The History Boys

This week’s screening in Film and Education was The History Boys (2006) directed by Nicholas Hytner, and based on Alan Bennett’s stage play of the same name.

At Cutlers’ Grammar School a group of boys have just obtained the school’s highest ever A Level Grades. Returning for one more term they are coached for Oxbridge entrance by ‘General Studies’ teacher Hector (Richard Griffiths), history teacher Mrs Lintott (Frances de la Tour) and the newly appointed Irwin (Stephen Campbell Moore).

The opening scene tells us the film is set in ‘Yorkshire’.  The non specificness of ‘Yorkshire’ reflects, for me at least, a sense of  placelessness; Posner refers to living in Sheffield yet Irwin lives in Horsforth (Leeds) which, we are informed is on Hector’s route home and so presumably we are in the environs of Leeds, not Sheffield.  The city scape we see is a shot of Elland, near Halifax, again suggesting we are located in West Yorkshire. Hector, Irwin, Lintott and the boys go on a day trip to Fountains Abbey (Ripon), while Roche Abbey (Rotherham) the other Cistercian monastery on Irwin’s agenda, might have been a more convenient location for the outing. Perhaps this geographic licence is deliberate? Ostensibly we are in Sheffield, yet at times were are in Leeds where Bennett is from. So, while The History Boys is drama, fiction, there is a hint of a Bennett autobiography.

Unlike the location, the year (1983) is specified in the opening scene.  The soundtrack features ‘Blue Monday’ and ‘Mustapha Dance’, the inclusion of these reaffirms the events as occurring in the early 1980s.  This film could not be set any later however, as shortly afterwards the seventh term Oxbridge exams ceased to exist. Not only are Hector, Irwin, Lintott and the boys spending one final term together, the final term is itself coming to an end.

Other themes explored in the film could easily fit into later decades.  Hector’s humanist teaching contrasts with Irwin’s technocratic approach (Talburt, 2010) and is reflected in the mise-en-scène. Hector’s classroom follows a ‘traditional’ liberal arts theme furnished with wooden desks with pictures and photographs covering the walls.  There is one of Orwell which appears in some scenes to be looking over Hector’s shoulder, a signal that Hector is being observed, his teaching style giving rise to suspicion.  It is a sign that his days are numbered.  As the headmaster says:

“Hector produces results but unpredictable and unquantifiable…There’s inspiration, certainly, but how do I quantify that?”

In contrast, Irwin’s classroom looks functional and modern with bare walls; it is suited for a different purpose (Jays, 2006).  Irwin is there to get results in a competition with the best, even though the headmaster is confused over who the ‘best’ are:

“We’re low in the league. I want to see us up there with Manchester Grammar, Haberdasher Askes, Leighton Park… or is that an open prison?”

There is a more difficult theme played out during the course of the film which revolves around Hector’s relationship with his pupils.  Hector rides a motorbike and routinely offers a boy (with the exception of Posner) a lift home.  On the first occasion that we witness this offering each boy in turn quickly gives a reason for declining leaving Scripps who, seemingly out of a sense of duty agrees to ride pillion.  As they ride home Hector gropes Scripps and this scenario is repeated each time one of the boys becomes a passenger. It is clearly a sexual assault, yet the boys do not consider themselves victims, with Dakin even intervening to save Hector’s career after his behaviour is reported to the headmaster.

It is not clear what message the film gives about Hector’s behaviour.  The boys, in other words his ‘victims’ remain supportive and the film clearly invites us to share the affection they have for Hector. Should we follow the boys’ lead and turn a blind eye to Hector’s behaviour?  Should we feel guilty for mourning Hector’s demise?

Hector, of course tries to minimise his actions, to which the only sensible response comes from Mrs. Lintott:

 “A grope is a grope. It is not the Annunciation”

Continue reading “The History Boys”

Advertisements

Exam Season

You will, if you have listened to The Archers or watched Waterloo Road recently, be aware that some of the characters in featured in those dramas have had exams. It is either over, or nearly over for GCSE and A Level students. 

This also explains the lack of posts on this page too. I have been marking.   

In the meantime, there have been numerous developments in educational policy.  My sociological lens has been elsewhere.  It is currently being polished and will be refocused very soon.

