How many great films about schools and teaching come to mind? Dead Poets Society? The History Boys? To Sir, with Love? The Breakfast Club? Each film has an ‘edge’, and an issue as the hook to its plot line: curriculum content, teaching styles, race, peer pressure.
Television frequently uses the education setting too in serial drama (Teachers, Waterloo Road, Grange Hill), in comedy (Bad Education, Big School) and in reality programming (Educating Essex/Yorkshire/Cardiff) Each of these, like the films, at its heart is about the strength and impact of relationships in a school between and amongst teachers, pupils and parents.
It was with interest then that we looked what had been saved on the Healthy Toolkit HQ Digibox in the Summer Term. Ackley Bridge, a six part drama about the merger of two schools in a fictional Yorkshire town was shown on Channel 4 at 8pm, not their usual time for drama but a primetime slot aimed perhaps at a generation of viewers who as young teenagers might have watched any of a number of popular soap operas.
As a vehicle for the undoubted talents of Jo Joyner and Adil Ray as well as a showcase for a range of terrific young actors, the programme certainly appealed to an audience who liked to see a few hard edged and real life issues. However there were, from an education perspective, a number of lazy stereotypes and a poor communication of the relationships that would be at play in a typical school. In fact much was unrealistic and in the realms that would have a school closely scrutinised in real life.
- Mandy Carter (Jo Joyner) married to another member of staff Mr Bell (Paul Nicholls). Relationships between staff members develop in any workplace, not just in schools, but surely there would be some kind of expectation that a senior leader of a school would not be in a relationship with another staff member. Accusations of favourable treatment and of confidentiality would inevitably arise in such a situation. Codes of Conduct might discourage this, and a quiet sideways move to save professional integrity might have been in order. Kissing in the staffroom though? At least the laziest stereotype, the stationery cupboard was avoided.
- Mandy has an affair, possibly a one night stand, with the school sponsor, Adil Ray. The lazy line of ‘it was a mistake, it was only once‘ is trotted out. His role however is portrayed as wealthy businessman with a sense of entitlement. He is outed, publicly, by his daughter and seems to pay the price at the hands of the Governors and his golf club. Ms Carter’s future remains unclear at the series end.
Ms Keane: English Teacher
A central role, Emma Keane (Liz White) would have been suspended or sacked several times over.
- Emma arrives late for briefing on the first day of term, in flip-flops, straight off the plane. It is revealed that she missed the training day. Her friendship with Many saves her a telling off.
- Estranged daughter arrives, drunk, at school and vomits in class. No school in their right mind would let her past reception. The bottle of fizz was a clear indication of her inebriation.
- Said daughter takes mum’s phone, finds a topless picture from holiday and posts it on mother’s Twitter account with hashtag #AckleyBridge. Predictably picture goes viral. Emma escapes with little more than cosy chat with Ms Carter. Bringing the school and the profession into disrepute anyone?
- The grandmother and carer of the key student character Missy Booth dies and Missy maintains a sense of normality for the sake of 15-year-old sister Hayley to stop her going into care. Once Emma finds out, no safeguarding procedures are followed; she takes on the matter herself. Once again when the correct authorities are involved, little more than a metaphorical slap on the wrist ensues.
- Emma openly tries to pursue a relationship with another member of staff, Samir Qureshi, until his revelation of his engagement.
Where to start?
- Has already had an extra-marital affair resulting in a pregnancy. Great moral fibre!
- Hit’s a boy and essentially acts to protect and support him to prevent being reported.
- Same boy appears to have fathered a child, which he has in school in a sports bag! Mr Bell helps him keep the child safe (safeguarding) and to find the truth about the actual parentage of the baby.
- ‘I’m Mr Bell‘ he calls out on day one; insert your own response from the boys, it is that predictable a script.
- One teacher begins, then halts a relationship with a pupil. At least one pupil knew of this. No response has been apparent so far. We know these relationships occur and we know what the consequences of them should be. Here is an opportunity in a future series to explore this theme, fully and accurately.
- Emma’s would be boyfriend reveals that he has been in jail for drug offences. The production company, The Forge, and Channel 4 must surely be aware of DBS. A jail term, and it must have been recent, would discount the teacher from a post. What school, in its right mind is even going to entertain the notion of employing somebody with any known link to drugs, user or dealer?
- There is a stereotypical ‘school stud’ who chances his arm with any number of the young women students. Whilst again there will be characters like this, he had no depth other than an awareness of his image and at a different level from the school sponsor, to a sense of entitlement when it came to relationships.
There was much to recommend the series though. It explored developing aspects of sexuality, cultural traditions in a changing society, social and class interaction as well as the integration of two school communities who we were led to believe were polarised.
The series has been commissioned for a further run of twelve episodes. Someone at Channel 4 must appreciate it.
The crux of the matter is that relationships are the key to the culture of a successful school. Get it right and the school will be a harmonious and trusting environment; get it wrong and toxicity reigns. Only this week Natasha Devon commented on how schools are getting the ‘S’ right in SRE but now need to focus on the ‘R’: well worth a read https://www.tes.com/news/school-news/breaking-views/schools-are-making-good-progress-s-sre-now-we-must-focus-r
We are teachers, not television executives, and we appreciate that teachers arguing makes better TV than teachers marking or answering emails. But if you are reading this at Channel 4 or The Forge, think about the importance of healthy relationships in a school and making them work to the advantage of everyone, not just to the viewing figures.