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.

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”

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Être et avoir

This week’s screening on Film and Education was Être et Avoir, the 2002 award winning ‘fly on the  wall’ documentary directed by French film maker Nicolas Philibert.

Filmed across the course of a school year Être et Avoir tells a story (whose story it tells is a matter for discussion) of a single class, all-age primary school in the village of Saint-Étienne-sur-Usson, Puy-de-Dôme in the Auvergne region of France.   We witness the quiet dedication, concern and authority of Georges Lopez, the school’s teacher of twenty years as he approaches retirement.  We watch the children learning to write, sledging, flipping pancakes, supporting each other, pushing one another over, as well as falling out and making up.  At times the intrusion into this intimate space becomes uncomfortable when the camera focuses our attention on the emotional distress experienced by some of the children. The observation style briefly deviates when Lopez, tending the school’s garden (it is also his home), turns to the camera, and in an interview style tells the story of him becoming a teacher.

Être et Avoir is a distinctly French film, not only because it is French, but because, as Powrie (2005) discusses it reflects recent French cinema’s concern with the preadolescent child as potential victims of dysfunctional families and failing state institutions. Also, it would be difficult to take the nurturing, intimate, often tactile, yet clearly asexual relationship between the male Lopez and the children in his care and place it into an English primary school.  This taps into another idea discussed by Powrie; that of the theme of retrospection and heterospection as seen in the spaces we view the children inhabiting.  For example, the film presents a rural idyll, resonating with freedom, supporting a nostalgic and romantic vision of childhood (Aitken, 2007).   The outside shots show the cycle of seasons, suggesting, simultaneously, continuity and discontinuity.  The same seasonal cycle is reflected in the life of the school, the transition of the older children is a disruption, yet a new intake introduced towards the end of the film highlights continuity.  However, we are also shown contrasting spaces where children inhabit more of an adult world.  For example, we see Julien reversing a tractor on the family farm, and later cooking for his siblings. He is, as Lopez says ‘strong as an ox’, but this does not stop him assuming responsibility of caring for young members of his family.  The freedom associated with the open space is inverted, briefly, when we see the search for Alizée, seemingly lost in a field. We are reminded that open spaces are mysterious, disorientating, and that freedom is potentially risky.

Student responses to the screening included, amongst other comments, that it was ‘boring’,  and that ‘nothing happens’ but this is an effect which this example of cinematic ethnography has tried to achieve.  However, far from accurately representing the mundane reality of this small village school, être et avoir is a construction of reality, with ten weeks worth of filming condensed and packaged into a one-hundred minute DVD.  Lopez and the children may be ‘stars’ of the film, but the film may not represent their stories.

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Nowt banned from Middlesbrough School

Last month, the headteacher of Sacred Heart Primary School in Middlesbrough issued a letter to parents requesting they correct their childrens’ ‘incorrect’ phrases with the ‘correct’, ‘standard’ English versions.  The rationale is that pupils need to be able to use ‘standard’ English in appropriate situations. There is a distinction between spoken regional dialect and written ‘standard’ English needed for literacy, however the inclusion of some phrases in the ‘incorrect’ column I suggest is problematic.

Sitha, learn thissen reet

The words and phrases featured in the ‘Incorrect’ column, far from indicating laziness, reflect a linguistically rich and diverse heritage.  Some of these words and phrases are commonly found in north-east dialects, particularly those of Yorkshire, sometimes known as tyke, itself derived of older English and North European languages. 

“The word YOU is never plural” except that you is a plural pronoun, thou is singular.  Through usage you has become singular as well as plural, therefore the use of Yous appears to follow a certain degree of logic.  Indeed, as Snell (2013) points out, yous is not specific to Teesside, “it occurs in a number of urban dialects of British English … where speakers are making a grammatical distinction (singular vs. plural) that they are currently unable to make in standard English” (119).  Perhaps, the pupils at Sacred Heart should be encouraged to use thou for the singular pronoun and you for the plural to avoid any further confusion?

The apparently incorrect word “nowt”  also has a rich history, not only in terms of etymology, but also in its usage in literature. Nowt means, approximately, nothing and is similar to the Anglo-Saxon ne wiht or naught.   This knowledge might come in handy in a reading of Bewoulf.   Perhaps, as nowt  is to be discouraged amongst Middlesbrough’s school children, Wuthering Heights will not be considered a worthwhile source of reading.  Interestingly, the antonym owt (a wiht, aught) appears not be included on the ‘Incorrect’ list.

