Friday, 23 September 2011

Educating Essex, episode one: Things can only get worser

Is it exam results day already?

I rejoice, and the civilised world rejoices, because Thursdays have given me a reason to turn on the television in the barren,  Apocalyptic dystopia that exists between Holby City and Extreme Nursery Cage Fighting on Channel 5. Educating Essex, Channel 4’s latest fixed-rig Panopticon, started this week, and from the looks of things I now have another perfectly serviceable excuse not to mark anything for the next four weeks (not that I ever need an excuse; today’s justification was ‘had to hide from falling satellite in pub’). 65 not-so-hidden cameras, 900 kids, a fruity deputy head who should be playing Mother Goose in panto, and a cast of chummy, eternally patient desperados ready to deliver their punch lines on cue. It’s masterpiece theatre.

It’s easy to sneer- my God, it’s easy- so I won’t. EE is a fly-on-the-wall, detention-setting, parent-phoning record breaker of a program. If they had a little sister program called Educating Extra on immediately after it on E4, I’d have Tivo’d the crap out of it. By the end of it I was hugging myself with the kind of abandon that only an educational blogger can feel; like a shark that’s just swum into a seal hospice. Where do you even begin?

For a start, the school was called Passemores- PASS MORES FOR GOD’S SAKE. Who built it, Charles Dickens? John Bunyan? It was chosen by the program makers because- and I’m quoting- it was ‘representative of the average school’. Which is interesting, because Ofsted gave it a bill of Outstanding last time they popped in, and It gets an A*-C rate that many schools would sell their janitor for medical research to achieve. So it’s hardly a typical school, unless we want to describe tachyons as ‘quite fast’.

Talking of underestimating things, to say that filming in schools presents ethical issues would be to describe Tuliza from N-Dubz as ‘a bit lucky’. Bertrand Russell and David Attenborough would find it hard to circle the square dance of delicacy required to do something like this without bulldozing over countless issues of child exploitation and the seduction of the innocent. The honey trap of instant celebrity/ notoriety is a powerful perfume for anyone, and by that I mean the teachers as well as the kids. One TV producer I worked with a while back asked me for help putting him in touch with schools prepared to be filmed. He called such Heads ‘telly tarts’. The implication was clear.

Talking about the ethical and practical dimensions, the producer, Hannah Lowe said:

“Around 20 or 25 were on our radar and my job was to get under their skins and get their trust,” says Lowes. “It was a very important time in their lives and they were going through some big changes.”
Yep- you had to gain their trust, just like teachers do. So you can turn them into telly! Brilliant. That’s what trust is about; convincing people to open up to you, so you can carpet-bomb them on the box. Memorably the crew were careful to tell the kids that this wasn’t a fast-track to ‘being the next Jade Goody,’ and if that doesn’t make the blood freeze in your veins a little then I suggest you are a cadaver already.

Let’s be clear- the first imperative of projects like this, is to make compelling TV; apparently they filmed 150 hours of footage every day for seven weeks. Ask a grown-up work out how much that is, and then boil it down to the most entertaining four hour programs. Every day, the TV producers had 22 microphones, which would be allocated to the most promising ‘narratives’. They spent months in the school observing lessons and school life to get a feel for where the cameras should be placed. And- holy smoke! - one or two of them ended up in the detention room. Who would have guessed? One of the intended aims, stated by the makers and the Head alike, was to show the public the ‘real side’ to school, an unvarnished image of what really goes on. But we all know what the road to Hell is paved with. This is no more realistic than the toothless stage wrestling of the judges’ desk in X-Factor, or the ‘will-they-finish-it-lawsamercy- anxiety of Grand Designs. It might be kitchen sink, but it’s still drama.

