“God, Sir, how old are you?” a baffled student exclaims as English teacher Matthew Burton tells his class of 15-year-olds what life was like in school before the internet and mobile phones.
Burton, who has just turned 30, can add reality television to the list of innovations he has experienced, because he is about to feature in Educating Yorkshire.
The makers of Channel 4’s Bafta-winning Educating Essex are now casting their all-seeing electronic eyes over Thornhill Community Academy, a comprehensive on a gritty housing estate in Dewsbury, West Yorkshire. Thornhill’s head teacher, Jonny Mitchell, believes that the nation will soon learn that his students are not afraid to speak their minds.
“Yorkshire kids are quite blunt,” he says. “They don’t have issues telling an adult what they think. They try to use humour a lot more than other kids. They’re stubborn. If they know they’re not getting a good deal, they tell you about it.”
Mitchell went to school just three miles from where he now works. He sees the documentary as a chance to offer a good news story from Dewsbury, which has been in the national media for all the wrong reasons. The leader of the suicide bombers in the terrorist attack on London on 7 July 2005 lived in the town, which hit the headlines again in 2008 over the kidnapping of schoolgirl Shannon Matthews.
There are also racial tensions. The far-right English Defence League (EDL) has staged demonstrations in Dewsbury, while six would-be Islamist terrorists were jailed in June for plotting to bomb an EDL protest in the town.
The comprehensive has a roughly equal balance of students from white and Asian families, drawn largely from two estates in the Thornhill area where the communities rarely mix. David Brindley, one of two series directors for production company Twofour, says its diversity was one reason Thornhill was chosen for the documentary, which he calls “a really honest and raw representation of the school”. He adds: “We knew it would be characterful and it felt very different from Essex.”
Nationally, about a quarter of secondary school students come from ethnic minority communities. Forty per cent of students at Thornhill do not speak English as their first language, compared to about 15 per cent nationally and just 3.4 per cent at Passmores Academy in Harlow, the focus of Educating Essex.
It’s the student dramas that make the format so compelling. Pastoral counsellor and head of Year 11 Rachel Crowther and her colleague Lynn Marsden are on the front line in dealing with often heartbreaking problems that youngsters can bring with them into school. “It’s a really bad day if we are both crying at the same time,” says Crowther. “I do get quite emotional; it’s not a job you can walk away from at the end of the day.”
Teenage emotions can make for a combustible mix, as the cameras record the triumphs and traumas of life among the school’s students. In the first episode, a mixed-race boy claims another pupil racially abused him. Is he a genuine victim or embroidering the truth to get out of trouble? It’s not an easy call to make, and as head teacher Mitchell points out, “I’m not Poirot.”
Later in the series Mitchell and senior teachers have to deal with the fall-out from a fight between Georgia, a girl with a quick tongue straight out of Little Britain, and Jac-Henry, a smart boy with a short fuse. The cameras reveal who’s culpable – it’s much harder for the staff.
What lingers is an appreciation of the almost limitless reserves of patience and cheerfulness of the staff as they strive to get rebellious, hormonal teenagers ready for the adult world ahead. The head, an ebullient figure fizzing with enthusiasm for his school, is often seen quipping “Happy days” as he confronts his latest challenge.
By letting in the cameras to see their school at work, Mitchell and his staff took a huge gamble. Thornhill serves a deprived community and has had a difficult history, coming under threat of closure at one point after ranking in the bottom six per cent of schools nationally for achievement. There were racial tensions after a teenage pupil was stabbed and beaten with a brick by a gang of youths in a nearby park in 2009. In 2007 its then headmaster was suspended and resigned amid allegations of staff bullying and favouritism, before being cleared at a tribunal.
“The bond of trust that the school has to build up with the production company is massive,” says Mitchell, 41, who was only a few months into his first job as head when Channel 4 came calling. He jokes that the documentary crew became so much a part of school life that “they know some of the kids and staff better than I do”.
“A few years ago this school wasn’t in a good place,” admits Dale Barrowclough, 43, a disciplinarian deputy head who left the Royal Air Force to enter teaching 12 years ago after seeing active service in the first Gulf War.
Barrowclough’s challenge to uncooperative students – “Do you want all of the grief that goes with that?” – is destined to become a catchphrase. Colleagues liken him to Stephen Drew, the outspoken deputy at Passmores who became a household name in Educating Essex.
“A lot of our students need tough love,” says Barrowclough. “I’m the one that can give a whole year group a rollicking in assembly, but all the students know that they can approach me and are treated with kindness and respect.”
“It’s important to have a big, bad wolf figure on the staff,” quips another deputy, Michael Steer, 36, who quit a job in banking to teach maths and withstand quick-fire quizzes in the corridors from students. He explains: “I can do my times tables quickly and they love that.”
Thornhill has overcome its difficulties in recent years and is being transformed from its days as one of the worst-performing schools in the country. The proportion of students leaving with at least five good GCSEs including English and Maths has more than doubled since 2008 – from 29 per cent in 2008 to 63 per cent in 2012.
The critically acclaimed portrait of Passmores, seen by millions on Channel 4, helped to convince Thornhill’s governors that it was the right thing to do when TV approached. A major consultation exercise began as the school and the company reached out to every family to seek consent for their children to be filmed.
Passmores’ head, Vic Goddard, also visited Thornhill to recount their experience and allay staff fears. Mitchell recalls: “I met Vic two or three times. We tweet each other, too. He’s the only other person in the country that has been through it at my level and he was brilliant.”
To provide such an intimate snapshot of school life, 64 “fixed rig” cameras were installed in classrooms and corridors. The small cameras were controlled from a mobile studio in the car park. Each camera was linked to a screen in the trailer and researchers monitored the action, drawing directors’ attention to key moments as they unfolded over seven weeks of the spring term. Photographs pinned next to the monitors showed children who could not be filmed, either because parents had refused permission or because they were under social services’ protection.
With filming completed, are tensions rising in the staff room over who will make the final cut when the series goes on air? English teacher Matthew Burton insists not. “There will be more noses out of joint with the kids if they are not in it than with the staff,” he says. “I will be watching between my fingers, I think.”
Thornhill became an academy under government reforms shortly before filming started, giving it greater freedom to run its affairs independently of the local authority. It remains undersubscribed, with 143 new entrants expected in September out of a possible 180, and, with funding dependent on the numbers enrolled, every student counts in boosting the budget.
“We are a school that I hope is not finished on a journey that could be somewhere really special,” says Mitchell, who hopes that the series will create a buzz that persuades more parents to enrol their children at Thornhill. He has no regrets about letting in the cameras.
“It’s raw, it’s true, it’s funny. Despite some of the problems that our kids have, they all come out of it really well.”
Tony Halpin is a former education editor of The Times
Educating Yorkshire is on Thursdays at 9pm on Channel 4