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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A school nurse in every school?

Waterloo Road, the fictional Rochdale Comprehensive school appears to have a resident school nurse.  This is just as well, as Waterloo Road has its fair share of medical emergencies, to which the nurse is often summoned.  The nurse has not merely been referred to, but has, occasionally made a cameo appearance.

In last week’s episode, new boy Freddie Jackson collapsed whilst playing football. Superhead Michael Byrne intervened at the crucial moment by instructing Phoenix Taylor  to “go and get the nurse”, as opposed to calling the emergency services.  Thankfully, Freddie survived and went on to protest to his mother that he was fine, supported by Michael Byrne who assured that “the nurse has checked him over thoroughly”.  Perhaps the Waterloo Road nurse is a cardiac specialist, and the medical equipment of the Waterloo Road sick-bay are the envy of schools across the land.

Waterloo Road is, however, a representation of reality, rather than reality.  The latest NHS workforce figures indicate that there were 1158 full-time equivalent school nurses in England as of July this year[1].  There are also around 23, 400 state primary, secondary, nursery schools, and pupil referral units [2].  In short, schools are unlikely to have a resident nurse.  Waterloo Road is exceptional in this regard.

The importance of school nursing was highlighted in the 2004 Department of Health’s Choosing Health: Making healthy choices easier[3].  About the school nursing service it stated:

“…we will modernise and promote school nursing services, expanding the number of qualified staff working with primary and secondary schools so that, by 2010, every cluster of schools will have access to a team led by a qualified school nurse.” (p.8)

This is far from one nurse for every school, rather, it is access to one, who may not  be full-time.

The roles of school nurses are varied too.  Nitty Nora is an outdated stereotype as school nurses administer HPV vaccines, deliver advice on sexual health, monitor height and weight, provide advice on health related issues for young people, as well as contribute to child protection conferences. This is quite different from the image portrayed in Waterloo Road.  While a trained first aider will be on hand in the case of accidents on the playing field, this is not a routine part of the school nurse.

Continue reading “A school nurse in every school?”

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?

The Pupils are Revolting

The climax to the recent run of Waterloo Road saw pupils, and teachers, armed with banners, occupying the school roof-top in protest against, (nay resistance against), the suspension of Head, Karen Fisher, and the seemingly inevitable closure  of the BBC’s very own Comprehensive school[1].

Waterloo Road’s Roof-top Protest

This demonstration was the denouement to several weeks of bullying, intimidation, and  subterfuge between Karen Fisher, Richard Whitman from the LA (Local Authority – notice how the LEA has disappeared from usage)  and the politically active, yet politically naive English teacher, Eleanor Chaudry.

The extent to which Waterloo Road reflects the reality of contemporary comprehensive schools has been discussed here on this site.  While the solidarity against the might of bureaucracy demonstrated in this final episode might not be common place, it is worth acknowledging the long history of pupil resistance which does suggest that this storyline is  not as far-fetched as it might first appear.

From the school strikes of 1889 and 1911, to the Burston strike beginning in 1914, pupil protests have often been dismissed as meaningless insubordination, or, in the case of a nationwide wave of pupil strikes  “immitative” (Baker, 2010: p. 34)[2].   In other words, lacking a genuine reason for complaint, the pupils went on strike for the fun of it, and others copied.  Such a response was a useful way of avoiding engaging with the legitimate grievances of pupils.  These included corporal punishment  (or more accurately violence), crowded classrooms, poor quality teaching, crumbling buildings, and the under-payment of monitors.

The children taking part in these protests were never in a strong position, just like striking workers, who strike because, ultimately, the only power that they do have is to withhold their labour.  Striking children didn’t even have this.  Similarly, the pupils of Waterloo Road are pretty powerless too, but, in a departure from reality, we will see the pupils and teachers (including the incompetent Grantly Budgen)  triumph over the nasty bureaucratic intentions of Richard Whitman and his fellow acolytes of performativity and standardisation.   If it were our local comprehensive school, we would want it to close, we would not send our children there, yet Waterloo Road will survive, at least until the end of the series.

Continue reading “The Pupils are Revolting”

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.

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.

Stressed out teachers, fact and fiction

Recently, in an episode of Waterloo Road, Grantly Budgen feigned depression in order to avoid escorting a group of sixth formers on a trip to London.

