Ackley Bridge

‘Expect Challenging and Outrageous Behaviour’ warns the Channel 4 downloader about its new six-part drama, Ackley Bridge.  Challenging and outrageous behaviour, at least within the remits of the pre-watershed, is the staple of TV school dramas. The audience is presented with a familiar format.   Set in West Yorkshire, possibly, somewhere within the environs of Leeds/Bradford, because in drama land that is West Yorkshire. As with other dramas about the lives of young people (KES, Ratcatcher, The Selfish Giant), the presentation of the landscape as a backdrop to the lives of the characters is not insignificant.  When not within school, the young people’s lives take place within terraced houses, back yards, ginnels and waste land that serve to remind us that this is a bleak place that constrains the young people.  And if we don’t understand this message, the Head reminds that only one third of pupils from this area get GCSE English. The school will intervene in the lives of these young people, and they will turn out good.

While the deprived urban landscape provides the stage on which the young people’s lives are acted out the rural landscape, at least what we have seen so far, is the where free spirited English teacher, Emma Keane, lives. She provides us with an inter-textual reference to Wuthering Heights, so we’d expect her to be living where she does, a million miles away from her pupils?  Even here, the landscape is constraining for her daughter, who is used to London.  She thinks it is a backward place.  Nevertheless, it is not so far away from urban life, as Mr. Qureshi from the school can drop her home before returning to the school to retrieve his laptop, and possibly the girl’s mother.  Clearly, West Yorkshire is not so vast that it cannot be traversed in its entirety in a short car journey.

Ackley Bridge College is a newly created Academy, though, conveniently, we have been spared the story behind the creation of the Academy. If these details had been presented there is a danger that we might have questioned the disempowering of local communities, and the long-term consequences of the privatisation of education.  This is drama, and all we need to know is that the new school replaces two failing schools within a divided community and that, consequently attainment will rise as meritocracy triumphs.  The school aims to become outstanding.

Deprivation, particularly urban deprivation is another familiar theme of school dramas, and added to this, we have ethnic tensions.  A secondary school drama set in a market town would be inconceivable. Social problems do not exist there, at least not ones that can be explored on pre-watershed television for a prime-time audience.  Predictably, sexual tension, between the teachers as well as the pupils is an underlying theme to keep us returning over the next few weeks.  A social drama, politics lite, episode three is on 8pm,  Wednesday June 21st on Channel 4.

School Swap – The Class Divide

School Swap, ITV’s quasi-documentary series concluded last night. Described as an ‘unique experiment’ (it was neither) the series saw pupils from a private and a state school swap places.  In the first episode three pupils from the private Warminster School in Wiltshire travel to Derby to spend a week attending lessons at The Bemrose School.  In the second episode three pupils from Bemrose spent a week boarding at Warminster.  The swap is designed to highlight the contrasts between the two types of schools and despite ITV claiming it to be ‘unique’ is actually a well rehearsed TV format (for example in the 1980’s the BBC’s Forty Minutes broadcast the feature Changing Places which saw pupils from Rugby School exchanging places with Ruffwood, a comprehensive in Kirkby near Liverpool) and one that endures, along with social class and educational inequalities.

By highlighting the apparent success of the private sector there was an implication that the state sector is deficient in comparison.  This framing of the problem of the ‘educational divide’ serves to set up the private sector as offering solutions to the challenges faced by  state schools, and in so doing diverts attention from the pervasive problems of an unequal society.  Analysis of the assumptions and ideas presented were thin on the ground.  For example, the identification of ‘white working class boys’ as underachieving is a gross oversimplification which is supported in some discourses by the conflation of ‘Free School Meals’ with ‘working class’. It also diverts attention from the underachievement of pupils from Black backgrounds.  In the interviews with the Bemrose pupils at Warminster a positive attitude to the school dress code was considered to be a worthy moral position, but this position can be problematised as being an example of how pupils are socialised into conformity or belonging to the group (a good start would be to read some Durkheim or Bowles and Gintis).