Pip’s exam stress…

Educational life is represented in popular culture.  We know it is exam time because, in Radio 4’s The Archers, Pip Archer is experiencing exam stress . Bless, she’s having a bad time. 

The transition from school to 6th form has not been easy for Pip.  She had been intent on packing in college, but stuck with it.  Now, she is balancing a part-time job, an apparently unsuitable boyfriend, and, her exams.

Pip Archer misses her Business Studies exam

Last week, after misreading her exam timetable, and following a night out with the flaky boyfriend Jude, she missed her Business Studies exam.  This meant, according to Pip, the end of the world.  As auntie Elizabeth pointed out, it isn’t, of course,  but poor Pip’s perspective is shaped by exams, and so is understandable.  On top of this, her parents (David and Ruth) have asked her to think about the farm open day, as if she isn’t under enough pressure!  David and Ruth are also feeling the strain.  They might like to think about contacting  Relate, the relationship counselling charity.  On their parents site they have some suggestions to help families cope with exam stress.  According to an article in The Observer, Relate are providing this advice in response to the stress that parents are experiencing while their children revise and sit exams.  The advice to young people, which Pip might have found useful on the morning of her exam, is ‘don’t panic’.

Poor Pip.  She will now have an anxious wait until the results day in August.  The everyday story of exam taking folk will cover that day from Pip’s perspective.  Elsewhere, the news media will enter a debate about the increasing pass rate, and suggest that is explained by easier exams, and thus, falling standards.  Maybe, the Archers characters can engage in this debate too, down at  ‘The Bull’ maybe?

Traditional subjects in decline?

This is an ongoing debate, however, figures released today by the DCSF suggest that fears that ‘traditional’ subjects are in decline, with fewer students studying them to A Level may be exaggerated.  In terms of A Levels, entries for Maths, Further Maths, and Physics have risen and are not at their highest level for over a decade.

Other ‘traditional’ subjects, including History, Geography and English continue to be popular choices for A Level students.

It does then appear that there is no need to panic.

A Level Results

Various News headlines are today reporting a record number of A  Levels entries have been awarded A grades.  This year over a quarter (26.7%) of A Level entries have been awarded an A grade.  This is an increase on just over 25% least year and represents a new record.

One of the implications for the increasing pass rate and increasing number of top grades being awarded is the pressure on University places with demand this year outstripping supply. 

Today’s news reports also inevitably discuss the issue of dumbing down.   Today’s Daily Mail reports calls from the chief of the OCR exam board to make A Levels harder.  The Times  joins in with the debate and considers the possibility of ranking A Levels with percentages.  The Independent also reports on calls to “crank up the standard”, observing that Universities struggle to distinguish between candidates when so many achieve the top grades.  However A level grades should never be the only criteria by which Universities select their students

The overall theme is that the increased pass rate and increased number of A grades awarded is evidence of ‘dumbing down’ or falling educational standards.  Rather than take increased grades being taken as prima facie evidence of increased standards, this evidence is rejected.  The opposite must be true.   Chiefs of the examining boards contest the idea that A Levels are being dummed down. 

Some Facts to consider…

  • Over 60% of applicants have had their University places confirmed so far
  • The Government has made an extra 10, 000 places available to cope with the anticipated extra demand for University places this year (brought on by a number of factors, including demographic changes and recession)
  • This year competition for University places is greater than in previous years
  • This year there will be a record number of people studying at University as participation continues to widen
  • 40% of students receive a full grant to support them during their time at University

University places: State vs Private

It is only a few days until this year’s A Level Results are published.  This  year marks are expected to go up – for the 27th year running.  A Level results are of course influential in securing a University Place.  Top grades at A Level are oneof the ways a student can secure a place at one of the elite Universities, such as Oxford and Cambridge.   However a student’s chances of getting the top grades at A Level and securing a place at one of the most elite Universities is heavily influenced by the type of school that student goes to. 

In 2008 7.7% of pupils in comprehensive schools achieved 3 A grades at A Level compared with 31% of pupils from private schools. 

This amounts to educational inequality.

The implications of the inequality is discussed in this article from Polly Curtis and Tracy McVeigh in this Sunday’s Observer.  They  tells the story of two A Level students who are hoping to secure places at Oxford; one from an elite private school and the other from a Comprehensive.