Saturday, October 08, 2011

Only one thing lacking in Educating Essex – education!


Television has a nasty habit of showing state education as dysfunctional. If you have any doubt about Channel 4s intentions check out the sleazy publicity above. Suggests it's more about Essex Schoolgirls (nudge, nudge) than education. They view schools through a pathological lens, with an unnatural focus on problem kids. Channel 4 are obsessed with this approach. Educating Essex, like C4s ridiculous Jamie’s Dream School before it and again C4s The Unteachables before that, are a disgrace. This has become a TV genre all of its own promoted by the Tristams; TV types, who, in my experience, largely went to private schools, where problem kids are filtered out of the system.
The makers of this programme certainly lack the objectivity and professionalism of real documentary makers, as they simply select ‘discipline’ themes from hundreds and hundreds of hours of tape. It’s yet another example of a London-based, editorial class pushing their personal agendas. It’s the same with Channel 4 Learning, who burn millions year on year on dubious games to tackle social problems. It’s a patronising view of state education by a bunch of posh kids in Horseferry Rd.
The programme started well but I didn’t expect EVERY episode to descend into yet another ‘chav-porn’ series of portraits of individual children causing havoc in front of the cameras. It’s exactly what Owen Jones wrote about in Chavs, about the demonization of the state system. There’s precious little coverage of any of the hundreds of other ordinary children getting on with their education, only insanely detailed coverage of Sam, Vinnie and whatever lad they’ll choose next week as it makes for ‘good TV’. Have they no shame?
Where’s the teaching and learning?
In one of the few glimpses (that’s all we get) of actual teaching, we see a teacher make the classic mistake of introducing PI without any adequate reason or explanation. The charming young Carrie’s reaction was pained but rational, “What is PI? Where did it come from?.....” Cue the difficulty of teaching maths. This could have gone somewhere, but it was only used as an amusing clip. In fact, look carefully and it shows a typical maths teacher with his back to the audience simply reading out a Word document from the and e screen, and has failed to break the solution down into steps comprehensible by the class.
I’d like to know if this absence of teachers and learning was the result of editorial bias or at the request of the teachers and/or the teachers’ unions. As a governor in a comprehensive school I and other Governors faced extreme resistance when we tried to report honest observations from our scheduled classroom visits. We were eventually told that classroom visits were banned! If this is true, it would be a shame, as I’m sure many of the teachers in the school are good, inspiring and professional. The problem the programme makers may be up against is the hagiographic idea, sometimes promoted by the teaching profession, of all teachers being brilliant and inspiring, when many, like any other profession, are just average. I would much rather have seen the truth, than this wildly distorted, corridor-only, punishment room view of the school.
Administrators galore?
The one thing you do notice is the relatively large numbers of support staff on camera. This is exaggerated by the angle taken by the editors (problem kids), nevertheless, from the Head of Inclusion to the pair who sit in the support unit, the sympathetic Miss Baldwin and Mr Tracey, as well as Mr Drew and a team who are always in and around his office, it seems that teachers and teaching have been curiously erased from the programme. We saw a lot of Miss Conway, head of house and PE teacher in the last episode, but we’ve yet to see any sport or teaching of PE.
Obsession with  uniforms?
I really like the Headmaster, Deputy Heads (the legendary Mr Drew and Mr King) but shouldn’t they be doing more teaching? An unbelievable amount of time is spent policing school uniforms. Is this really what matters in schools? High school students in Finland don’t wear a uniform and it is one of the highest performing systems in the world. Imagine if all that time, effort and money went on education, as opposed to enforcing uncomfortable and impractical ties and blazers.
They get through the exhausting and difficult days with a healthy mix of banter and humour. No shots of the staff room though. I wonder why! Could it be that these were edited out? Surely we can take some reality here. These are real people with a real sensitivity towards the children. Those we see do really care, we just don’t see enough of them teaching or kids learning. We’re four episodes in and I have no idea what’s taught or how it’s taught – hopefully the next few episodes will enlighten me.

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8 Comments:

Blogger JanKauf said...

I have 4 children ranging in age from 27 - 13 and in all their years of school education in different parts of the country, they have had less than half a dozen excellent and inspiring teachers. That is the true disgrace of our education system. One of the best classroom teachers i have ever known is now a headteacher - because there isn't an effective promotion route for those who want to continue teaching rather than enter management. I would much rather the concept of headteacher mean exactly that - giving new entrants something to aspire to and leave the management of the school to those who are happy to have minimal classroom contact, but hey that doesn't make for tv ratings.

1:25 PM  
Blogger Steve Smith said...

I wouldn't bank on it, Donald. I haven't seen the programme to comment on it, but there has long been a dearth of film and TV about actual teaching. On the other hand, the French have produced the excellent fly-on-the-wall film Etre et Avoir and the brillianty made Entre les Murs (aka La Classe), which looks like a documentary, but isn't. Both of these films reveal a lot about education.

4:10 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Absolutely agree Don and my son has just joined the school! #somewhatanxiousparent Ruth Alabi.

12:23 AM  
Blogger Kim Thomas said...

I imagine the reason they don't show much of what goes on in lessons is that it makes for boring television. Children misbehaving and making up stories about members of staff and bullying other kids is more exciting and, perhaps more importantly, has a narrative, which seems to be an essential part of this kind of programme. (Jamie's Dream School had a lot of narrative, though no doubt some of it was introduced by selective editing.)

12:49 PM  
Blogger Kim Thomas said...

I imagine the reason they don't show much of what goes on in lessons is that it makes for boring television. Children misbehaving and making up stories about members of staff and bullying other kids is more exciting and, perhaps more importantly, has a narrative, which seems to be an essential part of this kind of programme. (Jamie's Dream School had a lot of narrative, though no doubt some of it was introduced by selective editing.)

12:50 PM  
Blogger Donald Clark said...

Steve - seen both of these - indeed reviewed one on this blog. In this country TV seems determined to demonise state schools. I really do think this is a feature of a lazy public-school educated. London based editorial class. It's only when you get inside the classrooms that the truth (good and/or bad) can be revealed. Hanging about in the corridors is nonsense.

Jan - I think the oft quoted narrative of 'inspiring' teachers is over-played. Most teachers are reasonably good, some great, some awful. We don't apply this narrative to other professions, as it sounds a little desperate.

2:11 PM  
Anonymous Tim said...

"...we see a teacher make the classic mistake of introducing PI without any adequate reason or explanation."

If the teacher really is introducing pi at Year 11, then it is perhaps no wonder some people think the education system is in a bit of a poor state - I'm sure I was taught about pi way before I got to 16, and by then its relation of circumference to diameter of a circle (as being used in the clip), would have been second nature.

As for the 'balance' of the program, I think it was Mr. Drew himself who, in the latest episode, said something like '2% of the pupils take up 70 or 80% of our time', so perhaps the makers are just calling it as they see it?

Personally I think it shows the school and staff in an incredibly good light - their endless patience is bordering on the saint-like, and everything seems to be treated in an honest and open way. That the odd swear-word is uttered by them (in private, I note) shows they are as human as the rest of us during times of great stress.

10:33 PM  
Blogger Donald Clark said...

The 70-80% of 'our' time is the time taken by Drew and his staff, not the teacher body as a whole. In fact, as he said ninety nine percent of the kids just get on with it.

The 'pi' issue was interesting. I suspect that these two pieces were edited and not actually sequential. However, this is exactly why we need more observation of teaching and learning.

Yo be honest, I'm not that interested in the handful of problem boys. I'm more interested in the system as a whole.

10:15 AM  

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