Educating Essex 5: Nasty girls and the Heart of Darkness

Mean Girls: unlike British Schools.
'I got a wedgie! I swear I'm allergic to them!' 

Much as I adore the way ICT has transformed the way we communicate with each other, if it was a student in one of my classes, I would toe-punt it through a set of saloon swing-doors like Yosemite Sam. Even when I started, kids were getting their heads round the idea that a playground cuss could be avenged in an afternoon by a single text back to the family mothership. Cue: the Dale Farm Peace Corps at the gates at 4pm, ready to right some wrongs with the international toothpick of diplomacy, the spanner. Cue: lots of community cohesion meetings and healing discussions *heave*.

This week Educating Essex regrettably ignored my suggestion to run with a spin-off series about the awesome Film Club (motto: We Skip No More) and instead persisted in exploring another facet of the school pastoral pilgrimage: bitchy girls.

I’d better declare an intrinsic handicap I possess in discussing this topic: I possess a Y chromosome, and this hobbles me somewhat. I am a stranger in a strange land when it comes to the seemingly pointless, cruel and cannibalistic telepathy that motivates and facilitates the process whereby girls can huddle like frogspawn in solidarity, then disperse with a kind of Brownian motion, reforming into different social networks. And it’s all done without a word! How on EARTH does it happen? It’s like penguins, clustering in miserable furry piles to shelter from the sub-zeroic temperatures, endlessly replacing their comrades at the frozen exterior of the circle. Watching it from the outside, it’s like observing the hive-mind of starlings, instantaneously deciding on a capricious whim to turn this way, then that. 

A while back I was watching Big Brother in mixed company (a veteran gunslinger, an escaped convict, a sharpshooter, someone good with knives, the usual) when one of the future darlings of the titty papers flounced out of the Torture Belvedere or whatever and into the Diary Room. ‘Hello [insert witless, misspelled mononym], how are you?’ said the broad Geordie anima. ‘Furious!’ she steamed. ‘I was making rice for everyone when [insert second name-crime], she just walked past and she looked at me like this!’ *makes perfectly normal face* ‘And I was like, you bitch.’ 

I stared at the screen in  perfect incomprehension. The other chaps in the room with me looked at each other and made, what just happened? faces. And all the girls went,’ Oh, the bitch,’ nodding, their eyes slitted in righteousness. 

Women are, indeed, different.

We are the Borg. Resistance is futile. Prepare to be ignored.
The Blonde Borg Collective

The feeding frenzy fell upon Ashleigh tonight, a bright year 11 girl whose only crime, as far as I could see, was to have the predictably stormy romantic life of most teenagers, which provided her friends (can I call people who slander and exclude their peers friends? Apparently I can) with the requisite narrative fodder for their self-penned melodramas. Everyone gets a part, and everyone can feel important because an identity has been constructed for them, at a point in their lives when identity is such a hard thing to grasp. Some play the villain, some play the victim. Some have bit parts, and some, as in Shakespeare, play the vital role of messengers. Given that this wasn’t comedy, it had to be a tragedy. And in a tragedy, someone has to die.

Poor Ashleigh. She went from member of the Magic Circle to Untouchable in a heart beat; over a mouthful of school dinner, it seemed from the edit, as the Blonde Borg Collective upgraded their social software in a package that no longer required her. The program portrayed the ‘vivacious’ Carrie as the mob boss of the chum racket.The peaceable Mr Thomas described her as 'sociable'.  I’m careful commenting about the conduct of others when we see them through the lens of the camera. That said, what we did see wasn’t exactly edifying. There’s a million ways to interpret the behaviour we saw, but even with my generous, Forgiving Hat on , it was pretty repellent to watch as the Borg decided that Ashleigh was suddenly and instantly surplus to social requirement.

The defamation of Citizen Ashleigh was bad enough; the pleasure that her peers took in her distress was vile. Cruelty is an offence against the most important thing in the world: love. Every act of malice and schadenfreude is crime against humanity. There are two compassionate directions the human heart can take: altruism and egoism. Egoism can be innocent- doing things for oneself is harmless when you’re making yourself a sandwich- and altruism is an ideal we can aspire to. But egoism makes monsters of the best of us when we require others to feed it. 