While the series was sub-titled The Class Divide, there was little analysis of the ways in which social class might shape educational experiences and outcomes, and this was revealed in some of the problematic statements from both headteachers, which one would have expected to have been challenged in a documentary. From the Head teacher of Warminster there was a denial that contacts helped to improve the life chances of its students, which is to ignore the powerful influences of different forms of social capital for educational outcomes and life chances.  From the headteacher of the Bemrose School there was an expression of the belief that “education is the key to unlocking the inequalities in society”, yet education systems have a social purpose, are shaped by the society in which they exist and thus may serve to reproduce social inequality, rather than challenge it.  At the end of the series we learn that Brett from Bemrose has been offered a funded place at Warminster, but there was no explanation of why Brett was singled out for the offer. Twitter users responded by offering congratulations.  If he chooses to accept, Brett may well benefit, but benevolent scholarships are not the answer to inequalities in education.

This was documentary lite.  It is more interesting to see how the debate is framed than for anything it reveals about social class and educational inequalities and solutions to this injustice.  Please, read some Bourdieu, some Durkheim, Ball…

Teachers vs Government: Seventy Years of Education Policy

BBC Radio 4 this week broadcast Teachers vs Government: Seventy Years of Education Policy.  Roy Blatchford, Director of the National Education Trust tells the story of developments in education policy over the seventy years since the Education Act of 1944. The half-hour broadcast can only be a brief overview of the key moments in education policy rather than an in-depth policy analysis.  However,  while useful as a documentary in that it provides an overview of key developments and asks key questions, this broadcast draws on and perpetuates some myths about the development of education after 1944.

Blatchford begins with the claim that the 1944 Act was a  “fundamental reform of the English education system”. Arguably, this was the case.  The legislation provided for universal, free, secondary education and this was distinct from what had existed previously when a secondary education was not an entitlement, but was largely rationed according to the ability to pay or obtain a scholarship through the passing of an 11+ style exam.

Blatchford goes on to describe how the new legislation “…meant pupils would  have a choice between a grammar, a secondary modern and a technical education”  which is only partially accurate.  The tripartite system to which he is referring reflects the ways in which the Act was implemented into existing contexts, rather than the Act itself, which did not prescribe specific secondary school types.

The broadcast also draws on the idea of a ‘post-war consensus’ claiming that “there was certainly a strong political consensus around the ambitions of the 44 Act” though, in relation to the aftermath of the 1944 Act at least, this has been contested (see for example, Jones, 1990).  Blatchford continues:

“What then disturbed the postwar consensus was a seemingly mild but radical request from the Labour Government in 1965 in the form of the infamous circular 10/65, a request to abolish selection at 11+ and end the divide between secondary moderns and grammar schools.”

However, this oversimplifies the process by which comprehensivation became a popular means for LEAs to organise secondary education.   Circular 10/65 did request that LEAs submit plans for comprehensivisation but there is evidence to support the claim that “[t]he drive for comprehensive education in England and Wales was a ‘bottom up’, rather than ‘top down’ initiative” (Crook, 2002: p. 257).

Nevertheless, featuring interviews with former Ministers and LEA  personnel the documentary offers some interesting insights to key policy developments.  It is broadcast again on BBC Radio 4 on Sunday 27th April at 17.00 and is available to listen to here.

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High School

High School, a three part reality series following a year in the life of Holyrood Secondary School in Glasgow began on BBC One in Scotland this week.  It is made by Friel Kean Films who also produced The Schemewhich last year the Daily Mail described as “jaw-droppingly grotesque”, running with the unimaginative headline: “Welcome to McShameless”.  In the broadsheets the response was also less than enthusiastic with Iain McDowall in the Guardian describing the The Scheme as “poverty porn”.

Head teacher Tom McDonald

So, is High School any different?

