of bootleg soft drink mixed with ethanol appeared to be created from one bottle stolen from a cabinet in the science classroom (not secured in a technicians room ). While the fact that the recent incident reported in the papers suggests that fiction has influenced fact, the episode in question did deal with the negative consequences of such behaviour. The incompetent, promiscuous, but likeable French teacher has been implicated in allowing harm to come to one pupil in this incident. Although she has been accused of professional misconduct she remains to fight another day. The episode did deal with the negative consequences of ethanol abuse, although the accusation suggests that the drama acted like a hypodermic syringe directly influencing the Walsall school pupils who could not tell fact from fiction. Strange then that they replicated only the drinking and missed the message about how dangerous it was.
But are comprehensive schools really like this? Or do we just think they are?
Perhaps, as a starting point we should ask what type of secondary school do most children attend anyway? Are they all as frightening as Waterloo Road? I doubt it.
The series does reflect many of the fears about comprehensive schools that have been reported in the media and identified in sociological research. Phenomena such as ‘white flight’ and middle class abandonment of inner city comprehensive schools has been documented (See work by Sally Tomlinson or Stephen Ball). Waterloo Road does represent this. Remember the disgruntled parent who demolished the school? He was a police officer who felt his daughter was being damaged by the school and the ‘undesirables’ she was mixing with. Taking a JCB to the school foyer does, however appear to be an extreme reaction undocumented in reality. I stand to be corrected however. Some sections of the media too are keen to point to the danger that is represented by comprehensive schools and this perception is found in research on attitudes towards comprehensive schools.
As a representation of reality then, Waterloo Road should not be seen as a generalisation of all comprehensive schools. However the fact that it is portrayed as a dangerous place where any decent middle class parent would not send their child does represent a reality of sorts. One that perceives comprehensive schools as predominantly urban and unruly. Maybe it gives us what we want from a comprehensive school drama?
Incidentally, the school in Walsall implicated in a copy-cat of the ethanol episode, Aldridge School is a specialist Science College, not a ‘bog standard’ comprehensive like Waterloo Road. According to its latest Ofsted report it takes in pupils with from a range of socio-economic backgrounds, and has fewer than average pupils eligible for free school meals. Unlike Waterloo Road it is also over subscribed, and has a thriving sixth form. It is, presumably considered more desireable and less dangerous than Waterloo Road.
I’ll be tuning in this week for episode 4.