Wednesday, 22 September 2010


... was the title of the BBC's drama offering for the "Education" season last night. It was called this because, obviously, it was not what it was about. Why, you gasp, what was it about? Having sat through the whole everlasting hour, I can proudly report that I know the answer. It was about NOTHING.

It was a confused and confused piece of failed agit-prop where a group of cardboard cut-outs mouthed unlikely dialogue to communicate dated, ideologically charged, ill-thought out claptrap. It was about the BBC having no earthly idea what might be going on in their chosen "topic", and refusing to use its considerable clout to find out. It was about throwing together a ragbag of ridiculous, outmoded cliches equally lacking in drama and information. It was a grimly tedious hour of shit tv.

There are obvious and immediate conflicts in a piece like this: on the one hand it is intended as a state-of-education piece; its aim to communicate a recognisable portrait of secondary school is a challenging one in itself, and it's also in conflict with the basic demands of drama, which require focus on characters, rather than types, and change, in both situation and character. A portrait must be very skilfully drawn to incorporate dynamism.

But it seemed to me - and as a teacher for seven years and a screenwriting graduate of the NFTS before that, I feel qualified to judge - that it failed on both counts.

I found it a hideously inaccurate portrayal of school. It's inconceivable that a newly trained teacher would set up his very first lesson as badly as did the lead character. Lesson planning over the last ten years has become fiercely structured; few teachers set up a first lesson without a planned starter activity, a seating plan, greeting the kids, taking a register or sorting out books. If you want an accurate picture, the devil is in the details. If you don't want to deal with all that palaver - don't set your scene at the start of a lesson.

Nearly all teaching nowadays involves a storm of photocopies that kids can cut up or colour in or stick together; it is vastly unlikely that an NQT - who would have spent a term and a half teaching by then - would go in to a GCSE class so unprepared that he would still be muttering "I have a background in electronic engineering", unless he were absolutely hopeless.

I have experienced plenty of unprofessional behaviour in schools, but it's stopped short at making faces behind a colleague's back - apart from anything else, it would destroy that member of staff with the kids, because he'd be behaving like one of them, which they consistently despise.

To address the question of drama; drama requires conflict, characters, a story. What was the story here? Everybody was a bit annoyed. That was about it. It was supposed to focus on exclusion, from the naive point of view that exclusion is a hideous experience which is rare and terrifying, traumatising for the child and onerous for the school, a product of poor teaching and school indifference or active persecution of the poor misunderstood child.

It takes a lot more than refusing to leave a classroom to get excluded. Throwing a chair? One of my Year Tens greeted me by throwing a chair in my first week; recorded, reproached, apologised, over. Throwing a brick at my class through a window? No consequence at all. Admittedly the time one of my year sevens went mentaltastic and danced over the desks hurling flour at his classmates and resisting deportation to the point of lying on the floor and holding onto the doorjamb, he did get excluded. For a Whole Day. But it was not the heinous behaviour heretofore described that did it; it was swearing at the deputy head who was finally called to take him out. A combination of vandalism, uncontrollably dangerous behaviour, and extensive disruption to other pupils is required to get a child put onto the "Stages" of exclusion, let alone actually sent home. If the child has a good excuse - being ADHD and refusing medication counts - you can try a lunchtime detention.

So poor misunderstood children are not really the ones who are excluded. This would be pointless in an era when a lot of kids carry weapons. This programme's worldview would appear anachronistic to a jaw-slackening degree.

I struggled to find a story. If it had been a story about a child terrorising other kids and not being excluded, it would have resonated with me. If it had been about a child who was excluded for being a victim of bullying, that, too would have resonated with me. If it had been a child who self-excluded as a consequence of bullying, I would have bought it. But excluded for throwing a chair? Grow up.