I started as a sceptic. Trailers for the series showed belligerent pupils stropping down corridors while teenage girls preened their peroxide blonde hair in class when they should have be poring over Shakespeare.
This was Channel 4 packaging up unruly, underachieving secondary school students as 9pm entertainment, I thought. It was tabloid television – cheap and exploitative – and I’d made up my mind not to like it.
Two months later I was sobbing uncontrollably on my sofa as inspirational English teacher Mr Burton coaxed stammering Musharaf through a reading of Margaret Atwood’s The Moment. We’d watched bright, self-deprecating “Mushy” struggle to express his inner eloquence all series, yet here he was, confidently reciting a poem aloud thanks to Mr Burton’s suggestion that he listen to his iPod while reading (a tactic gleaned from The King’s Speech).
It was an astonishingly poignant moment; the sort of end-of-series emotional sledgehammer that writers spend months agonising over. Only it wasn’t scripted. It was real, life-changing human drama at its most raw and all the more powerful for it.
What was a very personal milestone for Musharaf symbolised a much broader victory for Thornhill Community Academy and the creators of Educating Yorkshire. Their combined efforts had, over eight weeks, delivered an unflinching look at the day-to-day life of a school once ranked among the worst-performing 6% in the country. Even more impressively, they had done so without passing judgement.
Yes there were tears and tantrums but footage recorded on fixed rigged cameras combined with staff and student interviews contextualised any bolshy behavior. When bullish year 10 Tom retreated into an angry, monosyllabic shell, it was sensitively explained that he was struggling to cope with the recent death of his stepbrother. While many teachers would have dismissed chatterbox Robbie-Joe as a disruptive nightmare, year 7 tutor Miss Uren got him back on side with her no-nonsense encouragement.
The dedication of Thornhill’s staff never ceased to amaze. One of the series’ most memorable moments came when maths genius cum deputy headteacher Mr Steer refused to take a sick day despite a possibly gangrenous leg. GCSEs were looming and he wasn’t about to desert his anxious students. It was a remarkable show of everyday heroics that Michael Gove no doubt dreams of replicating on a national scale.
From the moment the series began, ebullient, tough-talking headteacher Mr Mitchell was forced to defend his decision to let the cameras in. He maintained that the school’s steady improvement, both in terms of results and behavior, represented an important good news story to counter the mainstream media’s obsession with falling standards and ineffectual teachers. He was right, my preconceptions about the series utterly wrong.
Educating Yorkshire took us beyond the headlines and made the debate about the state of the country’s education system accessible and compelling in a way that news reports never could. Funny, heartbreaking and honest, it was, quite simply, humane documentary making at its very best.
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