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Educating Essex is not an oxymoron but a rather delightful and uplifting documentary on school life, and if the extremely vacuous The Only Way is Essex can win the people's choice BAFTA award then Educating Essex has to be nailed on for a proper BAFTA, a more realistic look at the much derided counties young people, although Top Boy, Channels Fours excellent drama on London's gang violence may steal that award on the dip. If either of these were on the BBC and not tucked away on C4 the country would be raving about them.
The BBC tried something similar with that effeminate Garth Malone bloke trying to teach gruff kids to be choir singers a year or so back but the producers missed the real point that viewers want to see what's really going on in schools and what the kids should be doing and not so much about taking kids out of their comfort zone to do things they wouldn't normally be doing, avoiding the real issues that Educating Essex tries to explore. Most state schools are testing places these days, so-much-so that successive governments have had to dumb down exam results to make us believe they still work for the bulk of our children. Saying that I can't remember anything from school, other than basic English and maths.
The producers have played it safe by picking Passmores School, an extremely white high achieving Academy in Harlow (and so clearly selective), earning an excellent rating in its OFSTED report, head teacher Andrew Goddard and his staff intending to hold on to that. Whether only half the pupils have five GCSEs or more is classed as a good school in the public's eyes is a point of debate. Perhaps the next series will indeed be an underachieving comprehensive school in Hackney with metal detectors and onsite police officers. Whether the school obtained its success rate on pushing the kids into subjects they know the kids can't fail on, like those equivalent BTEC modular exams - for example - we don't know but the show certainly intending to show the school in only a positive light. It does feel
like that old OFSTED inspection ethos in that the schools would always be given plenty of time to dust the place down and suspend unruly pupils for the day off of the inspection to make things look better than they really are. Did the producers cut out all the bed boys here we wonder?
The format here is that there are 64 cameras placed around the school on agreement with all concerned and they have recorded 14,000 hours of school life over the year for the series, the final edit cut down to just seven one hour episodes. The star of the show - apart from the naughty pupils - is Mr Drew, the vivacious and likeable (and slightly camp) deputy headmaster, who spends most of his day just trying to maintain order, lecturing and nagging the poor kids all day in the corridors and his office with his version of New York's broken window project....tell them off for little petty things and they will hopefully not do the bigger things wrong. Every school needs an enforcer and he's the man.
The documentary doesn't try to force a narrative over the seven episodes but looks at an aspect of school life in each of those episodes, like bullying, discipline and exams, for example, which produces the shows own characters and dramas. There's Sam the rebel who picks on the fat boy in class and school swat Lisa being bullied by her old mates now she is head of house, uncomfortable because the text bullying emanates from the daughters of one of the school teachers at the Academy. We also have the perfunctory teen pregnancy. It includes al the clichés as the clichés are real, this, first documentary to really try this type of experiment. Cleary the producers wanted to put something out entertaining and so taken some liberties with the edit but on the whole it is what it says on the packet, kids being kids at school, the teachers being silly behind the scenes to stay sane.
Although the documentary presses the claim its everyday school life some of the kid's faces are blurred out and other groups of kids don't feature because they are presumably boring and doing what they are told. It only picks on the bad kids. And again there are few black or ethnic faces to be seen, pupils or teachers. There are lovely moments too, none more so than when like the likeable lad with Asburgers does this emotional speech in the final assembly before the school prom and yet you can't help feeling this bit has been left in to make the school look good and caring. How can you not be cynical with modern Tv.
I think the appeal of the show is we wish our school days were like this. Yes the teacher's ham to the cameras sometimes and some of the pupils as equally sulky and moody to make the edit, Big Brother style, but I expect modern day education is like this in it is all about fighting fires to at least plop the kid out of the other end of the grinder with some sort of qualification and so the whole experience increasingly less about academia. The kids do model themselves on people they see on vacuous TV shows these days (especially as this lot will be on TV) and some of the females clearly think the show is a spin off to 'The Only Way is Essex 'by the way they dress. Few kids are designed to actually like boring school and its normally middle-class parents extra schooling at home that is the key to kids getting on and into university. Most working-class parents in Essex have probably had a negative experience at school so it's easy to become negative towards teachers and the system, captured here when the chubby parents of the bullied fat boy confront the head teacher by waving signet rings and fags in his face. Lots of parents refuse to help their kids learn at home and expect the school to do the job all on their own. What this documentary really shows is the result of teachers not being able to physically discipline the kids the way they need to be and so enough of them feel empowered today to fight authority. A legacy of the cane finally being banned.
The promotion for the show is the prettiest girls in the school posing in sexy short hockey style skirts to attract the male viewers and the 9pm timeslot allowing lots of swearing (which the teachers don't allow from the kids in the show so somewhat contradictory). The relationship between the teachers and kids is very 'lefty', certainly closer than it was in our day, one of the teachers jokingly calling the kids 'scumbags' to dismiss the class on the bell. That relaxed approach may or may not help the kids through school but I liked it and wish I had enjoyed school more this way. Teach kids like the way adults behave and they will probably respect the teachers more, or, at least, not punch them out. As yet no one has been punched with one more episode to see on my lap top. But again you do feel the edit has got rid of the nasty stuff. There was one accusation by a pupil against Mr drew in episode one of the deputy head being 'aggressive' with a pupil but the schools other network of CCTV cameras found that not to be the case. It's believed that the vast majority of pupil accusations against teachers across the country are malicious or exaggerated, kids knowing their rights all too well and the power of them. The fact the kid knew there were 64 cameras in the school for the documentary is all you need to know how the kids stroppy reasons to make the silly accusations.
Whether Mr Drew will get a spin off series on Channel Four like Gareth Malone did and choose that career change because of his obvious appeal will be interesting. Many stars of doco TV have. I can certainly see him on 8 out of 10 Cats and Have I got News for You. Most teachers are frustrated actors and Mr Drew is a bit David Brent in the way he wants to 'entertain' his pupils. A significant chunk of female stand up comics are ex-teachers. Whether the tabloids will be tempted to dig into Mr Drew's background to knock him down if he does chase celebrity is another debate. It will also be interesting to see if any of the parents sue later on down the line for showing their kids in bad light, which some episodes do.