I really liked Educating Essex as it seemed to represent a positive view of schools for a change, with its emphasis upon a sense of 3 C's- caring, community and commitment. Of course it was a very partial view- we never really saw any lessons going on, as it was pretty much all about what went on in the corridors and how it all got dealt with by a small number of staff, particularly the Head, Mr Goddard and his Deputy, Mr Drew. The pettiness of school routines was all there, with Mr Drew endlessly going on about uniforms, and much of the focus was on the problems of a few students and how the school tried to solve them.
Educating Yorkshire, made by the same company, attempts to tread the same territory, and its structure repeats that of its predecessor, even down to the opening sequences of stairwells and corridors and fragments of dialogue which will be picked up in later episodes (Blonde girl: 'What is Pi? Where did it come from?' of Educating Essex has been replaced by Blonde girl: 'I don't have all them numbers at the bottom' Teacher: 'they're letters, not numbers' Girl: 'same thing' in Yorkshire). In the first two episodes, the focus has been on a Year 8 boy, Kamremm who keeps getting into trouble, a Year 10 girl, Bailey, who is trying to reform but keeps getting done for her makeup and Year 11s Georgia, who ends up missing the school prom after a series of exclusions, and the hardworking Jac-Henry who loses his temper a couple of times and ends up excluded and going to anger management counselling.
As a fly-on-the-wall documentary (with 64 cameras, that's 64 flies on the walls), it appears to offer up 'truth' to the audience. But with 750 students and a fair number of teachers and a year's footage, that 'truth' will inevitably be extremely selective. The incidents we have seen so far have made for riveting TV. Georgia 'may have' 'stamped on Jac-Henry's head' after she asked him whether he called her a slag last friday. He appears to have acknowledged that he did, but claims that she insulted his mum. She denies the latter to the Head, who seems to believe it, but then we are shown a scene where she admits that to her mate. This puts the audience in a position of greater knowledge than other characters- a familiar fictional device- especially in Soaps- and contributes to a growing sense of outrage in the viewer as the programme unfolds. This is compounded later, when we see Jac-Henry, who has been shown to be a really good lad who keeps getting teased for being a 'boff', suddenly loses it and thumps another boy in the corridor for taunting him. Jac-Henry is excluded which leads to a deputation of his friends going to protest to the Head. Meanwhile, Georgia is shown in a series of confrontations with teachers and being given lots of second chances before the Head finally says she can't go to the prom.
Having watched the episode on 4OD, I looked on twitter to see how the audience had reacted when the programme was on live. Using #educatingyorkshire, as I had suspected, the moral outrage of the audience was played out with a lot of offensive comments directed at Georgia. And of course, people had found the girl herself on twitter and facebook and were sending @ messages to vent their anger. Her account now appears to have been deleted, but there were messages asking her how she liked it now that she was being bullied. Other kids from the programme pop up on there, with the feisty Bailey from episode 1 responding to lots of individual tweets, sticking up for herself and others in the programme, but the dominant 'reading' that came across to me was lots of people sneering at 'chavs'.
The production company claim that the first two episodes generated over a quarter of a million tweets; I don't know if this is true, but there were a lot. It's worth watching, but remember, what you see has been selected from an awful lot of footage, and like Educating Essex, it's real focus is the work of a few teachers, notably the Head, who, I would argue, is represented as a kind of 'commonsense' heroic superman. The Daily Mail wrote that he resembled a bouncer- I can see what they mean. And like fictional representations of school, it has stories to tell and will narrow those down to feature a small set of characters, who are maybe not that representative of the school as a whole. And though I'll watch the whole series, to be honest, however gripping fly-on-the wall programmes about school are, I'd rather have the slapstick stereotyping of Bad Education which is so outrageous that you know it's not real.
Educating Yorkshire is on Channel 4 on Thursdays at 9pm
Bad Education is on BBC3
A really good blog on representations of school in TV and film here from Chris Hildrew
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