In the opening scenes of the first episode we hear a young pupil announce:

“My instinct just says, punch him right in the mouth”

If this comes over as an attempt to draw on a stereotype of Glaswegian temperament it is soon dispelled. When shown in context later in the programme the remainder of the scene reveals that boy in question, Liam, who has Asperger’s syndrome, has been experiencing bullying from some of his classmates.  Thus, in this scene he is eloquently articulating what he considers to be the most appropriate response to this situation.  Liam doesn’t conclude that physical violence is the ideal way forward.

Alec Newman (who plays head teacher Michael Byrne in the BBC drama series Waterloo Road) narrates, showing us VIth form students contending for the positions of school captains, the departure of a well-loved  deputy head and an enthusiastic candidate for his replacement. Muslim and Sikh pupils are heard expressing how inclusive they feel the Roman Catholic school to be, while it respects their religion they also attend mass. When a new pupil, Gabriel arrives from Romania, he has little English and struggles to settle in to his new school, leading to truancy.  Staff meet with him and his mother, and consequently his attendance is monitored until it improves.  Finally, towards the end of the first episode we see Liam settling in more and gaining popularity amongst his peers.

Prosaic reality is dramatic enough for those involved without the  succession of explosions, attempted and actual murders designed to make TV school dramas more compelling viewing than watching an actual school.  In short, this is not poverty porn, but is likely to portray experiences shared by many schools.  As a spokesperson for BBC Scotland said:

“Many of the stories and issues covered will have a resonance for other pupils, teachers and parents across Scotland. We hope the audience will find it an engaging series.”

You can catch up with the series for as long as it is available, on the BBC  High School website.

The Grammar School: A Secret History

BBC Four have just finished broadcasting a two-part series The Grammar School: A Secret History.  Both episodes can be accessed via the BBC programmes page.  I found the series less than illuminating, and not as analytical as it could, or should have been.

The narrative of episode two focused on “the golden age of grammar schools” indicating a particular, positive view of this type of secondary school.  Far from being a secret history this episode repeated several common sense assumptions about the opportunities grammar schools gave to working class children, as well as the turn towards comprehensivisation.

A number of problematic phrases stood out:

“Grammar schools offered talented children from the poorest backgrounds the chance to go to some of the best schools in the country”

Talent in this content clearly refers to academic talent. It assumes that the 11+ was effective at identifying talent in children,  and implies that only talented children from the poorest backgrounds deserve a chance to go to the best schools.  It says nothing about middle class children, do they automatically go to “some of the best schools”?

“The grammar schools created a generation of upwardly mobile high-flyers who helped transform Britain”

This suggests that the grammar school system created social mobility.  Evidence suggests otherwise.  Middle class children were more likely to enter grammar schools, and once there, a middle class pupil was more likely to succeed than a working class pupil (Halsey and Gardner 1953; Little and Westergaard, 1964; Lacey, 1971).  True, the post-war years saw some upward mobility, but it also saw a change in the occupational structure, with an expansion of professional (middle class jobs) and a contraction of manual (working class jobs).

The mobility claims are less firm when considering the overall numbers of pupils educated in grammar schools.  As the narrator went on to state, they:

“educated a quarter of all secondary school pupils”

Can a “golden age” really be claimed for a system which excluded 75% of all pupils?  Even this “quarter” figure is misleading as grammar school places were not evenly distributed across the nation.  You had more chance of getting to grammar school in Wales than in parts of England.  The rationale for selection to a grammar school is that a pupil is suited for a grammar school education, in other words the 11+ identifies the possession of academic talent. How then can the uneven distribution of grammar schools places be explained?  Were Welsh children more academically gifted than English children?

The episode went on to describe how grammar schools would compensate working class children for the

“cultural impoverishment of home”

which, not only is this offensive, suggesting that working class culture is impoverished compared to the middle class culture of the grammar schools, it was immediately contradicted by the vignettes of working class ex-grammar school pupils whose families clearly valued education and aspired to greater educational opportunities. The programme makers have apparently, not read Nell Keddie’s Tinker Tailor.

