Educating Essex: a different class

A teacher delivers his verdict on a new Channel 4 fly-on-the-wall documentary

Teachers are used to being blamed for society’s ills, but the level of abuse we’ve received recently has been unprecedented.

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You name it, we’re to blame: the summer’s riots, dumbing down, indiscipline, illiteracy and immorality.

It’s frustrating because it paints a false picture of what’s going on in schools today. But at last here’s a TV documentary that tells the truth.

Educating Essex is perhaps the most ambitious “slice-of-life” documentary ever made in a school. 

The programme-makers gained unprecedented access to a large, successful secondary school, Passmores School and Technology College in Harlow, Essex (this month it became a co-operative academy).

For seven weeks in 2010, 62 cameras were placed in the school, focusing on Year 11 students and their teachers.

What I found heartening was that this is a warts-and-all celebration of school. Because it’s your average secondary school – a non-selective comp – it’s emblematic of many up and down the country.

Watching Educating Essex we are constantly reminded, by the pleasant behaviour of the pupils in assembly, the hush in the classrooms and the orderly corridors, that this school, like the vast majority of state schools, is a calm, purposeful place.

It’s exactly the sort of documentary that many teachers have been crying out for to counteract the pernicious myth that the majority of schools are failing pupils. Nothing could be further from the truth.

I’ve been teaching for more than 20 years now in various comprehensives and things have, genuinely, got much, much better.

When I first started teaching in Tower Hamlets in the early 1990s, I was sworn at and hit in classrooms that ran riot; the school I taught in was bottom of the school league tables, with less than three per cent of pupils achieving 5 A-C grades at GCSE.

I left the school after a few years but returned for a visit recently. I was amazed. A new head-teacher had turned things around: greater investment, better discipline and tighter accountability had changed everything.

Crumbling classrooms had been replaced, there were computers everywhere and the pupils shone with pride. It’s now one of the best schools in London.

The social demographic of the pupils hasn’t changed but expectations have – as they have across the country. In 1990, just 36 per cent of 16-year-olds achieved 5 A-C grades at GCSE; in 2010, that figure was 75 per cent.

Not surprisingly, this massive rise in standards has been accompanied by improvements in school discipline: in its 2010 annual report, Ofsted judged behaviour to be good or better in 86 per cent of schools.

The teaching profession has done a fantastic job of raising standards in the last two decades. Not that the job is an easy one. I’m always nervous at the beginning of term because there’s such a lot to do.

Pressure on teachers is more intense; pupils and parents have higher expectations and don’t hesitate to complain if they think something’s wrong.

I’ve had to bear the brunt of angry parents and pupils despite getting good results out of most of them. This is tough, as it’s easy to focus on the negative.

I can understand why the media is relentless in its focus upon the failings of teachers; it’s fascinating to dwell on the things that go wrong.

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But schools like Passmores are the great achievements of our society, full of light, laughter and, above all, learning. It would be great to see that reflected more in the news.