Rather than viewing tyke as a potential disadvantage, it may be beneficial to view its rich heritage as offering some insight into and understanding of the peculiarities of ‘standard’ English.

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Widespread Coaching for Kent’s 11+

Kent is an unusual place, at least in terms of schooling.  It is one of the few Local Authority areas to retain an 11+ exam, the ‘Kent Test’ .  Recently Kent Online reported the following headline:

Bid to make 11-plus test ‘tutor-proof’ amid review by Kent headteachers

The accompanying article highlights concerns raised by Headteachers in a review of Kent’s 11+ system, that due to a “widespread coaching culture” the test is biased in favour of pupils from more wealthy families.  In response, consideration is being to ‘tutor-proofing’ the test.

This concern appears to suggest that, until the emergence of a “widespread coaching culture” there was no social class bias in 11+ results.  This would be to ignore over fifty years of sociological research on the patterns of educational opportunity and attainment (For example Halsey and Gardner, 1953; Little and Westergaard, 1964).

Similarly, the suggestion that ‘tutor-proofing’ the 11+ by including teacher assessments, or through the use of non commercial tests as a means of  rectifying this is, at best, naïve.  This view ignores the evidence gained from sociological studies which has explored the strategies that middle-class parents employ in seeking a preferred school for their child  (E.g. Ball et al, 1996, Ball, 2003).  Tinkering with the way the 11+ test is conducted is unlikely remove social class bias.  The 11+ test, in itself is not the problem, the problem is that the test is a symptom of a selective system.

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“Class war: how education must change”

Last month I visited the University of York to hear Lord Adonis give his thoughts on the future of education. It was also an opportunity for him to promote his recent book ‘Education, Education, Education: Reforming England’s Schools’.

Adonis declared his belief in the state as the supreme manifestation of society, that the state should seek to bring about change, for the better. To reform the English education system Adonis focuses on the following key areas.

  • Good governance

Comparing governance in the private sector with that of the state, Adonis expressed his belief that governance of state schools has been traditionally weak, particularly in deprived areas where the parent body is not strong.  The private sector, in contrast, Adonis believes has traditionally benefitted from good, strong governing bodies.  Can we look to the private sector for solutions while maintaining a strong state?

  • Good teachers

Unsurprisingly Adonis argued that teachers have to be the best. Increased competition is, apparently what is needed to ensure our teachers are the best. Adonis highlighted the ratios of applicant to teacher training places in Finland, South Korea and Singapore, and compared these with the much lower figures of England.  We need, he argued, greater selection for teacher training places, with far more applicants per place.  Presumably, he doesn’t mind an increase in disappointed  applicants.

Another, related idea is his call for fewer Universities offering teacher training programmes (another model borrowed from Singapore?), with only the ‘best’ Universities being allowed to provide such programmes.

  • Good curriculum

Looking at the practice in some of the more elite private schools, Adonis recommended more subject specific teaching from the age of seven.

Beyond aged sixteen Adonis argued the UK has the ‘narrowest curriculum in the Western world’, supporting the IB he looks, again to Singapore and calls for students to take a greater range of subjects over the course of their schooling. For those who are less academic, he proposed the idea of a Tech Bacc with requirements to study literacy, numeracy and work experience.

  • Good destinations

There needs to be good destinations for all, not just those that are academic. Highlighting a need for more apprenticeships, he argued that the Government should lead on providing apprenticeships.  See his blog post: Wanted – An apprentice scheme for Whitehall.

While claiming half our comprehensive schools failed, Adonis continued to refer to the need to ensure we have “all ability schools”, which,  surely means, comprehensive.

Although inequalities were mentioned on several occasions, I was not convinced that the ‘Class Wars’ in the title of his talk referred more to social class wars than it did to classroom wars. Education reform was presented as a means to social mobility and less inequality, yet previous education reforms have done little to make ours a more equal society.

There were some interesting suggestions that are hard to disagree with (raising the status of teaching for instance – though what this actually means is more complex) and some that I am not convinced of.  Whether any of his suggestions will come to fruition and, if they do, whether they will truly reform education as Adonis hope is another question.   Without tackling inequality I envisage a future generation of University of York students  listening to a speech about the failure of Adonis’ “all ability schools”.

