Over the past few weeks the young stars of Channel 4’s secondary school fly-on-the-wall drama Educating Yorkshire have been catapulted from the anonymity of their gritty comprehensive into the full glare of the national media spotlight.
The bolshy, belligerent and occasionally endearing behaviour of Thornhill Community Academy’s motley crew of characters has so far attracted an average audience of more than 2.5 million in its Thursday night slot, triggering hearty debate about the state of the country’s education system in the process.
However, when even the most self-assured adult would struggle to come to terms with such sudden media scrutiny, you can’t help but wonder what the impact of the show’s success has been on the already complicated personal lives of its student stars.
As the self-described “responsible adult” in the situation, charismatic head teacher and unlikely heartthrob Jonny Mitchell, 41, tried to warn the pupils of the potential pitfalls of fast-track fame before filming began.
“The one thing we were keen to make sure they were aware of was social media. Ideally none of them would use Facebook or Twitter for at least two years after the first transmission but I can’t keep off the damn thing and I’m a dinosaur. We made sure their security settings were at maximum …and [we told them] don’t tap Educating Yorkshire and your name into Twitter because there will be people who will say lovely things about you and those who don’t and if you respond you give it kudos.”
Despite this, somewhat confusingly, Mitchell proudly states that the stars of the show, such as outspoken Safiyyah who has since left Thornhill for sixth-form college, are relishing their new, quasi-celebrity status.
“They’re still really up for it and the fact they’ve been on national television and that people are recognising them and trying to follow them on Twitter…Safiyyah in particular texts me on a regular basis to say how she’s feeling. She’s learning to develop a skin that says, look everyone’s jealous because she’s been on national television.”
For what it’s worth, the married father of three is also enjoying his moment in the spotlight with Facebook marriage proposals and interview requests flooding in. Although he agreed to feature in Heat magazine’s Manwatch, a reader-decided “hottest guy” poll that he describes as “a bit of daftness,” Mitchell has turned down offers that “would make us adults [at the school] look like a joke”.
“Loose Women want to talk to me and I don’t want to talk to them,” he explains, “not because they’re not lovely but it’s not really an appropriate forum for me to discuss things.” Having last week spoken out against Michael Gove’s proposed reforms to the exam system, Mitchell expects that once the hype around the programme subsides, he will only receive attention “from people within education”.
In the short term, he is enjoying an unforeseen consequence of the series; a noticeable improvement in classroom demeanour.
“Since we’ve come back in September behavior has been radically better. We’re not perfect by any stretch of the imagination – incidents still occur – but generally the kids use more appropriate language and have better relationships with the staff and knowing that this huge adventure was going to be played out in front of the nation has made a massive difference. They’ve got a renewed sense of purpose.”
Does he worry that behavior will trickle back to normal when the series comes to an end next week?
“I don’t know if it will be an anticlimax. There will be some semblance of relief…but there’s nothing normal about Thornhill Community Academy.”
Educating Yorkshire continues tonight at 9:00pm on Channel 4