'We're not talking to you, yeah?'
That was what is so vile and vicious in these cases: there is the barest attempt to justify the passive aggression by claiming that the victim of the exclusion has broken some social more that entitles her to be punished. In this case, it was- apparently- the grim, medieval charge of being a sket. I can’t tell you how depressing it is to see women tear each apart over sexual misdemeanours, when their ancestors have struggled for centuries to weaken and loosen the shackles of a patriarchal world that binds them with propriety and customs that benefit only their captors. As one gallows piece of gender humour has it, ‘What do men and women have in common? They both hate women.’ There is a depressing feminist truth curled up in the heart of that apparently misogynistic quip.

Whether the poor girl was innocent or guilty of a seemingly victimless crime is irrelevant; the girls just wanted to feed, and it was her turn. There’s a mob mentality similar to the Salem trials that put me in mind of McCarthyism, as girls frantically lined up with the perceived Big Beast of the battle, Carrie, in an effort not to suffer banishment along with Ashleigh. ‘I don’t know her!’ they cried, as the cock crowed three times and their former friend was crucified by the crowd.

‘Who’s still speaking to her?’ asked one of the henchwomen. And everyone agreed: no one was.

Ashleigh, being a teenage girl and a human being, was crushed by their restructuring, and in the middle of lessons went over to her former friend to find out what it was, in fact, she was being excluded for. Carrie’s brittle blanking of her was heart breaking. She cut her off as cleanly and neatly as the most committed of Victorian moralists.

And yet, this is human nature, and barely worth even mentioning, except of course it takes place, not in a vacuum, but in the rarefied atmosphere of a school. As Vic Goddard, who played a backstage role this week said, ‘It’s like a stone dropped in a pond, and the ripples spread outwards’ Which is where lovely ICT comes into it, because back when dinosaurs stalked the DfE, pupils had to rely on mouth-to-mouth in order to clone their bile. Now, it just takes one teen talon to tap out a tattoo of hatred on their BBM, and Taliban Trainees in Tehran know that Ashleigh’s a ‘fackin sket’ or something. Auto translate THAT, Siris. I imagine a Bedouin in Jordan, wondering ‘Who is this Ashleigh? And why are we not talking to her anymore? Ah. She is two-faced. An untouchable.’

Carrie was frighteningly frank about the process in interview. ‘We’re all two-faced. All of us.’ It was scarier than Gordon Gecko’s ‘Greed is Good’ speech, less noble, and also less reflective. Of course, we are all- all of us- excellent at this kind of retrospective justification. It is rare indeed that we hold ourselves to blame for anything. But this kind of critical introspection is vital for us to become moral adults. The belief that our actions are blameless and just, is the mind-set of an infant, the cruellest creature of all, the very avatar of thoughtless egoism. To see it sustained in the mouth of a young adult was distressing. And somehow predictable.

Of course this had an effect in the world beyond the Sucker Punch microcosm of teenage Fantasy Fight Club; Ashleigh’s education suffered as she (presumably) ducked a little school to hide from the torment of social exclusion. Teachers’ time was taken up dealing with the fallout, and the masterful Stan was seen in full flow as he counselled Brad, Ashleigh’s on/ off-kind-of-it’s-complicated boyfriend. I saw an excellent comment online this week about kids who set their relationship statuses on Facebook as ‘it’s complicated’: ‘It’s complicated? How? Did he steal your Haribo?’

A cuddle and a shove

Stan is my Educational Hero of the Week, one of the ninja masters of pastoral tone. It was just the right register of concern, tough love and a dash of ‘Oh well, best get you back to lessons.’ It’s harder than it looks. It’s so easy to overshoot and try to be the subject’s chum, when what they need is listened to, and then spoken to in a caring, authoritative way: a cuddle and a shove. If Stan ever tires of listening to sullen children moaning about f*ck-all, he can get a job with the NYPD talking jumpers down from the Brooklyn Bridge. He’s THAT good.

