Educating Yorkshire and Bad Education: Stepping into a vortex of competition, bullying and sexual tension

I loved watching the first part of the new documentary Educating Yorkshire. All I could think was: “No school for me, suckers!”

Educating Yorkshire, Bad Education
Channel 4, BBC3
 
I loved watching the first part of the new documentary Educating Yorkshire (5 September, 9pm). All I could think was: “No school for me, suckers!” Perhaps this sounds sad: I’m in my forties; I should be long past Feeling the Fear come September. But the truth is I hated almost every moment of my years in fulltime education, and the weird similarities between Thornhill Community Academy in Dewsbury and my old school in Sheffield brought all the loathing rushing back.
 
It wasn’t just the building, utilitarian to a fault, but the staff, too. I’d almost forgotten how much the northern male likes to swagger, flirt and gurn in the classroom, how much he relishes the melodrama of a good telling-off (“Unfortunately, you don’t find us in a very charitable mood today . . .”). How heavenly to remember all this, safe in the knowledge that I will never again have to enter such a vortex of low-level competition, bullying and sexual tension.
 
Ah, competition. But calm down, this is not Gove-speak. Rather, I refer to the way that in much of the state sector one must strive hard to be – or at least to appear to be – the school’s least active, alert, interested, clever or successful pupil; a dumb kind of a contest but one that it is vital to win, or so it feels at the time.
 
At Thornhill, where a new head teacher, Mr Mitchell, is trying hard to lift standards, there are lots of pupils involved in this particular madness. They wander the corridors, limp as rags. Prod them, however, and they spring delightfully to life. “No, I’ve just got style, sir,” swanked Bailey, when a teacher wondered aloud if her woolly hat was a sign she was off to play golf.
 
Bailey, alas, has a bit of a problem, caught between her desire to seem like the least enthusiastic person alive and a secret wish to become a prefect and Make Something of Herself. When told to remove her nail polish, her reply was straightforward. “I can’t!” she said, as if she’d been asked to construct an algorithm for cosmetic change. Why not? “Because I don’t like my nails.”
 
Later on, Mr Mitchell inquired after her pencilled eyebrows – weren’t they getting a bit big? Patiently, she explained the difficulty to him. These facial caterpillars of hers need to match, so if one appears to be bigger than the other, she must then adjust the first – and so . . . they grow. “You can use stencils,” she said, though it was clear from her tone that such technical kit is not for her; she would rather wield the kohl freehand and hang the consequences.
 
All this is delicious – like a play by Jez Butterworth. That the school is improving rapidly allows you to enjoy it without worrying too much about these children’s results. It also makes me think that Jack Whitehall’s Bad Education, back for a second series (3 September, 10.30pm), is not half so far-fetched as some of its critics might imagine.
 
How’s this for comedy? In Educating Yorkshire, a female teacher complained to her class of feeling hot. “Maybe you’re going through the menopause, miss,” said 12-year-old Ryan. And then: “Do you know what that is?” At which point, Miss actually answered: “Yes. It’s when you get older and you . . . change.” Ryan grimaced, sympathetically.
 
No wonder that Bad Education, which I watched straight afterwards, had a distinct whiff of documentary. I remember teachers exactly like Alfie (Whitehall), who desperately sucked up to the classes that bullied them. We had a German master who turned his “lessons” into an eternal Rubik’s Cube competition (prizes of cash and Smarties).
 
At Abbey Grove School’s swimming gala, the wimpish Alfie claimed a chlorine allergy so bad it would turn him “from Jamie Redknapp to Harry Redknapp just like that”. But then, in the cause of trying to prove his class wasn’t a bunch of complete losers, he agreed to enter the synchronised diving contest and his face swelled up until he looked like Avid Merrion in Bo’ Selecta!. God, it was funny. I sniggered all the way through and then – old habits die hard – nipped out for a bag of cheese and onion crisps, the swimming gala snack of choice, whether you’re 14 or 40.
Eyebrow debate: Bailey, a pupil at Thornhill Community College. Photo: Gary Calton/Channel 4

Rachel Cooke trained as a reporter on The Sunday Times. She is now a writer at The Observer. In the 2006 British Press Awards, she was named Interviewer of the Year.

