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Primary Education News
News Educating Yorkshire: reality TV goes back to school
Teachers and pupils at Thornhill Community Academy in Dewsbury reveal how they got used to life in front of the camera
It's a few lessons before lunch in Mr Burton's English class and Matthew Pickles has put his hand up. "Hold that thought!" cries Burton, darting over to the laptop he has hooked up to an interactive whiteboard. Seconds later, the trumpet fanfare of the theme tune from Rocky is ringing out across the classroom, causing the year 10s to collapse in fits of giggles. "All hail King Pickles!" says Burton, as the young lad makes what is evidently a rare public pronouncement.
"When the weather's proper bad, you don't want to go outside," offers Pickles, in an attempt to explain why his generation prefer to be indoors on their computers (he'd been asked to imagine life without the web: an unfathomable scenario for a boy born in 1997).
It is clear the teenagers – including Pickles – love Matthew Burton, one of the school's assistant heads, who, with his skinny-fitting suit, brown brogues, shaggy hair and loose floral tie, looks more like the singer in an indie group than an English teacher. His classroom feels like a teenage bedroom, with a "No diving" sign by the window and various jokey posters on the packed walls, including a laminated teabag (an in-joke with a previous class) and a shrine to a former head girl who bagged 11 A*s.
It turns out Burton, 30, really was once in a "rubbish band" – a subject of much fascination among the pupils – but has taught at Thornhill Community Academy in Dewsbury, West Yorkshire, since he qualified as a teacher.
Soon Burton is likely to have fans further afield, when he becomes one of the stars of Educating Yorkshire, a fly-on-the-wall series about life in a northern secondary. It's the sequel to the wildly popular Educating Essex, which two years ago received plaudits from within and outside the teaching profession for its unvarnished portrayal of 21st-century schooling.
The format will be familiar to fans of 24 Hours in A&E and One Born Every Minute. Sixty-four cameras are rigged up across the school and turned on from 7am to 5pm. Backed up by a few handheld cameras and 22 radio mikes, they capture the ups and downs of academic life, from the maths teacher singing One Direction to himself as he shimmies down the corridor, to the lies told by a year 11 pupil as she successfully pins the blame on another pupil for a fight she had a hand in starting.
Why would a school want to open itself up to that kind of scrutiny? "Because we're proud of what we do," says Jonny Mitchell, the school's imposing head, who looks more like a prop forward than the accountant he once was. "We're on a journey to becoming somewhere quite special."
Not long ago Thornhill was among the 6% of worst-performing schools in England, with a 2007 Ofsted report describing it as "below average".
When Mitchell, 41, took over in 2011 he carried out a huge overhaul, paying particular attention to discipline. By 2012 it was the most improved school in Yorkshire and Humberside and in the top 6% of schools nationally. That year, 63% of all pupils attained five GCSEs grade A* to C including English and mathematics, up 7% since 2011. Only one of the 2012 leavers is classified as a "Neet" – not in education, employment or training.
Every pupil I spoke to during my visit in June held Mitchell in high regard, praised for being both fair and fun. "I love him. I think he's ace. He's the best thing that's ever happened to this school," admits one troublemaking year 10 pupil on camera after getting caught smoking.
Though "academy" conjures up images of multimillion-pound buildings with trendy "breakout zones" and cybercafes in place of the good old tuckshop, Thornhill could do with a makeover. With a huge pylon and power cables running more or less right through the school grounds, it's an unlovely jumble of 1960s prefabs and claustrophobic stairwells.
Built to hold 900 students, it enrolled about 750 last year. It's still undersubscribed – something Mitchell is determined to change. "I want bums on seats, I want kids to come here because it's their school of choice," he declares in episode one.
Those who enjoyed Educating Essex will recognise some familiar scenes. Widespread uniform violations, terrible piercings, bad language, illicit smoking, girls wearing too much makeup, scowling boys with daft haircuts and furry top lips, corridor scuffles and the big buildup to the endof-year disco (or prom, if you must).
But Mitchell says his pupils are different from their south-eastern counterparts in one key way. "Yorkshire kids are very blunt. They don't like to use 50 words if one will do, and they're not afraid of telling an adult what they think. They're stubborn too."
He adds: "Educating Essex was all part of that explosion of all things Essex – Towie and fake celebrities. There's a facade there. That's not the case with our kids."