But, as Salvador Dali memorably said, ‘Art uses lies to tell the truth,’ and even the artifice of fable can be used to teach us something useful or even true. And that’s what I think TOWIEE does, even more fabulously than its genetic ancestor Jamie’s Dream School, which made a star of John D’Abbro and…well, no one else. Where that was a laboratory disaster, a homunculus of a man pretending to be a school, Passmores has the benefit of being a genuine bona fide comprehensive, with some exceedingly fine looking teachers in it.

This week the star of the school show had to be Deputy Diva Mr Drew, and I’ll pre-empt your anxiety by announcing him as my Educational Hero of the Week right now, in case you can’t bear it. It was going to be the hero, glimpsed only briefly like a Unicorn, who dismissed his class with the devastating and Olympian line, ‘Get out, scumbags,’ delivered deadpan, cold as the icy tomb of Judas. That man should be teaching the next generation of PGCE students, not wasting his time with a few kids. He mopped up a few predictable brickbats today in the more bilious sections of the middle-brow media, simply because, on the surface, such an address appears the very soul of unprofessionalism, and the first word in an industrial tribunal.

What these humourless rentagobs fail to see is that- even in the microclip offered- his kids seemed perfectly at ease with his comment, and he delivered it with the masterful unconcern of a Jedi master of classroom relationships. Someone who has no idea about modern state secondary teaching might pinch their raddled sphincters in mock disapproval, but they have no idea about education, and teaching, so we can safely ignore their opinion. Frankly, I couldn’t give a thin shit what people who have no experience of teaching think of such things, in the same way that I imagine Brian Cox isn’t worried what Carol Vorderman thinks about particle physics.

''I'm handsome,you're pretty.'
So, this chap Drew. You can see why the producers were drawn to him- he’s Mr Saturday Night. When they saw him, they must have thought, ‘Looks like we can order that champagne after all, boys.’ Normally when you describe someone as a character, we mean a hacking basket case who wears novelty jumpers and cries a lot when they get home to their empty, echoing houses. But Mr Drew has character like Simon Cowell has mannish girlfriends with large hands and Adam’s Apples- in spades. Like many gifted teachers, there’s a drop of obsession about him, an absolute determination that his way is right; not for his benefit, but because he believes his relentless, eternally dogged pursuit of good behaviour and manners will result in the very best  education for the kids.

And you know what? He’s absolutely right. The monotonous, repetitive drone of him saying, ‘Take the hoodie off; take the hoodie off. Take. The. Hoodie. Off…’ ad inifinitum is exactly one of the ways that teachers can constructively deflect the equally inane and irrational ardour of many teenagers attachment to their own whims and possessions. It looks like a waste of time; it’s a Herculean response to the problem of having to clean out the Aegean Stables every day, with every kid, forever. The minute a kid reckons he can out last your stubbornness with their stubbornness, they realise that they can do whatever they like if only they’re tenacious enough. And teachers need to have the guts and the chops to show them that when it comes to endurance races, we’ve got more wind than them. A blessing, then,  on Mr Drew and his house. His earnest, believable sentiments about giving every kid in his care a good education comes from the heart; and it’s a sentiment shared by the majority of teachers I have ever known- behave, listen, learn, and I will give you something valuable that can help you in your lives. Amen, brothers and sisters.

Miss Congeniality
That said, there’s a big discussion to be had about the wisdom of their no-exclusion policy. It’s admirable as an ambition, but as a strategy it is doomed by its own premise. It’s the opposite of justice; a product of compassion unrestrained by considerations of utility and need. There will always be a confused, angry minority of students who reject the opportunity of twelve years of free education. And every time one of them cusses a teacher, makes a scene, flaps and howls and moans, a teacher is taken away from teaching, and the class is put on pause while some bitter narcissist has their ego bathed in gore and glory. Every second a teacher spends on them is taken from thirty others. Of course, we give chances, and we try to prevent exclusion. But sometimes, it’s not just the regrettable, last option for us- sometimes, it’s the right thing to do; the just thing to do. Mr` Drew’s claim that excluded children frequently end up in prison, relies on a false syllogism:

P1: Excluded children often go on to prison after exclusion
P2: If I do not exclude them, they will not be excluded children
C: Therefore they will not go to prison.

