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.

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“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?