At one time British documentary films about education were concerned with projecting a vision of a renewed society with improved educational opportunities for all at its heart (Think of Children at School, Children’s Story, The Three A’s, Children’s Charter). When this vision didn’t always go to plan, TV documentaries exposed and diagnosed problems associated with, mainly urban, schooling systems. Take for example BBC 1977 Panorama episode The Best Days or Undercover Teacher, part of Channel 4’s Dispatches series. As ‘fly on the wall’, or ‘life caught unawares’ (‘zhizn ́ vrasplokh’) (Hicks, 2007) these documentaries claimed authenticity. After all, the camera doesn’t lie. But it can be made to present a preferred version of reality. But now, the same attempts at using film to tell the ‘truth’ about education and school focus on the lives on individual pupils and their families. This is what we see in the three-part BBC documentary series Grammar Schools: Who Will Get In?
Focusing on the lives of children and their families through primary schools as they prepare for the 11+, through experiences of different types of secondary school and into VIth form.
At the start of each episode the commentator announces that:
“Grammar Schools are making a comeback”
Which is an overstatement, possibly referring to expansion in parts of Kent, but ignores the fact that there are no state grammar schools in Scotland and Wales, and no 11+ selection across larges parts of England.
As a documentary the series is, arguably concerned with real life, but this is partial. There is no attempt to consider how we have arrived at this situation. The question of why a selective system has persisted in some areas of England, whilst the comprehensive system thrived in other parts of the UK is not posed, nor answered. Instead the series focus on the experiences of the children, their families and the teachers involved in their education.
We cannot deny that this is real, of course, but there is little attempt to relate the everyday experiences of those who we meet in this series to the wider social structure. The series lacks a sociological imagination, you might say.
For example, social class and ethnicity don’t get a mention in relation to differential attainment. Yet this is clearly evident when we meet Juanita who shares a bedroom with her sister and nephew and whose mother, schooled in Ghana, works for £8 an hour in supermarket to raise the family, and still manages to pay £300 a month to a tutor.
Inequality is acknowledged however though as the commentator says:
“In general if you’re better off you’re more likely to get in. Not many, from poorer families, make it”
That’s social class without mentioning it. There are other examples too, with references to ‘socially disadvantaged students’ who lack the parental support ‘prevalent in affluent families’. Not only is this a gross oversimplification this serves to deny that these inequalities are structural, instead suggesting the cause is with the individual.
Various head teachers give their thoughts on the selective system. Desmond Deehan, head teacher of Townley Grammar School tries particularly hard to justify his belief in the grammar system. This is understandable, he is the head of a grammar school and needs to promote it. In justifying the ‘unfairness’ of the selective system he states that
“it’s not fair that some people are born into poverty and other people are born into affluence. None of that is particularly fair”
True, but it’s not inevitable and we don’t have to accept it.
He refuses to use the word failure, preferring the designation ‘selective’, and I’m wondering if this is because he finds more aesthetically pleasing . Does he really believe his own narrative about selection? Possibly, though he is confused:
“Effectively what we want to show is that selection isn’t the issue. The issue is the segregation caused by selection”
This hardly clarifies his thoughts.
Beth Mckenzie, head teacher of Uplands primary is more brutal, pointing out that there is a ‘pass’ mark, meaning that if you don’t reach the pass mark you have failed:
“Its stark, you know, they’re given that piece of paper which shows what the pass mark was. They haven’t reached that pass mark so it is a failure”
We see the impact of that ‘failure’ in the lives of the young people who took the test in the first episode. It is here that the documentary, which relies on observing the experiences of the young people, becomes intrusive. Juanita’s mother, returning home from work late at night asks the crew to help her to read the text message informing her that her daughter has not been selected for grammar school. It is painful to watch. The mood picks up when we observe a more joyful scene with Summer announcing that she has passed.
Episode 2 contrasts the patterns of behaviour and behaviour management in Erith School, the secondary modern and Townley Grammar School. This episode reveals the level of low-level disruption at Erith School, and the strategy to deal with this:
“Disruptive students are taken to the reflection room in Erith’s specialist student-wellbeing centre”
It is a portakabin.
Stark contrasts in behaviour and attitudes to education are shown between the two schools. Within Erith School there is a discernible ‘academic’ and ‘delinquesent’ subculture (Hargreaves, 1967). Chichi, a pupil at Erith with ambitions to go to medical school is often anti-school, though, as she explains, she values education (Mac an Ghaill, 1988) .
It is only towards the end of episode 3 that there is reference made to research on the ‘effect’ of selection. It is a disappointing documentary series, focusing on the lives of individuals as if they, and the schools exist in a vacuum.
All three episodes remain available to view at: https://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b0b57yst