Teachers these days, they don’t know they’re born

Michael Wilshaw, the head of Ofsted is in the news this week after a speech at Brighton College’s Education Conference in which he claimed today’s teachers do not know what stress is.

Wilshaw knows what stress is.  He measures it by his father’s experiences:

“Let me tell you about stress. Stress is what my father felt, who struggled to find a job in the Fifties and Sixties and who often had to work long hours in three different jobs and at weekends to support a growing family.

So, in emphasising his ordinary roots, Wilshaw reveals a belief in a hierarchy of stress.  A stress hierarchy is an appealing concept, particularly to those who want to trivialise the stressful experiences of others.  Stress is however, relative, and dependent on a context.  I wonder if  Wilshaw’s father’s generation were told by their elders that as they had not experienced the horrors of the Great War, they could not possibly know the meaning of stress.

Wilshaw concedes that his father does not have a monopoly on stress, as he himself has experienced it:

“Stress is what I was under when I started as a head in 1985 in the context of widespread industrial action. Teachers walking out of class at a moment’s notice, doing lunch duty on my own every day for three years because of colleagues who worked to rule…”

So Wilshaw does recognise that stress is relative.  However, his understanding of the context in which stress can occur is clearly limited.  The “context of widespread industrial action” can only be understood with reference to the context in which this “industrial action” was taking place[1].

Wilshaw claims his stress was caused because colleagues did what they were contractually obliged to do, and, unlike him, no more.  This does not fit with his claim of “[t]eachers walking out of class at a moment’s notice”.  If those teachers were not contractually obliged to cover lunch ‘duties’ any reasonably intelligent head teacher would be able to envisage the possibility of no cover.

Of course, what Wilshaw is highlighting in this anecdote is goodwill, hence his call for teachers to “roll up their sleeves and get on with improving their schools, even in the most difficult circumstances”.  Yes, the pupil premium may be plugging school budgets, buildings are not being repaired, and school transport budgets may be slashed, but this is the twenty-first century, so lets make do and mend!    Wilshaw felt able to say all this at Brighton College, this says something about his tolerance for injustice.

It is worth reading his speech in full from the Ofsted website.

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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.

KES

This week, Film and Education students have been watching KES.

Fifteen year old Billy Casper is physically and verbally abused by his older brother Jud, ignored by his mother and bullied by his peers.  Billy, determined not to follow his brother “down the pit”, seems hopelessly destined to do just that. When Billy takes a young kestrel chick from a nest he nurtures a significant, touching bond, and inhabits a world seemingly removed from his other, more brutal reality. As the story unfolds, we learn that it is not and while Billy is powerless to break free from his reality he is never broken.

Ken Loach’s retelling of Barry Hines’ A Kestrel for a Knave has become a cinematic classic.   Using pupils from local secondary modern schools (in other words those who had failed their 11+) including David Bradley as Billy, as well as other non professional actors drawn from around Barnsley, Loach attempts a gritty realism, an authentic portrayal of one working class boy’s life as he faces the transition from school to work.  The use of natural lighting emphasises the contrasting environments that Billy faces, or will face; the dark interiors of home, the pit and school versus the light, bright freedom of the outdoors.  The Barnsley dialect, which allegedly rendered Hungarian more understandable to Rank executives (Stephenson, 1973) along with a plot focusing on the mundane with its absence of dramatic events or happy endings is surely used to add a feeling of purity and sense of authenticity.

KES’ representation of secondary education in the late 1960‘s reveals its ideological opposition to a school’s role in preparing working class pupils for a life of routine manual labour through inculcating a culture of subordination, obedience and powerlessness.  In this way KES is a dramatisation of Bowles and Gintis’ (1976) correspondence theory. Yet, through its  fictional ethnography of schooling KES also illustrates the agency of pupils in response to this culture, akin to some of the observations found in Paul Willis’ Learning to Labour.

Powerless as Billy Casper and his peers are to escape this structure the film reveals the pupils awareness of it, as well as their resilience to it. The hilarious football scene in which a deluded Mr. Sugden (played by Brian Glover, then a Barnsley school teacher and part-time wrestler) plays out his Bobby Charlton fantasies, shows the pupils arguing with him about unfairness and cheating. MacDowell vociferously protests his innocence regarding the ‘offence’ of coughing in assembly while the ‘culprit’ keeps quiet.  Assembled boys, waiting for the head teacher collectively discharge their contraband to an innocent messenger, and together they laugh as the head speechifies about the “generation that never listens” before he, in turn fails to listen to the protests of the unwitting mule.

