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”

New term at Waterloo Road

The 7th series of Waterloo Road enables renewed opportunity to examine a popular construction of comprehensive schools. Waterloo Road is a stereotypical comprehensive; it is urban, it is working class, it is struggling to improve standards, pupil behaviour is unlikely to be graded outstanding, and a number of the teachers are portrayed as incompetent. Thus, it should be seen as undesirable, a place unsuited for educating the future generation. Yet, it is estimated that 4.91 million people tuned in to watch the first episode in the new series last Wednesday night [1]. There is clearly something attractive in the undesirable comprehensive school.

A pupil we had never seen before, Ali Redback,  left her newborn baby in the changing room.  Her decision to leave him in this location meant that someone was likely to find him, sooner, rather than later.  The baby’s chances of survival were also much greater having been left in a findable location[2].   As it turned out, the finder was the new site manager, Rob Scotcher.

In a departure with convention, the staff at Waterloo Road did appear to contact the emergency services, but it was the police, not a team of paramedics that arrived to take charge of the baby. When a pupil asked why the police were at the school, Eleanor Chaudry, the new English teacher offered the rationale that “a serious crime had been committed”.  She is, technically, correct (child abandonment is a criminal offence, however, in appeals at least, police tend to focus on the welfare of the mother rather than a potential prosecution[2]).

Thus, Eleanor Chaudry is constructed as a  character unsympathetic to the lives of the pupils she teaches.   We also know this because Tom Clarkson described his new colleague as “Maggie Bloody Thatcher” in reference to her right-wing political activities.  It is possible that this character was created with more than a passing reference to Katharine Birbalsingh, the author of To Miss with Love. Birbalsingh was enthusiastically received by the Conservative Party conference in 2010 because she ‘exposed’ the apparently failing comprehensive system. Katharine Birbalsingh is an experienced teacher, a former deputy head, and, whether you agree or disagree with her understanding and analyses of her teaching experiences she does appear to have genuine empathy with her (now former) pupils. Eleanor Choudry, judging by the comments she made in this first episode, does not.

Meanwhile, Head teacher, Karen Fisher, identified AIi as the mother of the newborn, and Kyle Stack came forward, believing himself to be the father.  Christopher Mead, who has not always demonstrated the highest standards in sexual politics, gave advice to Kyle on his sexual responsibilities. It is safe to assume that Mead is unlikely to be a fan of Nadine Dorries’ proposals identified in Sex Education (Required Content) Bill 2010-11.

Such curriculum content as recommended by Dorries would  have been inappropriately out of touch with the pupil’s reality in this case. It transpired that Kyle was not the father.  The biological parent, was, after all,  Ali’s stepfather, Callum.  Upon this revelation, Chris, committed an act which might have earned him respect among some.  He punched the paedophile stepfather square in the face, sending him to the ground.  Mead’s justification for this act was that people like Callum are monsters.  If only they were Chris, it would make them much easier to spot.

As ever, not much teaching went on.

Continue reading “New term at Waterloo Road”

A look back at Education 2010 – Part 1

The title of this post is not exciting, but hopefully it explains what follows.

It is almost the end of the year, and a time to review all things educational, while ‘looking forward’ to changes in educational policy and provision that will start to unravel over the next few months. I’ll start with Waterloo Road. Like it or not, it is a popular representation of contemporary schooling, granted it is not accurate, but it does represent a reality, and as such, we can predict that Waterloo Road, will have to start responding to the Schools White Paper very soon.

In Waterloo Road, the televisual representation of Britain’s comprehensive schools, Karen Fisher took over as the new Head.

Her deputy, Christopher Mead wakes up at the start of the first episode, the morning after having sexual intercourse with one of his pupils, Jess Fisher.  A criminal record and ruined career awaited, and, while the narrative invited us to be sympathetic towards him, maybe we should question his judgement.  He obviously had not learned his lesson from the previous series about inappropriate relationships with pupils (remember Vicki MacDonald).  Granted, when he embarked on this particular relationship (relationship as in a one night encounter) he didn’t know she was a pupil, but she was clearly of an age that she could be one of his pupils.  He might have avoided the stress if he had got to know his new girlfriend a little better before sleeping with her.  With a big question mark over his sexual politics, Christopher Mead’s career was on the line when the truth was finally revealed to the Head, and mother of  Jess Fisher,  the sixth former in question, but, as a good teacher he remains in post, his contribution as a positive male role model assured for the next series.

