Channel 4’s Educating series is back for a new term. And this time the fly-on-the-classroom-wall documentary has drilled its cameras into Harrop Fold, a school in Greater Manchester previously known as “the worst in the country”.
But don’t expect a show following the arrest-prone kids of Harrop, once dubbed by Ofsted as “intimidating, rowdy and unruly”. In part thanks to the efforts of no-nonsense headteacher Drew Povey, the school has rapidly improved its ranking and aims to flaunt its new “outstanding in some places” status in C4’s Educating Greater Manchester.
But the show was far from child’s play for the film crew. To make the eight one-hour episodes, the Educating team spent over a year at Harrop Fold, building relationships with staff, setting up their many many cameras and contending with an editing process more gruelling than a physics GCSE.
So, how did the crew and teachers pull it off? We spoke to headteacher Mr Povey and director Warren Smith to get a behind-the-scenes schooling on the show’s secrets.
The cameras recorded 2,000 hours of footage…
Which is a lot in TV terms. In fact, you could binge on every episode of The Simpsons, Friends, classic Doctor Who, new Doctor Who and then Friends again and you’d still have watched less than half the length of footage the Educating Greater Manchester team produced.
That 83 days’ worth of material was thanks to the 60 cameras rigged around the school. And although this count is slightly smaller than other Educating series (the Yorkshire version used 64 and the Cardiff 68), for the first time Educating Greater Manchester also employed cameras to film inside select pupils’ houses.
“We wanted to go and film what’s going on at home, to hear what the parents think out of school. We wanted to give that outside picture, which we haven’t heard before,” explains Smith. “We tried to make it as least obstructive as possible, so we only used two cameras in the houses. Whereas in the school we can drill cameras into the wall, we wouldn’t be too welcome if we did the same in people’s homes, so we took remote cameras there.”
Most of the time the cameras weren’t recording
The crew may have only filmed in three-month chunks over the course of an academic year, but even then they had to be sparing with the recording button.
“Working with 60 cameras across just one school day would result in 420 hours of footage in one day. It would take over 17 just to watch,” explains Smith, who should receive an A* for mental arithmetic. “That would be impossible to edit.”
The solution: throw out the instinct of most filmmakers and only record when something really interesting is happening, a task a lot harder than it sounds. “In a normal school day there were things evolving all the time, all across those cameras,” says Smith. “We just had to react the best we could, plan around certain classes. And even then often we had to make hard calls of what to follow and what to leave. So much was happening at once.”
A team of ten hidden in a shipping crate in the car park controlled the remote cameras
To pupils it looked like a simple shipping container on the outside, but on the inside, the Educating crew had eyes on the school with a makeshift gallery studio. “The feed from every single camera was coming through on 60 screens. And we could control them all from there too. There was a lot going on,” says Smith.
And although a team of ten may seem a good number to cover the entire school, manpower had to be directed to logging events rather than solely directing cameras towards them. “We could never have sifted through our footage without a few live loggers. They wrote exactly what happens when it happened. It saved us a lot of time having to go back through the recordings,” explains Smith.
It’s from these logs that storylines were developed, with the hundreds of hours of notes whittled down into coherent narratives – essentially the script of the show. And for that to happen the team need to make some harsh edits…
Most storylines led nowhere
It’s simple really: to squeeze 2,000 hours into a 400-minute series, a lot of narratives had to be dropped – some easier than others.
“There’s lots of things we follow and it doesn’t pay off as issues can resolve themselves really quickly,” says Smith. “And then there are stories that we have to ask whether it fits into an episodic theme. From our logs we’ll discuss what stories we’ve captured in the filming period and work out the issues we want to address. And obviously, with the amount of footage we get, fights between students or the like gets dropped for one of those reasons. We had to make tough calls.”