Then, the programme moved on to the demise of the grammar schools, which, we were invited to believe is lamentable.  It was all the fault of

“The Labour Government [who] persuaded and pressured them to go comprehensive”

How much persuading, and pressuring did LEAs need?  True, there was the famous circular 10/65 which hardly compelled LEAs to go comprehensive.  This programme did briefly refer to middle-class dissatisfaction with the 11+ plus system, but said nothing of the economic rationale for comprehensivisation.  When Margaret Thatcher was Secretary of State for Education, Circular 10/70 attempted to stop plans for comprehensivisation, however LEAs continued submitting such plans, and more comprehensive schools were created. It was hardly a case of a Labour Government forcing comprehensive schooling on unwilling LEAs. None of this was mentioned.

The narration went on to describe

“enforced comprehensivisation”

which probably refers to the 1976 Education Act, which was repealed in 1979, meaning comprehensivisation wasn’t enforced.

The Grammar School: A Secret History was an interesting attempt at illuminating the history of secondary education, but it could do better.

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A school nurse in every school?

Waterloo Road, the fictional Rochdale Comprehensive school appears to have a resident school nurse.  This is just as well, as Waterloo Road has its fair share of medical emergencies, to which the nurse is often summoned.  The nurse has not merely been referred to, but has, occasionally made a cameo appearance.

In last week’s episode, new boy Freddie Jackson collapsed whilst playing football. Superhead Michael Byrne intervened at the crucial moment by instructing Phoenix Taylor  to “go and get the nurse”, as opposed to calling the emergency services.  Thankfully, Freddie survived and went on to protest to his mother that he was fine, supported by Michael Byrne who assured that “the nurse has checked him over thoroughly”.  Perhaps the Waterloo Road nurse is a cardiac specialist, and the medical equipment of the Waterloo Road sick-bay are the envy of schools across the land.

Waterloo Road is, however, a representation of reality, rather than reality.  The latest NHS workforce figures indicate that there were 1158 full-time equivalent school nurses in England as of July this year[1].  There are also around 23, 400 state primary, secondary, nursery schools, and pupil referral units [2].  In short, schools are unlikely to have a resident nurse.  Waterloo Road is exceptional in this regard.

The importance of school nursing was highlighted in the 2004 Department of Health’s Choosing Health: Making healthy choices easier[3].  About the school nursing service it stated:

“…we will modernise and promote school nursing services, expanding the number of qualified staff working with primary and secondary schools so that, by 2010, every cluster of schools will have access to a team led by a qualified school nurse.” (p.8)

This is far from one nurse for every school, rather, it is access to one, who may not  be full-time.

The roles of school nurses are varied too.  Nitty Nora is an outdated stereotype as school nurses administer HPV vaccines, deliver advice on sexual health, monitor height and weight, provide advice on health related issues for young people, as well as contribute to child protection conferences. This is quite different from the image portrayed in Waterloo Road.  While a trained first aider will be on hand in the case of accidents on the playing field, this is not a routine part of the school nurse.

Continue reading “A school nurse in every school?”

“These people run a school!”

This was the exclamation of Vic Goddard, head teacher of PassmoresAcademy during the first episode of Channel 4’s fly on the wall documentary, Educating Essex.

This was his imagined response of some viewers to the antics of himself and his senior management team  (e.g. hiding behind doors, and comic secret santa). His imagination that some would seize upon such behaviour as evidence of unsuitable school leadership qualities was realised, at least by the Daily Mail.  It was nothing, if not predictable in its disapproval of Vic Goddard’s and his team’s conduct.

In its review, the Daily Mail  describes the teachers of Passmores Academy  as “foul-mouthed” (they occasionally swore in conversation with one another) who “liberally use four-letter words”  (though, significantly the article offers no explanation as to why words with four letters are objectionable) . It goes on to claims that the programme paints a “grim picture of life in a comprehensive”.