The caning scene is brutal, but it is routinised, as is all the violence in KES, making it, perhaps more acceptable to those receiving and perpetrating it.  Certainly, as one boy says  “I’d rather have the cane than do lessons”. Similarly, Gryce, the head teacher describes having no option but to use the cane, even though he is clearly aware it does not work:

“I still have to use this to you boys everyday….until someone produces a better solution I’ll continue to use this cane, knowing fully well that you’ll be back for it, time and time, and time again….”

Interestingly, the DVD describes the violence contained in the film as “infrequent/mild” suggesting to viewers that, perhaps, routinised violence is acceptable.

Then there is Billy’s awareness of his own employment prospects and his philosophy surrounding this. Following a fight on the coke heap with MacDowell, Billy’s conversation with Mr. Farthing (played by Colin Welland, at the time the only professional actor in the film) about his impending transition from school to work reveals Billy’s acceptance of his position in life, but crucially his awareness of it:

Farthing: What sort of job do you want?

Casper:  Not bothered Sir, anything’ll do me

Farthing: Yea, but you want something that you’re looking forward to, that your interested in, don’t you?

Casper: I’ve not much choice Sir, I’ll take what I’ve got

Farthing: I thought you wanted to leave school?

Casper: I’m not bothered

Farthing: I thought you didn’t like school?

Casper: I don’t, but it don’t mean I’ll like work, does it. Still, I’ll get paid for not liking it, that’s one thing

Farthing: Yea, I suppose it is

And so, Loach problematises middle-class sympathy in his attempt to privilege the voice of the working-class pupils in describing the reality of their lived experience.  Limited agency, yes, but Billy and his peers are no somnolent sufferers of false class consciousness.

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School of Rock

The first film under the spotlight on this term’s Film and Education is School of Rock (2003) directed by Richard Linklater.

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Through the liminal zone of the classroom at Horace Green Preparatory School Dewey Finn, in a desperate attempt to pay his share of the rent, impersonates a substitute teacher. Rejecting the expected curriculum and pedagogy he sets out to transform his class into a winning rock band, and while his deceit is exposed, Dewey is redeemed and his teaching style is vindicated as the class secure their place in the Battle of the Bands.

School of Rock adopts a formulaic narrative which sees the equilibrium broken for all characters, and ends with the establishment of a new, and more fulfilling one.  The representations of schooling, teachers, teaching and learning reflect ongoing debates around the purpose and nature of education.  Dewey literally rips up the system of rewards and demerits, grants recess and abandons the syllabus.  While initially this reflects his antipathy towards his feigned role (having described teaching as babysitting), on recognising musical talent in his pupils, this is soon channelled into a child centred pedagogy.  We see the children engaging enthusiastically on a rock band project, collaborating with Dewey to conceal the reality of their new school experience from the stern Principal Mullins.  Yet, while the narrative predictably sets teacher centred learning against child centred learning, Dewey, the child centred protagonist is not averse to drawing on authoritarian approaches himself, while the pupils have to pledge allegiance to the band, they also have to pledge their allegiance to his creativity.

The pretence cannot last of course, and Dewey’s true identity is revealed after he fails to convince assembled parents that he has taught the required syllabus, or that rock is a suitable subject for study.  We learn early on in the film that education is a market place; parents spend $15, 000 a year for a place at Horace Green Prep. They expect results and not the anti-establishment, creative expressions of a rock band.  Just as it seems that the forces of progressivism have been quashed, the pupils organise themselves to rescue Dewey from returning to his former self,  defying authority to play at the Battle of the Bands.  They don’t win of course, at least not the battle itself.  After all, they have abandoned grades, but they have won something much more significant as a new equilibrium is established with Principal Mullins and parents convinced of a more liberal education, at least in the discreet context of Dewey’s after school rock project.

Speed (2010: 101) highlights the “anti-intellectualism” inherent in this film, seen firstly in Dewey Finn’s rejection of the school system, the knowledge taught and teaching styles.  Secondly, we see this “anti-intellectualism” endorsed through the popularity of Dewey and the apparent success of his approach to teaching.

Fun to watch, School of Rock explores the tensions between competing educational ideologies and resolves them, safely.

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