Educating Greater Manchester (1)

The Educating series of fly on the wall accounts of everyday school life returned this week with Educating Greater Manchester filmed at Harrop Fold School in Salford. The series has become formulaic, with each weekly episode featuring a different aspect of school life. This week attention was focused on the ethnic diversity of the pupil population and the various responses to this diversity.  If the Educating series is a documentary, it is not investigative, and rarely involves a critical exploration the context in which events in the school occur.  Instead it appears to be more concerned with the emotive and providing entertainment.  Nevertheless, the school exists and the events do occur in such a context.

Focused on telling the story of Rani, a year 7 pupil from Syria, this week’s episode revealed the existence of racism in the school, though this word was rarely used, by the teachers.   Instead, various phrases to diffuse the potential harm the racist incidents might cause included:

You don’t mean it though, do you?

It was a joke

It was thoughtless more than malicious

Whilst there was a recognition that such incidents were unacceptable and needed tackling, the reluctance to label such incidents as ‘racist’ (see Pearce, 2014) might be seen as evidence of a tolerance for everyday racist discourses (Grigg, K. and Manderson, 2015; Miller, 2015).

Personal stories were also developed through direct to camera interviews.  At times these felt overly intrusive, such as when Marud, another pupil from Syria was asked about his father:

Do you think he’s alive?

As this episode progressed, so did Rani’s friendship with fellow Year 7 pupil, Jack.  Rani also transitioned from the SEND class where he was placed to help him develop his English language skills, to mainstream classes.  The transition was celebrated with a ‘graduation’, reflecting the effort of the individual involved. Whilst the move from this group might be positive for Rani, the existence of a celebration to mark a moving away from the SEND class is somewhat problematic.  What about those pupils for whom a move to mainstream classes may not be appropriate?

Finally, in a scene where we shouldn’t laugh, but probably did, we see Rani taking the lead in exercising their artistic tendencies on the dirt of a white van.  Rani writes ‘Fock’ and is followed by other boys drawing ever increasingly graphic phalluses.  How everyone laughed, including the head teacher.  He asks the assembled miscreants:

 What are they going to be thinking of the blue blazer?

Emphasising the importance of the group identity, he reminds us scholars of education that we need to re-read Durkheim (1973) from time to time.

Continue reading “Educating Greater Manchester (1)”

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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…

“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?

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.

An explosive start to Waterloo Road

Tonight’s explosive episode saw Rachel Mason’s life in danger, once again.  This time she rescued a pupil from a caravan, which was about to explode, thanks to the rather angry father of said pupil. 

Rachel Mason - a Super Head

Rachel had seen the father leaving with the child, happening as she did to look out of the window at the exact moment they were leaving the school, and she immediately recollected that the father was not allowed unsupervised access to his children.  So, being able to remember the domestic arrangements of her pupils, and having nothing better to do than look our of her window on the first day of term, she sped off in pursuit.  Her deputy and head of pastoral care, then managed also to abandon their teaching responsibilities and occupied her office, assisting the police with their inquires.  They looked incompetent too, unable to prevent the anxious mother from dictating police operations, while insisting her son accompany them also.  

Meanwhile back in school, there was not a lot of teaching going on, and not much learning.  This is not unusual, not because teaching and learning doesn’t go on in schools, but because popular representations of schools and teaching do not actually devote a lot of attention to teaching and learning.  Naturally.In the end it all resolved itself, that is, apart from the death of the father who had blown the caravan up.  Rachel was however, reminded by her deputy that she had a school to run and had a responsibility to all her pupils, not just one.  Will she take any notice?  Probably not.

“Hopewell’s had it”

This was the warning of the Waterloo Road pupils this week.  Indeed Helen Hopewell did get it when a group of pupils turned up on her doorstep for an impromptu party, ruining her quiet night in with a rather large glass of red wine.

The pupils had discovered Miss Hopewell’s home address through her social networking site.  As one of the pupils, Michaela White commented, “has she never heard of security?” Clearly not.  This scenario is interesting in the context of recent campaigns over Internet Safety for children.

In Waterloo Road, at least, it would appear that young people have a greater awareness of Internet Safety than do adults. Certainly, Internet Safety campaigns are focused on young people, having being identified as being particularly vulnerable to online grooming from paedophiles.  Yet in Waterloo Road it was Miss Hopewell who could clearly of benefitted from memorising the motto of the Government’s recent Internet Safety campaign: Zip It, Block It, Flag It.

Hopewell’s lack of knowledge of web privacy also highlighted the issue that a number of teachers have to face when using social networking sites such as facebook.  In a recent poll by Teachers TV, almost half of teachers were concerned that pupils might be able to access their personal information through social networking sites.  The advice is use privacy settings, or, alternatively don’t use social networking sites at all.

However a number of recent news reports indicates that maybe adults, and it this case teachers are in need of some ‘Internet Safety’ awareness training.  Consider the case earlier this year of Sonya McNally who was suspended from Humberston School in North East Lincolnshire for expressing negative comments about her class through facebook.  Then there was the case of Phil Ryan, a now retired science teacher from Liverpool who performed a ‘funky chicken’ dance as an end of term treat for his pupils, only to find it posted, by his pupils on YouTube.  Interestingly the Daily Mail’s story on this, headlined Humiliation of science teacher’s Funky Chicken dance in class highlights YouTube threat,embedded the very clip while simultaneously highlighting the “threat” of Internet technology.

The Government’s Teachernet website gives advice to teachers on cyber bullying and harassment of teachers by pupils, suggesting that they use search engines to check what information is accessible to the public.  Maybe Helen Hopewell should have taken the free advice publicly available on teachernet.

Though Waterloo Road is fiction, and is often way off an accurate representation of reality, Internet Safety is clearly not just an issue for children.