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Primary Education News
News Secret Teacher: TV shows about schools keep missing the mark
From the over-sexed PE teacher to the chain-smoking, alcoholic head, where have all these far-fetched dramatisations of life in school come from?
Register taken, all present and correct: the overwrought gay drama teacher; the over-sexed, in-your-face, under-intellectually-resourced PE teacher; the confused elder statesmen of science; the naive French teacher with hearts-and-minds-delusions; and the chain-smoking alcoholic headteacher. I haven't yet spotted the workshy union rep but I can confidently predict he or she (on current form, probably the former) will stagger into shot at some point, post-pub, clutching his NUT rulebook and the Racing Post. Welcome to Big School, the BBC's latest addition to the secondary-school-as-warehouse-for-lifelong-adult-failures comedy canon.
It's hardly a lone entrant in the field. We already have a second series of Bad Education in the offing, a vehicle for self-professed "rubbish teacher" Mr Wickers (Jack Whitehall), the top of whose whiteboard features the legend "Follow me on Twitter". But if Mr Wickers is indeed rubbish, he's not quite as landfill as this dog-eared, careless, half-hearted travesty of a sitcom. The stereotyping revolves around the students – strangely absent or ciphers in Big School. We have the gay kid, the slapper and the wise-beyond-her-years Chinese student etc. If TV had Ofsted, Bad Education – a stodgy update of the 70s staple Please Sir! – would have had special measures stamped all over it.
"A bit tired, perhaps," noted the Telegraph, of Big School. So very true. And memories of Mind Your Language will resurface with uncomfortable regularity for viewers of a certain vintage. But then the thrust of the show is not so much to mine those stock characters; it's more akin to fracking.
Pure vaudeville at times, the antics of music teacher Mr Martin (Daniel Rigby) are wonderfully observed with his no-sell-out advocacy of the Stereophonics and Ocean Colour Scene – both critical coconut shies in the real world of cool. And that's one of the comedy touchstones common to these series – no one at school is cool, ever. Not even the stroppiest, indelibly inked sixth-former replete with Ramones T-shirt and a packet of Bensons protruding from her jeans. And certainly not, ever, under any circumstances, a teacher.
Waterloo Road is the hardy perennial here – immensely popular with my own pupils regardless of the fact that it bears as much resemblance to a real school as The Flintstones does to Stone Age society. Unless of course your school has ex-porn stars on the senior leadership team, spies from opposing institutions defacing poster boards and a matinee idol headteacher who can be found diving into lakes to save paralysed students from drowning.
The fast-cut direction and amphetamine plots mean story threads are bullied into being little more than soulless vehicles for constant melodrama, far-fetched to the point of disappearing over the horizon. Staff having students live with them on an ad hoc basis? Running off with pupils to get married in Gretna Green? Kids with access to high-grade explosives? Teachers disappearing off-site to sort out the welfare of a vulnerable student without a moment's thought to their scheduled classes? Happens all the time round our way.
In our brave new multi-channel world there is more of schools as a backdrop to drama than ever before. Grange Hill was our staple for many years. Although the storylines wouldn't crack toffee these days, that did actually push boundaries, landing Philip Redmond in hot water routinely with BBC bosses.
Channel 4's Teachers at the turn of the millennium (from whence Waterloo Road seems to have inherited its turgid indie soundtrack), featured teachers involved in gratuitous student-baiting and sex so casual seemingly neither party noticed it. The opening episode had mullered staff members smuggling a sheep into school after dark. That's more like it.
The Demon Headmaster adaptation was good too; a megalomaniac principal with the powers of hypnotherapy determined to take over the world? More realistic than your average Waterloo Road episode, anyway.
So what does this avalanche of contemporary programming tell us about real schools? Precisely nothing.
For a real glimpse of what our schools are like, the excellent Educating ... documentary series is returning. Doubtless much to the chagrin of Daily Mail scribes, it's now set in Yorkshire – let's hope northern PE teachers are able to recover their standing post-Kes. We liked the first series of Educating Essex so much we couldn't resist the temptation to use it as a course component in English lessons. This had an enduring legacy of students complaining that in their school, pupils don't behave nearly as badly as that. Oh yes you do.
From September – start of term, folks, genius scheduling alert – we have all four series running concurrently. Why has school-based TV seized the zeitgeist? Well, maybe all that Gove-driven anxiety about exams, grade boundaries and forced academisation has percolated through to concerned (more likely traumatised) parents. With the extension of leaving ages, perhaps the fascination is also due to the fact that many UK citizens will soon have to reach their 30s before they can say they've lived half of their lives outside a nursery or school. That's a lot to reflect on.
There is still ample scope for a programme that dares to take the real issues of the school day and dramatise them. But it will need writers of the calibre of Redmond (or his script editor, Anthony Minghella) to strike that balance.
The Secret Teacher, who teaches English in an Essex secondary school, is available for highly-paid consultancy work with TV companies. Although he'll have to bring his marking along to meetings.