This article first appeared in the 09 September 2013 issue of the New Statesman, Britain alone

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The Women's March against Trump matters – but only if we keep fighting

We won’t win the battle for progressive ideas if we don’t battle in the first place.

Arron Banks, UKIP-funder, Brexit cheerleader and Gibraltar-based insurance salesman, took time out from Trump's inauguration to tweet me about my role in tomorrow's Women’s March Conservative values are in the ascendancy worldwide. Thankfully your values are finished. . . good”.

Just what about the idea of women and men marching for human rights causes such ill will? The sense it is somehow cheeky to say we will champion equality whoever is in office in America or around the world. After all, if progressives like me have lost the battle of ideas, what difference does it make whether we are marching, holding meetings or just moaning on the internet?

The only anti-democratic perspective is to argue that when someone has lost the argument they have to stop making one. When political parties lose elections they reflect, they listen, they learn but if they stand for something, they don’t disband. The same is true, now, for the broader context. We should not dismiss the necessity to learn, to listen, to reflect on the rise of Trump – or indeed reflect on the rise of the right in the UK  but reject the idea that we have to take a vow of silence if we want to win power again.

To march is not to ignore the challenges progressives face. It is to start to ask what are we prepared to do about it.

Historically, conservatives have had no such qualms about regrouping and remaining steadfast in the confidence they have something worth saying. In contrast, the left has always been good at absolving itself of the need to renew.

We spend our time seeking the perfect candidates, the perfect policy, the perfect campaign, as a precondition for action. It justifies doing nothing except sitting on the sidelines bemoaning the state of society.

We also seem to think that changing the world should be easier than reality suggests. The backlash we are now seeing against progressive policies was inevitable once we appeared to take these gains for granted and became arrogant and exclusive about the inevitability of our worldview. Our values demand the rebalancing of power, whether economic, social or cultural, and that means challenging those who currently have it. We may believe that a more equal world is one in which more will thrive, but that doesn’t mean those with entrenched privilege will give up their favoured status without a fight or that the public should express perpetual gratitude for our efforts via the ballot box either.  

Amongst the conferences, tweets and general rumblings there seem three schools of thought about what to do next. The first is Marxist  as in Groucho revisionism: to rise again we must water down our principles to accommodate where we believe the centre ground of politics to now be. Tone down our ideals in the hope that by such acquiescence we can eventually win back public support for our brand – if not our purpose. The very essence of a hollow victory.

The second is to stick to our guns and stick our heads in the sand, believing that eventually, when World War Three breaks out, the public will come grovelling back to us. To luxuriate in an unwillingness to see we are losing not just elected offices but the fight for our shared future.

But what if there really was a third way? It's not going to be easy, and it requires more than a hashtag or funny t-shirt. It’s about picking ourselves up, dusting ourselves down and starting to renew our call to arms in a way that makes sense for the modern world.

For the avoidance of doubt, if we march tomorrow and then go home satisfied we have made our point then we may as well not have marched at all. But if we march and continue to organise out of the networks we make, well, then that’s worth a Saturday in the cold. After all, we won’t win the battle of ideas, if we don’t battle.

We do have to change the way we work. We do have to have the courage not to live in our echo chambers alone. To go with respect and humility to debate and discuss the future of our communities and of our country.

And we have to come together to show there is a willingness not to ask a few brave souls to do that on their own. Not just at election times, but every day and in every corner of Britain, no matter how difficult it may feel.

Saturday is one part of that process of finding others willing not just to walk a mile with a placard, but to put in the hard yards to win the argument again for progressive values and vision. Maybe no one will show up. Maybe not many will keep going. But whilst there are folk with faith in each other, and in that alternative future, they’ll find a friend in me ready to work with them and will them on  and then Mr Banks really should be worried.