This is, I imagine, the logic that informs the drive for later and later compulsory education. But it confuses cause and effect- they don’t go to prison because they were rejected by school, but rather the type of people who find themselves facing frequent exclusions are probably the same people who find the life of robbing and mischief equally alluring. Just a thought. Keeping these kids in an education system they apparently despise long after their educational sell-by date might convert a few bad eggs into…well, curate’s eggs at least, but my God, the damage it does to the mainstream body of students. They sit, and they wait, and they wait, and they wonder why the grown-ups haven’t, or can’t seem to deal with the naughty kids, and why they seem powerless to teach.

That said, kids like Charlotte, seem easily within the grasp of a school to contain, if they simply apply the right pressure and loving boundaries, leavened with a healthy dose of internal exclusions. Beyond the cameras, I'm sure she's the essence of charm and academic vigour- telly adds ten pounds to your ego. The TV version of Carmelita, at least, did her best to appear charmless, witless and mannerless (and succeeded) in this first episode. 

But with some students, who persist in their self-destruction, there has to come a point at which a school says, ‘OK, we’ve tried. Cheerio.’ People who howl at this as some symptom of faithlessness are invited to consider this: do you realise what the cost to the other students is, by allowing such people to remain? I’ll tell you for free: it means that the other kids learn half as much. I promise you this. You can have one or the other. Take your cat calendar aphorisms and your rainbows and ponies about every child being a bundle of dreams and fairy wishes, and stick them up your arse. We teachers have no time for your fantasies. The children have no time for your fantasies.

'Quick, one of them's about to set fire to the place- zoom in!'
And no self-respecting, obsessive blog about this would be complete with a mention of the charming Carmelita, who, for the sake of spite and malice and the God-given right to wear a hoodie (guaranteed, no doubt, in the Geneva convention on Child Rights *checks* oh sorry it isn’t), was prepared to go along with an allegation of assault on the dapper Mr Drew. That’s right, a career –ending allegation that could lead to criminal charges and penury for the man. I think every teacher in Christendom rejoiced when the egocentric shrew had her story pulverised by the cameras. And every teacher leapt from the sofa at the sight of the earnest, professional English teacher call her mother in an attempt wrestle some sort of resolution out of the situation, only to be told by the parent of the year that he was ‘licking the Deputy’s arse.’ It was pure comedy gold, as his smile turned to a frown, the phone went down, and the positivity morphed into disgust. There’s something desperate when a phone call gets to that point, but as every public servant knows, at least it finally gives you the moral high ground you need to slam the bloody phone down without fear of reprisal.

If this program does any good- and I don’t care if it does, it’s certainly done me some good- then it’s to show how restrained teachers often are by process and bureaucracy, and how often we have to deal with misbehaviour, contempt, rudeness and challenge. We aren’t looking for the compliance of automatons; we’re trying to teach children. The sad fact is that the allegation made against Drew is neither uncommon nor exceptional; kids say things like this all the time. Some of them know exactly how to play the system, demanding Dragnet levels of evidence before admitting guilt, and knowing that in reality there is very little that a teacher can do if the pupil wants to be defiant and aggressive. Call home? And speak to Supermom?

Next Thursday cannot come quickly enough.

Last thoughts:
  • Their senior leadership meetings look a riot. I’d like to think that, instead of discussing behaviour and observations and the like, all SLT are instead exchanging parcels of magnetic pubic wigs and other humour-free trinkets of pointlessness.
  • Throwing a snowball at kids is a VERY BAD IDEA; it simply tells them ‘OK, kids, throw ice and rocks at me…and EVERY OTHER TEACHER, EVER, UNTIL THE END OF TIME.’ Children often lack subtlety. Do not provoke them to assault you with weapons. Seriously.
  • The Telegraph didn’t let anyone down, as it simultaneously ran a snooty ‘schools have gone to Hell’ story accompanied by…yes, fruity school girls in cabaret make-up. Perhaps someone should tell the picture Ed that these girls are in year 11. Not so funny or fruity, eh?
  • Twitter spiked like a Geiger counter in Bruce Banner’s saddle when this was running. Every teacher in the Western Hemisphere appeared to be watching.