‘Grim’ is one interpretation, but ‘real’ is another. Mr. Drew, the deputy head teacher,  “evil overlord”, “legend”, and focus of the first episode is far from grim.  As he says to his students:

“You have no idea how much I like teaching you”

He is determined no student leaves a failure, even, as he says that means sleeping all through August to recover from the effort entailed in ensuring students successfully complete their exams. The first episode of Educating Essex reveals Passmores Academy to be a school which deals with the rough and the smooth, where teachers and pupils can have fun, and where Mr. Drew, even after a day dealing with the problematic behaviour of some students is able to put this aside and grumble at the theft of his smoothie from the staff fridge.

Educating Essex

A new series, Educating Essex begins on Channel 4 this week.  It is the latest in a recent trend of ‘fly on the wall’ school documentaries, such as Jamie’s Dream School, or Gareth Malone’s Extraordinary School for Boys.    Some of these documentaries have been predicated on the belief that schools are failing at least some of their pupils, presenting dramatic, over simplified solutions.  In contrast, Passmores Academy, the subject of  Educating Essex has been judged outstanding by Ofsted.   According to Vic Goddard, the head teacher of Passmores, part of the reason he gives for allowing the cameras in, is to give people an insight into what really goes on in a “normal school”.

The series promises to capture some of the mundane reality of a comprehensive school, and Vic Goddard is no doubt correct in his prediction that some people will not like what he and his team are doing.  He appears to be genuinely committed to dealing with the everyday challenges his school faces, while aiming at positive outcomes for all Passmores’ pupils. This series should be a reminder we don’t need to look to celebrity endorsed quasi-experiments to find caring committed teachers who can make a difference.

Michael Byrne – Super head

Employment laws don’t appear to apply at Waterloo Road, the fictional failing Rochdale Comprehensive School.  This may be a neoliberal vision of the not too distant future.  But, for now, Michael Byrne, the new super head would not have got away with interviewing and appointing candidates for the post of deputy alone.  Technically though, he didn’t interview anyone, as, right on cue the tragic personal lives of pupils Phoenix and Harley Taylor interrupted proceedings. The suspension of the interview process did not, however, prevent both Tom Clarkson, and new teacher Sian Diamond being appointed deputy head teacher.

Due to her poor spelling, Byrne decreed that Janeece is now on probation.  Apart from an instruction to pass a training course, there appeared to be little reference to a performance review or appraisal.  Surely this would form part of any self-respecting LEA’s contract with its employees.  He then failed to act upon the sexual harassment  of Janeece by a gang of new pupils. It would appear that neoliberal heavens require crap managers.

Michael Byrne observes the leadership qualities of his pupils

A neoliberal vision of the school of the future might not, however, include Byrne’s discipline policy. Maybe he hasn’t yet read Behaviour and Discipline in Schools: A guide for head teachers and school staff. A reading of this guide hardly provides an endorsement for Byrne’s response to the criminal activity of new pupil, Tariq.  While his gang were given a series of detentions, Tariq was given a prefects badge.  This was due to his apparent leadership qualities.  Perhaps Byrne thinks he is dealing with a member of the Bullingdon Club?

Glaswegian Waterloo Road

Waterloo Road, the fictional Rochdale comprehensive school is relocating north of the border and setting up a new school in Glasgow.

According to the Independent, the BBC is reported as saying that the second half of series 7, to be aired later this year will end with “a dramatic and explosive storyline which will see a number of teachers and pupils setting up a new independent school in Scotland”.

It may be redundant for this blog to point out the fantasy of this proposed storyline. Waterloo Road represents reality, though it is clearly not reality, and thus there has always been a need to suspend belief while consuming this drama.  The BBC went on to explain how the impending move provides an opportunity for “new stories”. This then, is an auspicious moment to speculate on the storylines that will be narrated in a Scottish Waterloo Road.

  • Will it be a Glaswegian free school?  (granted, this would be complete fantasy)
  • Will there be a position in the English department for Grantly Budgen?
  • What will become of Janeece, and will there be a school crèche in which she can enroll Cheryl?
  • What will the name of the new school be?