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

Nicola Sturgeon and Tony Blair. Photo: Getty
Show Hide image

Nicola Sturgeon's SNP, like Tony Blair's New Labour, is heading for a crash landing

The fall of Tony Blair should be a set text for anyone wishing to know what happens next to the SNP.

If there was one thing the SNP and New Labour had in common, it was the hope. Both offered themselves as a burning torch of optimism to publics that had become tired of the same old gang running things in the same old way. Both promised a fairer, more equal society and a fearless embrace of the modern world with an appealing freshness and energy. The voters bought it: both won big, repeatedly.

The thing is, if you’re elected on a mandate to be different, you’d better be different. In many areas, for a long time, New Labour managed to be just that. The smiling PM with the huge majority pushed through radical policies, some of which even worked. Tony Blair’s methodology was so successful and so convincing that the Conservatives and the Lib Dems reshaped themselves in his likeness. Arguably, a form of New Labour won in 2010 and 2015.

But, as they say, it’s the hope that kills you. When the inevitable attritional realities of governing start to weigh, when you make, as you will, bad decisions, when the list of enemies grows long, when you’ve just had your time, you’ll fall like all the rest – only, when you’ve soared so close to the sun, you have that much further to plummet.

The fall of Blair and of Labour should be a set text for anyone wishing to know what happens next to the SNP. Sunday night’s debate between the Scottish party leaders was, I think, a foretaste of what’s coming – a public that until recently was politically and emotionally invested in the Nats is growing restive. In time, this will turn to disenchantment, then anger, then revenge at the ballot box. This is the unbreakable cycle of democratic politics.

Some of us have warned since the start that the SNP had over-promised and could only under-deliver. Its raison d’etre is independence; everything else - literally everything else - is just another brick to build the path. And so education reform cannot be either radical or unpopular, even if it needs to be so to work, because the SNP cannot afford to alienate teachers or the teaching unions or parents. Bricks, you see. Same with the NHS and doctors and health unions and patients. All the separatists have done – all they could have done, given their nature - is deploy the rhetoric of the radical while in reality body-swerving hard choices and conflict at any cost. And where they have found themselves taking flak, they’ve pointed south to Westminster: "it’s no’ our fault, it’s theirs".

But voters show signs of wearying of the predictable blame game and waking up to the time-limited strategy of show-over-substance. Middle Scotland is either ignored or maligned by the middle-class socialists who drive the nation’s political debate, but it is where elections are won. The SNP has secured the support of enough of these people to win every recent election in style, but somewhere along the way the party seems to have forgotten this was a mandate not for independence, but for good government. Ten years in to SNP rule, each new audit of public services seems to wail like a warning siren – things aren’t just not improving, they’re getting worse. The SNP is not keeping its part of the deal.

So, during Sunday night’s debate it was Nicola Sturgeon, not Ruth Davidson or Kezia Dugdale, who found herself in the audience’s cross-hairs. It will have been a strange experience for a woman more used to public adulation and a clamour for selfies. There were the teachers, who complained about the damp squib that is the Curriculum for Excellence, the SNP’s flagship education policy; who pointed out that a fifth of primary pupils are leaving without basic literacy and numeracy skills; and who warned that lowering the standard of exams in order to push up the pass rate was not a mark of success.

Then there was the nurse who said she had been forced to use a food bank (the existence of which has been used repeatedly by the SNP as a stick with which to beat the Conservatives and Westminster): ‘I can’t manage on the salary I have [which is set by the Scottish Government]. You have no idea how demoralising it is to work in the NHS. Don’t come on your announced visits, come in in the middle of any day to any ward, any A&E department and see what we’re up against.’ She delivered the evening’s killer line: ‘Do you think your perceived obsession with independence might actually cost you… in this election?’

The list of reasonable criticisms is growing and will grow further. The ideological obsession with free university tuition for Scottish students is increasingly seen as a sop to the better-off, while in England the fee-charging regime has seen the number of students coming from poorer families climb. Ms Sturgeon’s demand for a quick second independence referendum, when a worried middle Scotland was focused on what Brexit might mean for its future, was tone deaf.

The SNP has another problem (one that New Labour, for all its flaws, didn’t face): its doctrine of infallibility. The Nats’ constitution explicitly prohibits its elected members from criticising the party, its policies or each other. While total unity is useful when you’re on the climb, it starts to look bonkers when the cracks are showing. Allowing public self-criticism, far from being a sign of weakness, is a necessary vent for inner tensions and a sign to voters that a political party is something more than a cult.

That ‘cult’ word has long dogged the SNP and its supporters. The party has tried hard to normalise its electoral appeal while keeping the flame of independence burning bright, but it has been a difficult balancing act. The pro-independence mob is an ugly thing when it is unleashed (and it has suited the leadership to open the cage at times). Claire Austin, the nurse who criticised the First Minister on Sunday, has found herself at its mercy. Immediately after the debate, the Nats briefed (wrongly) that she was the wife of a Tory councilor. The SNP branch in Stirling said Tebbitishly that if she was having to use food banks "maybe she needs to tighten her belt a bit more?" Joanna Cherry, a QC, MP and the SNP’s Home Affairs spokesperson, was forced to publicly apologise for spreading "Twitter rumours" about Ms Austin.

The ravening horde has largely kept its head down since the 2014 independence referendum, but we now see it hasn’t gone away - it is not enough for the SNP’s critics to be debated, they must be destroyed. This isn’t the behaviour of a normal political party: it’s the behaviour of a cult.

I might be wrong, but I have a feeling that when the SNP does fall it will fall quite quickly. Its belief in its infallibility, its inability or unwillingness to do self-deprecation or apology, will increasingly aggravate voters. There is nothing to suggest the current public policy failings will be addressed, and plenty of signs that things will get worse. How, then, do you arrest your fall?

The SNP offered hope and promised it was different, and the voters believed. The sense of betrayal could make for a very hard landing indeed.

Chris Deerin is the New Statesman's contributing editor (Scotland). 

0800 7318496