And who can blame them? This is fantastic telly. In the next few weeks, come with me *puts on Jacques Cousteau voice* as we find out if it’s something more. I have high hopes.

Thursday, 22 September 2011

The Death Penalty and whole class detentions

Every now and then I am asked what I think of whole class detentions. And I always answer the same way- I abjure them; they are abhorrent in mine eyes, yea, even unto the Last Days. There are a number of perfectly sound reasons to employ them, because no strategy is perfect, and no imperfect one is perfectly so. Every option, no matter how righteous or fallen, contains germs of its own salvation or damnation. Plato averred that the realm of the ideal was transcendent, and so we find. Nothing in this world is flawless, or flawlessly flawed.

Why would you want to keep a whole class behind? The answers are so obvious that it is fatuous to ignore them, so let us face them manfully:

  • It guarantees that the unjust are skewered, even if the ones you want are obscured by the noise and smoke of the classroom (the Fog of Wah!, as I call it)
  • It lays your vengeance upon them, as Mr S Jackson would agree. They can't say that you didn't punish the guilty.

So certainty and the need to sanction against are both satisfied. But what is lost?

Justice. The whole class detention is a carpet-bombing, a daisy-chain detonation that flattens the just and the unjust. It destroys what you work hard to create- the classroom relationship. Every child, guilty and innocent is treated alike, and the good realise, silently and certainly, that there is no reward in this life for kindness, compliance, dedication and application. Might as well, you can hear them think, go rotten. Good luck to you after that.

This reminds me, strangely enough, of the cavernous cement-mixer of moral reasoning that accompanies every debate on capital punishment, as another soul- a murderer, or not- receives the ultimate state sanction in Georgia. To ignore the obvious attraction of the death penalty, to claim that it is 'obviously' wrong, is to commit the sin of certainty, which is a death of a more abstract sort: the death of reason. The very human thirst for vengeance can't be simply dismissed as an aberration of character, or the unsettled aspect of a mind speckled by sadness, grief and outrage. Not one of us would calmly forgive a monster who took some loved one away from us in the gruesome ways that such events inevitably happen. Not one.

But this very human, very understandable response cannot be sustained in the macrocosm of civil society; it cannot. The contradictions are too enormous; the weight of evidence almost unachievable. And even if they were, there is the prospect, however remote, that the guilty would dangle alongside the innocent, like Calvary. And mistakes there are, many, many over the years. Justice, we must remember, is not a utilitarian equation of cost versus benefit- it is an absolute, if it is anything. We do not achieve justice by razing the sinner with the saint; we do so by sparing them all from the irreversible terminus from which nothing returns. We build mercy into our vengeance, and allow ourselves to be imperfect. Because we know we are.

Christopher Hitchens, in a discussion of the Death Penalty, makes this point:
'I used to debate these questions with the late Professor Ernest van den Haag, a legal scholar of the William Buckley National Review school. He was always admirably blunt and concise. In the case of an execution of an innocent person, he once said to me, the necessary point had nonetheless been made: the state and the community had shown that they were prepared to kill. It did not especially matter if they had or had not taken the “right” life: the demonstration had nonetheless been forcibly made. (You might remember the scene in Doctor Zhivago when Strelnikov says that the peasants understand who is boss once their village has been burned, whether they had been harboring the enemy or not. “Your point: their village,” is Zhivago’s.[......] reply.)'

Christopher Hitchens, From Lapham's Quarterly

The hangman's noose: the whole-class detention. As far apart in severity as the abstract concept of sanction can sustain without snapping. But both illustrating the same premise.

Your point: their classroom.