'I've seen things you wouldn't believe. I try not to dwell on them.'
In the end, the storm blew out of port as promptly as it hit; the school did the grown up thing and called a summit where the girls apparently negotiated a cease fire. This was foreshadowed when, upon returning to school, Ashleigh found that the evil alliance forged by her expulsion was already tottering like Gadhafi, and some of her former peers were sliding back to her camp. One of them even visited the Head of House to complain about the situation. Ms Conway looked at them with the tired eyes of a veteran (and I might add, a woman, so she probably understood what the hell was going on a bit better than me). ‘So what do you want me to do?’ she said, basically indicating that her preferred option would be to somehow arrange them all to be locked in a dark room with crowbars like Battle Royale Essex).

Ashleigh’s chum knew exactly what should happen. ‘They need to be taught a lesson,’ she said. And you could see hate multiplying. Whatever happened, someone had to pay…. 

As Ms Conway said, ‘They just want some drama. And they want to be in the centre of it.’ If it was drama they wanted, she took away their audience and forced them to talk it out, lance the boil and get back to normal. And so it proved. They were back on camera, talking about how they ‘didn’t even know’ what it had all been about, and a million male viewers nodded furiously and said, ‘Yes, us too.’ One of the boys at school made a comment, ‘Girls can be so horrible to each other, and then next day they’re mates again. How can you be mates with someone that’s so horrible to you?’

Together: 'Love ya.'
Join the club, pal. By comparison, we men are simple beasts. If a guy doesn’t like you, he doesn’t talk to you. Or he smacks you in the coupon. At least you know where you stand.  The staff this week were great, as always, and no body was harmed in the making of this program. Just Ashleigh.

But in a million schools across the world, a million girls are bullying a million Ashleighs for sport. For amusement. Because life isn’t dramatic enough, and in the place of excitement, they’ll take the thrill of the foxhunt over the slow-burning pleasures of friendship and learning. And in many ways, that's what we're here for: to save them from themslelves.

Last word to Vic: 'Pupils aren't happy unless there's drama. As long as it's not them.'

Other highlights:

  • Mr Drew dealing with the parent's complaint of one student sending another an email containing ‘Three gay men taking a shower, playing with each other's genitals and having sex. Which is really quite a lot of descriptive detail. Isn't the internet lovely?
  • The ‘What is Pi’ moment came and went; but like a good trailer to a bad movie, we’d already seen the funniest bit. That and the eyelash extensions like Venus Flytraps that girls so admire these days.
  • Dr Nicholson the science teacher, resplendent in his lab coat: Old School. Pony tail: Rock School. We also saw a beautiful insight into the world of the gifted pupil who wants to stay behind and talk about neutron stars and stuff. Dr Nicholson was an old hand at it, responding with, ‘If it doesn’t scare you, you don’t understand it.’ Presumably he was talking about the EU bail-out.
  • Another member of staff parenting an episode’s protagonist? Is everyone related in this show? Educating Utah?
  • 'Pneumonia's wee' isn't it?' Sociable Carrie, possibly talking about ammonia. Or Paul Newman.
  • 'Its burning my spot!' Ashleigh's undoubtedly accurate reply.
  • Brad walking into a world of pain at school, 'Cause I drew some proper fuckin' detailed picture of a cock.' Give that boy a BTEC!
  • This week's montage: eating crisps, ending with Drew hoovering up what looked suspiciously like the crumbs from the lid of a tube of Pringles, you gannet.
  • Dr Nicolson's comment about bitchy girls: 'With chemicals, there's no hidden agenda.'
  • The corridor cut-scene where some gormless wretch tried to karate kick his chum in the stones, fell over in the process, before getting an appropriately ironic toe in his own charlies from his target. Who says there's no justice?

Clear off, scumbags.


  1. Love the fact that you got 'mononym' in. Good work, sir.

  2. Went to an all-girls' school. Nothing, I repeat, nothing is worse than teenage girls on the bitch.
    As for "mononym"- nice one sir :)

  3. @ DD I worked bloody hard to shoehorn it in, sir!

  4. I'm late catching up with this episode. Blimey but the Borg collective are scary. I'm not sure if there was any heart at all behind those panda eyes... but they grow out of it, don't they? Don't they? Um...


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