Can you imagine a cookery programme without food or a football match without goals (yes I know ITV have managed that sometimes) well what about a programme about schools without showing any teaching? Better still what about two programmes on consecutive nights on different channels neither of which showed any teaching taking place.
'Harrow - A very British School' was the Wednesday night Sky 1 entrant into this weeks 'fly-on-the-wall' programming schedule, a schedule that also included Great Western Trains, Motorway Cops, Bouncers (that's a job description not a programme about a lap dancing club on Channel 5) and Thursday night gave us Channel 4's 'Educating Yorkshire'.
The first 'Harrow' programme introduced us to the 'shells' - the group of new recruits into West Gate house, one of twelve houses that make up the Harrow trademark. The first episode was, as you might expect from a programme dealing with Freshers, long on tradition, the weight of history, the smell of expectancy, the ghosts of Churchill, Byron and Sheridan looming in the background as a talk was given in one of the school's oldest buildings. We were introduced to the rules, such as the wearing of the famous straw boater, the learning of the school song, the running away from the school leopard (okay I made that last bit up), the awarding of lines for anybody daring to step on the establishments cracks rather than walking down the centre of its path. We saw the welcoming chocolates on the pillows of the newbies, the unpacking and, later on, packing of cases at the beginning and end of term and we saw the most unfit bunch of twelve year olds ever to set foot on a rugby pitch and athletics track. What we didn't see however was more than about thirty seconds filmed in a classroom. We were told, four times during forty five minutes, that it costs £30,000 a year to send a child to Harrow and judging by the names and colours of some of the pupils it's clear that times are hard in the Home Counties. One of the featured lads was from Malawi, recalling for me an old school puzzle about one of my school friends who was from Zimbabwe and always went home for lunch - how did he do that?
What also struck me, particularly when comparing it the following night with 'Educating Yorkshire' was the (almost) complete lack of manners at Harrow. The almost ubiquitous use of 'Yeah' and the complete lack of any 'Sirs' - it's okay I wasn't expecting the doffing of caps although not touching your boater when passing a member of staff is punishable with some strange handwriting tasks - but for £30,000 a year I'd want some respect beyond archaic rules and their absence sounded alarm bells in my head. Much like the bells that one of the pupils, Olly, resented hearing on a Saturday when in theory he should have been enjoying a lie-in until 11 a.m but he had to get up at 7:30. Having complained about the lack of girls for three weeks in his life I would have thought Olly would have been better off out of bed rather than in it!
'Educating Yorkshire' is made by the same company that last year gave us 'Educating Essex',.using some 64 cameras and shooting 2,000 hours of film the producers turned their attention on the staff and pupils of Thornhill Community Academy in Dewsbury. There were two 'stars' of the first episode, the head teacher Mr Mitchell and Bailey, a fourteen year old girl who was, as us old people would say, plastered in make-up.
Bailey and those eyebrows
Bailey, as the photograph shows, is an attractive girl with a cheeky grin whose fondness for foundation and slap hides the fact that she was attacked by a dog when six and now views her natural image as being one of a lop-sided smile with 'holes all over her face'. Like a lot of teenagers she compensates for her lack of confidence by being over the top in her behaviour, it's a strange combination but one that manifests itself in many troubled teenagers. Bailey was caught smoking and put in isolation. Next day she shaved her eyebrows off and was seen asking her classmates what they thought, the classic need for acceptance. In the second half of the programme she stood for election to the school council and hoped to go to college. By the end of the episode she had at least succeeded in quitting smoking.
For Mr Mitchell the day seemed to revolve around interviewing children about their behaviour, it seemed curious to find the comments pages of various newspapers giving him such a hard time for trying. His attempts at turning around the academic lives of some of his charges viewed as some sort of lily livered liberal hijacking of the education system.
Whether of not you viewed Mr Mitchell as Dewsbury educations second coming or the root of all evil will probably depend on where your view of teachers and their roles in a wider society based context has its roots. His efforts did seem to making a difference and as Bailey put it herself, in one unguarded moment, “He's the best thing that happened to this school, He's fair. He'll have a laugh with you and listen to you. I didn't think I'd ever like him… but now I do.”
I suspect that the producers of both 'Harrow' and 'Yorkshire' were using the first episodes as 'scene setters' but it did seem a shame that they both concentrated on things going wrong rather than exploring some of the more positive aspects of each school. The only moment, pupil rehabilitation apart, when you felt something academic was being achieved was the news that Thornhill was ranked 25th most improved school in the country by Ofsted, this was greeted with a comment from one teacher of 'will we be getting a certificate for that?'