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!”

New Statesman
Eyebrow debate: Bailey, a pupil at Thornhill Community College. Photo: Gary Calton/Channel 4
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.