Schools on TV: hero teachers and student sob stories

Joanna Williams

Joanna Williams

Topics Culture

Grange Hill’s Zammo groping on the floor for his spilt heroin was one of my formative television-viewing experiences in the Eighties. The appeal of the hit kids’ drama, which followed the goings on in a north London comprehensive school, was obvious: it was a programme written especially for kids but with tight scripts and great actors; it was sufficiently gritty to shock your parents, yet with storylines that were still safely distanced from the lives of most 12-year-olds. This was kids’ TV at its best.

What’s perhaps less obvious is why the Grange Hill watchers of the Eighties, now as forty-something parents themselves, still seem so preoccupied with school kids on the box. In the past year alone on TV we’ve had the melodramatic soap-opera Waterloo Road, which has been running since 2006; the Jack Whitehall comedy vehicle Bad Education, which returned for a second series; new reality shows Educating Yorkshire and Harrow: A Very British School; and now the much-hyped fly-on-the-wall documentary, Tough Young Teachers. It seems the craving for school drama on TV knows no bounds.

Nowadays, school dramas are aimed at adults not kids, and plots tends to revolve around the lives of the teachers as much as their pupils. Recent storylines on Waterloo Road have featured an alcoholic teacher (who then reformed), a teacher who gambled (but then died), one who was abused as a child (but then moved to London – draw your own conclusions), and a teacher who got through lessons by taking tranquilisers (but then got married). These fallible teachers are far removed from Grange Hill’s formidable and authoritative Mrs McCluskey and Mr Bronson.

The reality shows have a slightly different plotline: the teachers are heroes, whose only flaw tends to be that they work too hard and care too much. The naive enthusiasm of the subjects of Tough Young Teachers – with Mr Beach clutching his copy of Teach Like A Champion in the first episode – has set the trajectory for the rest of the series. Both Mr Goddard (the headteacher in Educating Essex) and Mr Mitchell (his counterpart in Yorkshire) were shown getting all emotional over decisions to be made about their charges last year. Even Harrow’s Mr Smith was caught wiping away a tear.

Grange Hill lost its way when plot was sacrificed to issues and writers sought to teach young viewers a moral lesson. ‘Just Say No’, the anti-drugs hit song the cast recorded following Zammo’s downfall, can still annoyingly earworm its way into my head. The presentation of school life as a morality tale is a big part of all of today’s programmes (drama and reality-show alike). But whatever the particular issue being grappled with, there seems to be only one message, and it’s delivered with all the subtlety of ‘Just Say No’: kids misbehave because they’ve got problems and it’s the parents who are to blame. In the mould of an X-Factor sob story, every bad kid has a backstory of poverty or neglect. Just one example is the way in which the adorable Vinnie from Educating Essex had his out-of-control behaviour explained away by his parents’ divorce. This simplistic moralism allows viewers to point the finger at other people while feeling smug about their own obviously superior parenting.

If there is a moral issue here, surely it’s the ethics of putting school kids on TV, backstory and all, in the first place. Does it really benefit Caleb from Tough Young Teachers that the whole country now knows that he’s spent the past three years in a pupil-referral unit? While the teachers emerge as heroes, the children are simply victims of their circumstances. Meanwhile, the education that could help turn their lives around is lost as all the people supposed to be teaching them are busy playing up to the camera.

Joanna Williams is education editor at spiked. She is also a senior lecturer in higher education at the University of Kent and the author of Consuming Higher Education: Why Learning Can’t Be Bought. (Buy this book from Amazon(UK).)

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