The troubled family life of the new Head began to unravel from the very first episode.  In the second episode we witnessed her son Harry experiencing eating distress.  Eventually this was revealed to his family, via the taunts of a fellow pupil, Finn Sharkey.  His mother could have directed him to BEAT’s  Rough Guide for Young Men though, as there was no reference to the eating disorder charity, it was unlikely she did so, and, predictably, by the end of the series he appeared to free from bulimia.

Waterloo Road returns in the Spring, just in time for it to be feeling the pinch of efficiency savings and educational reform.  It will have a much reduced curriculum, concentrating on the essential academic subjects with pupils recalling the essential dates in history, well from a British perspective at least.   The teachers will have greater powers to discipline pupils.  In any case discipline will improve at Waterloo Road, following a crackdown on the flexible interpretation of its uniform.  By the next series, pupils will be dressed in regulation blazers and ties,  and the school will be freed from Local Education Authority control.  Standards will rise, pupils on free school meals will be accepted for Oxbridge, and the future of Waterloo Road, as the preferred school of choice amongst Rochdale’s most aspirational parents will be assured.   It will be a triumph of a neo-liberal education ideology.

Safer Internet Day

Today, throughout Europe, it is Internet Safety Day.

This annual event aims to promote the safer and more responsible use of Internet technologies.  Concerns over the safety of young people using the Internet has followed a number of cases where the Internet, including social networking sites have been used by abusers to ‘groom’ children and young people.   Safety campaigns have sought to find ways of protecting children and young people from adults who would do them harm.   However, as this year’s theme ‘Think Before you Post’ suggests, it is equally as important to equip young children with skills to protect themselves while using the Internet.  This also suggests that individual responsibility for your personal information is being promoted.

Safer Internet Day

Click Clever, Click Safe

Zip It, Block It, Flag It could become the Green Cross Code of the Internet following the launch this week of the UK Child Internet Safety Strategy.

Alongside the launch of a new digital code for young people’s use of the Internet: Zip It, Block It, Flag It was the announcement that Internet Safety is to become part of the national curriculum for Primary school children (it is already part of the curriculum for Secondary schools) from September 2011.

This is in recognition that the Internet is an important part of young people’s lives inside and outside of education.  In education ICT has held a central place since the launch of the National Grid for Learning in 1998 with this recently reinforced by the Rose Review of the Primary school curriculum which further highlighted the importance of the educational uses of ICT to primary school children.

Outside of education most children have some level of access to ICT in the home and children are going ‘online’ at a younger age.  Both parents and children report safety concerns with using the Internet and recent research by the DCSF found that just over half of those children who experienced harmful or inappropriate content took some action. 

Fears about Internet Safety are frequently voiced in the media in relation to the use of the Internet in the grooming and sexual abuse of children.  The Strategy therefore also details plans to update the ‘cyber skills’ of those working with children and provide guidance to Internet providers on how to ensure that children do not access inappropriate content. The Zip It, Block It, Flag It motto is designed as a reminder to young people to keep themselves safe online, while the CEOP reporting button, through which people can report  any ‘abuse’ or inappropriate content they encounter online  is to be further developed.

Teacher Sex Offenders: blurring of boundaries?

Christopher Mead, in last week’s episode of  Waterloo Road was definitely not a sex offender, despite one pupil’s threats to brand him as such in a blackmail attempt and despite another’s misinterpretation of his behaviour arising from her own damaging formative experiences.  Over the last few weeks, away from TV comprehensive school dramas there have been a number of news reports of court cases involving teachers convicted for grooming and or sexual activity with children. The teachers in these reports are no Christopher Meads, who, unwittingly attract false allegations as they naively set off to rescue pupils from sleazy back street lap dancing clubs.  In courts of law they have been demonstrated to be  sexual abusers from whom children need protecting.