Yes, the cameras do make everyone nervous at first
Everyone at Harrop Fold might seem like they’re completely oblivious to the swarm of 60 cameras, 100 atmospheric microphones and possibly one of the 25 personal mics monitoring their every breath. But we only see what happens after the school relaxes to the surveillance.
“The first day I was really aware of it – I was thinking ‘There’s a camera there! And there!” says Povey. And the children were no less conscious: “On the first day everyone was really loud! But then the kids got used to cameras faster than the adults. Within 48 hours everyone got used to it.”
Headmaster Drew Povey
And this may be because of the design of the cameras themselves. “They look very similar to CCTV cameras – a round camera that sits on the wall. The only time when we saw people noticed is when the cameras turn suddenly. But soon after I thought nobody clocked the camera again,” explains Smith.
Smith’s thinking looks to have been right, with some eventually only noticing the crew after they’d left Harrop Fold. “After [the crew] left it got strange – I found it really weird not to come into school in the mornings and have a five-minute mic up!” laughs Povey. “That was the bit that took getting used to.”
Those one-on-one interviews weren’t filmed in one chunk
Rather than waiting until the Educating crew finalised which narratives would make the show before going back and debriefing with the relevant pupils and teachers, the Educating team tried to get these talking head interviews done as soon as possible. “We tried to do them straight after something happened in order not to disturb their storyline,” says Smith.
And these interviews wouldn’t take long. Unlike some shows that interview characters for hours before spreading relevant clips from that interview throughout the episode – looking at you, nearly every American reality show – Educating Greater Manchester only spoke to its subjects for five minutes at a time to capture an accurate reaction.
Everyone at the school took a vote about whether to take part in the show
It wasn’t just the governors or headteacher who decided to open the school to the national media. After TwoFour – the production company behind the series – contacted Harrop Fold, Povey put the choice to the students in an assembly.
After what the headteacher describes as some “very mature debate”, each of the 890 students undertook an anonymous vote. The result: an overwhelming thumbs up for the show. “The yes vote definitely won – it was well beyond 80%,” says Povey. “It was a very democratic decision.”
The crew were at the school a long time before filming
After Harrop Fold voted to let in the cameras, it took over six months before they were actually rigged up. For the first half year, the crew spent becoming accustomed to the school – and made sure everyone was comfortable with them.
“In that pre-production period, we dedicated time to make sure everyone – pupils, teachers and parents – were happy with it. We spent time building relationships with teachers and staff and getting to know them, working out who wanted to be on camera and what were the possible narratives to follow,” said Smith.
“We also became part of the school – we wanted it to feel as normal as possible. We wanted to be on the site, located on the school to answer any questions we could answer. We had a child psychologist for the duration that any student could speak to. It’s about trust. And it takes time to build trust.”
Everyone, yes everyone, on camera had to complete a release form
And while that’s normal practice for TV, it’s not normal to gather 700 forms and permission slips from one school – it was a lot of homework for the crew before filming.
“It was a massive admin beast!” recollects Smith. “The last thing we want to do is send out a programme where everyone’s face is blurred because we weren’t able to track them down. The school worked tirelessly with us to identify everyone we filmed.”
And the effort wasn’t only to spare the audience from a sea of pixelated faces. The push to identify all students was to make sure they were happy with what was on screen. “We talk through what footage we want to use to everyone on camera – talk to pupils and parents about the story we’re telling and if they think we’ve got all sides of it,” explains Smith, once again citing the child psychologist who was available to answer any concerns from the pupils.
But what if a child is depicted starting a fight or saying something they might regret in later life? “The last thing we want a child to do is suffer because of a TV show,” answers Smith. “And most of the children and parents understand that if they have done something wrong then it’s simply because they didn’t know it’s wrong. It wasn’t malicious.
“Yes, we have to stay true to what we filmed – it’s not a promotional video for the school – but all the pupils have got until the show airs to say to us ‘I don’t want to be involved’.”
Educating Greater Manchester starts on Thursday 31st August at 9pm on Channel 4