If you’re a white van man called out to do some work at a local secondary school, and you’re too busy or too lazy to clean your vehicle, you can’t really complain about what happens next.
How many teenage boys would have the self-restraint to pass a grubby van without scrawling something in the grime? Not many, as we discover in Educating Greater Manchester.
First, a young lad scrawls the F-word. Then another boy scribbles a cartoon penis. Then, inevitably, a whole lot more boys draw a whole lot more penises. The crime of the century? Probably not. Something a headteacher ought to put a stop to? Probably.
Drew Povey, head at Harrop Fold School in one of Manchester’s toughest neighbourhoods, knows he needs to take a tough line. He rounds up the guilty students, ready for a good telling-off.
But beforehand, he wipes the smile from his own face. “Really it’s quite amusing,” he admits to a colleague. “But I need to go and be angry. So I need to compose myself.”
It’s a small vignette but perhaps a revealing one. Educating Greater Manchester is Channel 4’s fifth fly-on-the-wall series about life in Britain’s schools, following visits to Essex, Yorkshire, London’s East End and Cardiff.
This series follows a familiar template: a once-struggling school that has turned itself around; inspiring teachers delivering care far above the duties demanded of them by their employment contract; and teenagers peering into the world of adulthood and sometimes recoiling at what they see. All courtesy of dozens of remote-controlled cameras recording everything going on. Including moments – such as with Drew Povey and the van – that were never designed for public consumption.
Harrop Fold certainly has its problems – or “challenges”, as they are invariably called these days. Its catchment area takes in one of poorest council estates in Britain, and the school’s own website says that Harrop Fold was once deemed to be “the worst school in the country”.
In 2004, Ofsted inspectors described the pupils here as “intimidating, rowdy and unruly”, and two police officers were permanently on site. There were, I’m told by one member of staff, “quite frequent arrests… and the police would make a point of doing it quite visibly to show that they were serious”.
At its nadir, the school had five different headteachers in five terms. But that’s all in the distant past. Under the charismatic leadership of Povey and his team, this is a school that’s going places. The most recent Ofsted report judged Harrop Fold as “good with outstanding features”.
It is now consistently oversubscribed and exam results, once on the floor, have been rapidly improving. The head – wearing a suit and a smile both just a little bit too big for his slim frame – is giving RT a whistle-stop tour. He stops to talk to student after student, each by their first name. The young people clearly respect their headteacher, but he’s not the distant character some of us remember from our school days.
Yet inner-city poverty is never far away. During our tour, the head tells me that he has a pot of money earmarked for buying shoes. “If a kid says, ‘My parents can’t afford shoes,’ we will buy them shoes. We’ve done that hundreds of times.”
Of course, none of the other children knows which of their friends is on the “free shoes” list, just as the names on the free-schoolmeals list is kept private. “When I first arrived, we used to have two queues. One for free-school-meal kids, and one for non-free meals,” says the head incredulously. “They even had different coloured tickets!”
I spot a poster on the wall that makes me do a double-take. It’s a big picture of a gun. “Girls, carrying a secret? Talk to us if your boyfriend or brother is involved in gang activity.”
That, however, would be to misrepresent the place. Harrop Fold oozes kindness, not deprivation or danger. It’s also a very liberal place – happy to allow boys to wear make-up, if that’s what they want to do.
One of the stars of the series is GCSE student Mitchell, who wears lipstick, eye-liner, foundation and false nails into school. Has he ever encountered any resistance from fellow pupils? “No. Never. Really.”
If that’s unusual, how about this? Two of 39-year-old Drew Povey’s brothers also work at the school – Ross, 41, is one of his deputies and Ben, 33, is a member of the school’s “behaviour team”. From the outside, it might look like the worst form of favouritism – a head coming in and installing family members in key positions – but it’s nothing like that.
Drew, who joined as assistant head in 2005 and has been head since 2010, wasn’t the boss when either of his brothers joined the staff. “Yeah, yeah. Everyone says it’s nepotism,” he smiles, “but Ross was here before me – and Ben was employed by my predecessor.”
Don’t these family ties complicate things when rival staff members are vying for promotion? “The governors are very aware of the potential for people to create mischief with that kind of thing, so they’re involved in processing all appointments.”
Whatever the complications of having one family so heavily embedded in one school, it seems to work. The kids here show amazing pride for their school. They display just the right amount of cheekiness – and contrition when they step over the line. Even if their contrition is sometimes forced upon them.
Did the van driver ever return to Harrop Fold? Yes, he did. He was invited to bring his vehicle back into school – where it was given a wash by the boys who’d written naughty things on it.
Mr Povey’s idea? Doubtless. Let’s just hope he managed a straight face.
By Vincent Graff
Educating Greater Manchester is on Thursday 9.00pm C4