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

Getty
Show Hide image

In the 1980s, I went to a rally where Labour Party speakers shared the stage with men in balaclavas

The links between the Labour left and Irish republicanism are worth investigating.

A spat between Jeremy Corbyn’s henchfolk and Conor McGinn, the MP for St Helens North, caught my ear the other evening. McGinn was a guest on BBC Radio 4’s Westminster Hour, and he obligingly revisited the brouhaha for the listeners at home. Apparently, following an interview in May, in which McGinn called for Corbyn to “reach out beyond his comfort zone”, he was first threatened obliquely with the sack, then asked for a retraction (which he refused to give) and finally learned – from someone in the whips’ office – that his party leader was considering phoning up McGinn’s father to whip the errant whipper-in into line. On the programme, McGinn said: “The modus operandi that he [Corbyn] and the people around him were trying to do [sic], involving my family, was to isolate and ostracise me from them and from the community I am very proud to come from – which is an Irish nationalist community in south Armagh.”

Needless to say, the Labour leader’s office has continued to deny any such thing, but while we may nurture some suspicions about his behaviour, McGinn was also indulging in a little airbrushing when he described south Armagh as an “Irish ­nationalist community”. In the most recent elections, Newry and Armagh returned three Sinn Fein members to the Northern Ireland Assembly (as against one Social Democratic and Labour Party member) and one Sinn Fein MP to Westminster. When I last looked, Sinn Fein was still a republican, rather than a nationalist, party – something that McGinn should only be too well aware of, as the paternal hand that was putatively to have been lain on him belongs to Pat McGinn, the former Sinn Fein mayor of Newry and Armagh.

According to the Irish News, a “close friend” of the McGinns poured this cold water on the mini-conflagration: “Anybody who knows the McGinn family knows that Pat is very proud of Conor and that they remain very close.” The friend went on to opine: “He [Pat McGinn] found the whole notion of Corbyn phoning him totally ridiculous – as if Pat is going to criticise his son to save Jeremy Corbyn’s face. They would laugh about it were it not so sinister.”

“Sinister” does seem the mot juste. McGinn, Jr grew up in Bessbrook during the Troubles. I visited the village in the early 1990s on assignment. The skies were full of the chattering of British army Chinooks, and there were fake road signs in the hedgerows bearing pictograms of rifles and captioned: “Sniper at work”. South Armagh had been known for years as “bandit country”. There were army watchtowers standing sentinel in the dinky, green fields and checkpoints everywhere, manned by some of the thousands of the troops who had been deployed to fight what was, in effect, a low-level counter-insurgency war. Nationalist community, my foot.

What lies beneath the Corbyn-McGinn spat is the queered problematics of the ­relationship between the far left wing of the Labour Party and physical-force Irish republicanism. I also recall, during the hunger strikes of the early 1980s, going to a “Smash the H-Blocks” rally in Kilburn, north London, at which Labour Party speakers shared the stage with representatives from Sinn Fein, some of whom wore balaclavas and dark glasses to evade the telephoto lenses of the Met’s anti-terrorist squad.

The shape-shifting relationship between the “political wing” of the IRA and the men with sniper rifles in the south Armagh bocage was always of the essence of the conflict, allowing both sides a convenient fiction around which to posture publicly and privately negotiate. In choosing to appear on platforms with people who might or might not be terrorists, Labour leftists also sprinkled a little of their stardust on themselves: the “stardust” being the implication that they, too, under the right circumstances, might be capable of violence in pursuit of their political ends.

On the far right of British politics, Her Majesty’s Government and its apparatus are referred to derisively as “state”. There were various attempts in the 1970s and 1980s by far-right groupuscules to link up with the Ulster Freedom Fighters and other loyalist paramilitary organisations in their battle against “state”. All foundered on the obvious incompetence of the fascists. The situation on the far left was different. The socialist credentials of Sinn Fein/IRA were too threadbare for genuine expressions of solidarity, but there was a sort of tacit confidence-and-supply arrangement between these factions. The Labour far left provided the republicans with the confidence that, should an appropriately radical government be elected to Westminster, “state” would withdraw from Northern Ireland. What the republicans did for the mainland militants was to cloak them in their penumbra of darkness: without needing to call down on themselves the armed might of “state”, they could imply that they were willing to take it on, should the opportunity arise.

I don’t for a second believe that Corbyn was summoning up these ghosts of the insurrectionary dead when he either did or did not threaten to phone McGinn, Sr. But his supporters need to ask themselves what they’re getting into. Their leader, if he was to have remained true to the positions that he has espoused over many years, should have refused to sit as privy counsellor upon assuming his party office, and refused all the other mummery associated with the monarchical “state”. That he didn’t do so was surely a strategic decision. Such a position would make him utterly unelectable.

The snipers may not be at work in south Armagh just now – but there are rifles out there that could yet be dug up. I wouldn’t be surprised if some in Sinn Fein knew where they are, but one thing’s for certain: Corbyn hasn’t got a clue, bloody or otherwise. 

Will Self is an author and journalist. His books include Umbrella, Shark, The Book of Dave and The Butt. He writes the Madness of Crowds and Real Meals columns for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 25 August 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Cameron: the legacy of a loser