Back in September there was the case of Matthew Knott, who not unlike Waterloo Road’s Christopher Mead was a Science Teacher from Greater Manchester.  He was jailed for grooming a 13 year old girl for sex (not one of his pupils).  He did this by setting up a false identity, ‘Jessica’ in order to chat with his victim online and persuade her to meet him.  Using his own identity he arranged to meet the girl, and picked her up in his car, drove her to his flat and ‘told her’ to have sex with him.

Move forward to November and there is the case of Kenneth Anbany who taught in a school in Exeter.  After his arrest he claimed he was “bit over familiar at times”.  This would appear to be a gross understatement, as this ‘over familiarity’ involved driving one of his 15 year old pupils to a wood and asking her to have sex with him.  During the investigation other pupils described how Anbany would behave in a sexual way towards them.  He admitted charges of sexual activity and causing or inciting a child to have sex.

At the end of November newspapers reported on the case of a female offender, Madeleine Martin from Cheshire, who was sentenced to prison for 32 months. The Internet is involved in this case too, as she and her 15 victim, a boy at her school began communicating via facebook before the relationship became sexual.  She was, as the Judge said at a “low ebb”, however the boundaries of acceptable behaviour became completely ‘blurred’ as she paid for him to get a tattoo, and had sex with the boy.  Both are, of course, illegal.

Earlier this month the case of John Cope was reported in national newspapers.  An IT supply teacher at a private school in Brighton, he communicated, using a mobile phone with his female pupil, sending her sexually explicit texts.  In his defence he claimed he was trying to help his pupil through a difficult time, though one wonders how he thought sending texts about flavoured condoms and oral sex was going to achieve this.  He was found guilty of sexual grooming.

This select sample should not be used to suggest that in every school there lies a sexually predatory teacher intent on grooming his or her pupils.  The media, to varying degrees sets the agenda as to what news we get to read about.  The behaviours described in these news reports are clearly cases where the boundaries were not just blurred but completely transgressed by teachers who were in positions of authority, and in most cases had a duty of care over the young people they taught.  They behaved in ways which they must have known were inappropriate and illegal. 

Mead’s efforts to engage students by giving tutorials, in contrast, appears to be a manifestation of ‘personalised learning’ which is highly valued in contemporary educational policy discourses.  Of course he needs to ensure this personalised learning is properly sanctioned and overseen by the school.

As for his attempts to rescue Vicki MacDonald from a Lap Dancing Club; surely that appears to be positively heroic?

Waterloo Road – Web hacking and amateur sleuthes

Episode 6 of this series of Waterloo Road highlighted once again some of the issues that are associated with schools.

Until now there had been no suggestion that Christopher Mead, the new deputy head was a sex symbol.  However almost right from the start pupils were videoing him as he bent down to pick up a conveniently dropped folder and before long the clip was pasted onto the School website under the ‘Meet the Teacher’ pages.  This didn’t say a great deal for the Internet security policy of the school, and the Head teacher when informed didn’t exactly react swiftly, preferring to admonish the teacher in question and not mentioning the pupils responsible.    Perhaps Waterloo Road might like to consult BECTA for advice on securing the school’s Internet connection, it could consider revising its Internet access policy, presuming it has one, of course.

In defense of the Rachel Mason, the Head Teacher, she was rather busy playing at being amateur detective in the case of Lindsay James’ the pupil whose mother has killed her father in mysterious circumstances.  Rachel Mason invited Mrs James’ solicitor into school and then tried to extract from Lindsay information that might help her mother.    Eventually, after spending the day accusing Mr Mead of being a paedophile  Lindsay disclosed to an unsuspecting Rachel Mason that her father had been sexually abusing her.   Immediately after hearing this distressing information, Rachel Mason went off to the pub with deputy, Christopher Mead, who is no longer accused of being a child sex offender.  Maybe she had forgotten to call the local  Child Protection Unit, pondering that she would have to call the ‘designated officer’ the next day, if she knew who that was, of course. 

Still, what this episode did highlight was the issues that schools have to deal with,  a sentiment shared, in this episode by Christopher Mead after discovering why Vicki MacDonald was really trying to accuse him of sexual harassment.  Max Tyler, the new Executive Head, of course felt that pupils came to school to leave all their problems behind.

Of course schools don’t exist in a vacuum, as has been highlighted in Waterloo Road countless times.  It is strange however that in one episode that many of the difficult home backgrounds of pupils can be resolved.