Southern viewers may occasionally require a translator, for moments such as when one girl explains she doesn't want to take off her nail varnish because her hands will look "proper scratty" (scruffy).
The students of Thornhill have a cracking way with words. Thirteen-year-old Ryan Ward, a big-eyed scamp with his shoulders up to his ears, tells me earnestly that he only ever really gets in trouble for being late. "I'm well behaved, but my eyes don't always open at the right time," is his novel explanation for his tardiness. Small for his age but with a gruff deadpan voice and world-weary nature that ages him by a few decades, he is seen on screen innocently asking a teacher if she is going through the menopause after she complains about being too hot.
Many incidents in the programme could easily be taken out of context – something the staff at Passmores Academy in Essex found out last time around, when the Daily Mail ran an article about the first episode of Educating Essex headlined: "What sort of example is this to set our children? Teachers call pupils 'scumbags' and the head flicks V-signs at his deputy."
Mitchell, who was born in Dewsbury, says he is ready for any criticism. "I'm prepared for people to say: 'What an arse you are'," he muses. "I just hope what people see is how phenomenally hard my staff work."
About 100 schools expressed an interest in starring in the series after the production team put a call out to all schools classed as "good" or "outstanding" by Ofsted. "It was undoubtedly easier to find a school this time around," says David Brindley, producer/director of the new series. "Jonny knew what we were aiming for and he knew we weren't going to stitch him up. It's a celebratory series that aims to celebrate the best in teaching. It's not Panorama."
Still, it took six months of preparation work before filming could begin. Parents and pupils were consulted exhaustively, with production staff and psychologists carrying out 100 home visits and holding parents' evenings and special assemblies. Taking part was not compulsory. But in the end only 16 students out of the school's 747 asked not to appear in the series, with another 30-40 parents requesting that their children feature only in the background.
It was surprising how quickly the children forgot they were being filmed, says Brindley. "For a day everyone was waving at the cameras, but we were surprised how little people played up after that. I thought we would be confronted by chewing gum on cameras every day, but no."
Mitchell warned students who might have been tempted to show off that the production staff would not want them on telly. "He told them they had the best chance of getting on TV be being normal," remembers Brindley.
Mitchell says he was keen to take part in the programme not just to show off his school but also to challenge viewers' perspective of the catchment area. "There's been so much bad publicity around Dewsbury. Terrorism stuff, Shannon Matthews … I thought it was time to put Dewsbury back on the map in a positive way."
Thornhill is pretty representative of the deprived town. Forty-two per cent of students have been able to claim free meals in the past six years (the national average for state-funded secondary schools is 16%), 30% are from single-parent homes and 19% don't have English as a first language, according to deputy head Dale Barrowclough, an ex RAF man who switched to teaching after 13 years military service including a spell fighting in the Gulf war.
The school is at the top of a hill on the predominantly white housing estate of Thornhill but not far from the Asian-dominated Savile Town. "Outside the school the two communities live in parallel rather than together. There isn't a lot of integration," says Barrowclough. "So integration is something we work very hard on in school."
The school is almost half white and half Asian, with 370 Muslims and an increasing number of eastern European children. Educating Yorkshire does not pretend race relations are peachy at Thornhill. In episode one, a mixed-race boy ends up in Mitchell's office accusing another lad of racially abusing him (the boy prefers not to say it aloud, spelling out the insult as "P-I-K-I". "P-I-K-I? No, P-A-K-I?" corrects Mitchell).
Before filming began, Mitchell met Vic Goddard, head of Passmores, who gave advice on handling the attention. The two now tweet each other and speak from time to time on the phone.
Many staff at Thornhill were reluctant to take part, fearing they would be made to look stupid, recalls Barrowclough: "Speaking to Vic Goddard was a turning point, the way he spoke about the experience, how things had turned out, the relationship between the school and 2/4 [the independent production company]."
But rather than making them look daft, Educating Yorkshire is a great advert for some truly excellent and inspirational teachers. So what if a lucrative offer comes from a private school that likes what it sees? Burton insists he wouldn't even be tempted. "Why would I throw away a job that I adore, teaching kids I think the world of?" he says. Mitchell agrees: "This is the best job in the world. I can't imagine having as much fun and getting paid for it anywhere else."