The cheerful Grantly

It is a wonder that Kim, Waterloo Road’s Head of Pastoral Care hadn’t previously suspected that Grantly may be depressed.  After all, as she read out a list of  symptoms of depression, Grantly responded: “they’re symptoms of being a teacher“.  Grantly is hardly renowned for his cheerfulness, but suddenly Kim decided that he was, in fact, depressed.  So convinced was she of this, that she shared this with Jo Lipsett, despite earlier assurances of confidentiality.  Does not the LEA have a counselling service for its staff?

Grantlty may have found a friend in the Daily Mail,  if their recent coverage of the trial of Peter Harvey, the science teacher recently acquitted of attempted murder is anything to go by.  Usually, in the Daily Mail you can find evidence of a ‘discourse of derision’ of teachers[1].  However, recently they have become the teacher’s friend.  Take for example this article, it describes “lawless classrooms”  and the chaos and the insubordination, which, apparently are the characteristics of an “average classroom of an average comprehensive” .  The article then features a photograph of the author of the article, Frances Childs, who, it adds, is considering sending her children to a private school.  The popular construction of the comprehensive school as a dangerous place (as well as working class) is found right here in the Daily Mail,  even though reality is somewhat different. 

Amanda Platell, also in the Daily Mail, implicitly holds the Labour Government responsible,  blaming the parents of disruptive pupils,  in particular, single mothers, for driving stressed out teachers to commit acts of violence.  These parents, were, presumably raised and educated under a Conservative Government, though Platell, naturally, misses out this connection when she claims that only the Conservatives can remedy this “wretched state of affairs”.

The behaviour of pupils is a concern for  teachers.  Robert Klasen and Colin Anderson in their 2007 research on teachers’ job satisfaction found that teachers were much more concerned about pupil behaviour and attitude than in the 1960’s[2].  Patrick Barmby also found that pupil behaviour was cited by some teachers as contributing to their decision to leave teaching[3].  Other factors contribute to teacher dissatisfaction and stress, for example the changing nature of teacher’s work. 

The Teacher Support Network reports that stress is a major cause of concern for teachers.  Its figures reveal that 9% of calls to its Support Line were in regard to health and well-being issues.  This does not however mean that the 9% of calls came from teachers who were stressed.  The network also carried out a wellbeing survey in which 87% of teachers reported experiencing stress over the last two years.  However, very few of these teachers will become stressed to the point of attacking a pupil, in the way that Peter Harvey did.  The Daily Mail likes to over dramatise.

To lay the blame with the recently departed Labour Government, is also, to oversimplify the issue.  As Troman, in his article on teacher stress states:  “stress is a pervasive feature of contemporary life” (1990: 331)[4] associated with social changes in later modernity.  Surveillance and a low trust of teachers contributes to low motivation.  The surveillance of teachers and holding them accountable is hardly going to go away with a change in government.  Bad behaviour among pupils isn’t actually the typical behaviour found in the average classroom in the average comprehensive school as the Daily  Mail would have us believe.  The Steer Report[5] concluded that  behaviour amongst the majority of pupils was good, and had actually  improved in recent years.   We will see how the Conservatives remedy this not so wretched state of affairs.

Continue reading “Stressed out teachers, fact and fiction”

Down on the School Farm

A couple of weeks ago, Education and Society discussed the eventful farm trip featured on the  BBC school drama series, Waterloo Road. Pigs were prominent characters in that episode.

This week, the Guardian featured a more successful approach to incorporating pigs into the curriculum.  Oathall Community College in West Sussex has its own farm.  Here, pigs (and other animals) are reared for slaughter, their meat is sold, and pupils learn about the food cycle. Presumably, pupils at Oathall don’t have the sentimentality towards piglets that Sambuca Kelly, in Waterloo Road displayed. 

The farm at Oathall started in 1940, as part of the Dig for Victory campaign during World War II.  Today, the focus of the school’s farm appears to be more on raising livestock and producing meat, than digging and growing.  However, with the farm the school is able to offer courses in agriculture, as well as using the farm to support the whole curriculum.  The pupils at the school carry out work on the farm, not just on school days but at week-ends and in the holidays. 

Perhaps Waterloo Road pupils could visit.