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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Lord Empey: Northern Ireland likely to be without government for a year

The former UUP leader says Gerry Adams is now in "complete control" of Sinn Fein and no longer wants to be "trapped" by the Good Friday Agreement

The death of Martin McGuinness has made a devolution settlement in Northern Ireland even more unlikely and has left Gerry Adams in "complete control" of Sinn Fein, the former Ulster Unionist leader Reg Empey has said.

In a wide-ranging interview with the New Statesman on the day of McGuinness’ death, the UUP peer claimed his absence would leave a vacuum that would allow Adams, the Sinn Fein president, to consolidate his hold over the party and dictate the trajectory of the crucial negotiations to come. Sinn Fein have since pulled out of power-sharing talks, leaving Northern Ireland facing the prospect of direct rule from Westminster or a third election in the space of a year. 

Empey, who led the UUP between and 2005 and 2010 and was briefly acting first minister in 2001, went on to suggest that, “as things stand”, Northern Ireland is unlikely to see a return to fully devolved government before the inquiry into the Renewable Heat Incentive scheme is complete -  a process which could take up to a year to complete.

“Adams is now in complete control of Sinn Fein,” he said, adding that it remained unclear whether McGuinness’ successor Michelle O’Neill would be “allowed to plough an independent furrow”. “He has no equal within the organisation. He is in total command of Sinn Fein, and that is the way it is. I think he’s even more powerful today than he was before Martin died – by virtue of there just being nobody there.”

Asked what impact the passing of McGuinness, the former deputy first minister and leader of Sinn Fein in the north, would have on the chances of a devolution settlement, Empey, a member of the UUP’s Good Friday Agreement negotiating delegation, said: “I don’t think it’ll be positive – because, for all his faults, Martin was committed to making the institutions work. I don’t think Gerry Adams is as committed.

Empey added that he believed Adams did not want to work within the constitutional framework of the Good Friday Agreement. In a rebuke to nationalist claims that neither Northern Ireland secretary James Brokenshire nor Theresa May can act as honest or neutral brokers in power-sharing negotiations given their reliance on the DUP’s eight MPs, he said: “They’re not neutral. And they’re not supposed to be neutral.

“I don’t expect a prime minister or a secretary of state to be neutral. Brokenshire isn’t sitting wearing a hat with ostrich feathers – he’s not a governor, he’s a party politician who believes in the union. The language Sinn Fein uses makes it sound like they’re running a UN mandate... Gerry can go and shout at the British government all he likes. He doesn’t want to be trapped in the constitutional framework of the Belfast Agreement. He wants to move the debate outside those parameters, and he sees Brexit as a chance to mobilise opinion in the republic, and to be seen standing up for Irish interests.”

Empey went on to suggest that Adams, who he suggested exerted a “disruptive” influence on power-sharing talks, “might very well say” Sinn Fein were “’[taking a hard line] for Martin’s memory’” and added that he had been “hypocritical” in his approach.

“He’ll use all of that,” he said. “Republicans have always used people’s deaths to move the cause forward. The hunger strikers are the obvious example. They were effectively sacrificed to build up the base and energise people. But he still has to come to terms with the rest of us.”

Empey’s frank assessment of Sinn Fein’s likely approach to negotiations will cast yet more doubt on the prospect that devolved government might be salvaged before Monday’s deadline. Though he admitted Adams had demanded nothing unionists “should die in a ditch for”, he suggested neither party was likely to cede ground. “If Sinn Fein were to back down they would get hammered,” he said. “If Foster backs down the DUP would get hammered. So I think we’ve got ourselves a catch 22: they’ve both painted themselves into their respective corners.”

In addition, Empey accused DUP leader Arlene Foster of squandering the “dream scenario” unionist parties won at last year’s assembly election with a “disastrous” campaign, but added he did not believe she would resign despite repeated Sinn Fein demands for her to do so.

 “It’s very difficult to see how she’s turned that from being at the top of Mount Everest to being under five miles of water – because that’s where she is,” he said. “She no longer controls the institutions. Martin McGuinness effectively wrote her resignation letter for her. And it’s very difficult to see a way forward. The idea that she could stand down as first minister candidate and stay on as party leader is one option. But she could’ve done that for a few weeks before Christmas and we wouldn’t be here! She’s basically taken unionism from the top to the bottom – in less than a year”.

Though Foster has expressed regret over the tone of the DUP’s much-criticised election campaign and has been widely praised for her decision to attend Martin McGuinness’ funeral yesterday, she remains unlikely to step down, despite coded invitations for her to do so from several members of her own party.

The historically poor result for unionism she oversaw has led to calls from leading loyalists for the DUP and UUP – who lost 10 and eight seats respectively – to pursue a merger or electoral alliance, which Empey dismissed outright.

“The idea that you can weld all unionists together into a solid mass under a single leadership – I would struggle to see how that would actually work in practice. Can you cooperate at a certain level? I don’t doubt that that’s possible, especially with seats here. Trying to amalgamate everybody? I remain to be convinced that that should be the case.”

Accusing the DUP of having “led unionism into a valley”, and of “lashing out”, he added: “They’ll never absorb all of our votes. They can try as hard as they like, but they’d end up with fewer than they have now.”

Patrick Maguire writes about politics and is the 2016 winner of the Anthony Howard Award.