What Musharaf in Educating Yorkshire taught us about the teachers' strike

Ordinary, unscripted teachers do what no amount of professional PR ever could in this unexpectedly brilliant programme.

A week after some of our teachers went on strike in protest at their changing terms and conditions and the continued onslaught on their professional selves by Michael Gove, Channel 4 showed the last episode in their fixed camera series, Educating Yorkshire, filmed in Thornhill Community Academy, near Dewsbury.

The series had a mixed reception, and that was just from me. Word has it that the production company approached a lot of Ofsted-rated ‘good’ schools across the country to be filmed, hoping maybe that ‘good’ would be an indicator of interesting times ahead. But who on earth would put their staff and students through that? Who on earth would want their teaching methods held up to scrutiny, their pupil behaviour offered up to a critical and negative public, and their exam results turned into spectacle? Well, clearly an egotist or an idiot  - which they found in the form of headteacher Jonny Mitchell. Of course he is neither (maybe he is a bit of an egotist) but the series was exploitative, outside the school’s remit of care, not in the pupils interests, nothing to do with education, damaging, I thought after the first episode.

But I wasn’t quite convinced by my own reaction, so I watched sporadically (by which I mean, on Twitter at the same time) for the rest of the series. And by this one, wasn’t going to bother – I have the last episode of Breaking Bad ready to go, and really? This going to trump that? And then they introduced Musharaf. If you didn’t see it, this is what was going on for Musharaf.

A Year 11 student, Musharaf had a debilitating stammer. It shut him up so completely at times he looked as if the words he wanted had done a total runner. You wouldn’t have known from his demeanour, but it was so frustrating for him, this inability to say what he wanted to say, that he typed at one point about how he wanted to smash his head in with a hammer. He’d been bullied at the start of his school life (hot news: kids can be cruel) but had made it up to prefect, until a stupid Facebook incident had seen him stripped of that green prefect jumper. Now Musharaf was facing his final hurdle at the school: the speaking section of his English GCSE. His teacher was Mr Burton, who’d taken the inspiration for his haircut from his namesake, Tim,and is an assistant head at the tender age of 30. Mr Burton is one of those teachers who read things out in funny voices and stand on the desk and get mock-annoyed when the kids think he’s actually 40 (see hot news, above).

Mr Burton and Musharaf were going nowhere fast, and the exam deadline was getting nearer. Musharaf had some small techniques like tapping a rhythm which sporadically helped him, and there were speech therapists and classroom assistants in the background so obviously plenty effort was being expended on his behalf. But nothing was sticking. Nothing nudging his words out. Once they were stuck, they remained resolutely stuck. And he couldn’t pass his speaking exam if he couldn’t speak. Watching Musharaf struggle, and watching the efforts of everyone quietly engaged in helping him, was very moving. From my sofa, I was leaning forward to will those words out, the same physical reaction you might get watching a race.  And then Mr Burton watched The King’s Speech.

They did this thing in the film, he told Musharaf, where the king listened to music and it helped him talk, let’s try it out. We watched from a corner of the room, one of them had a phone and the other had headphones and Musharaf put them on and tried again on a poem that he had not even got the first word out, last time round. And Musharaf read a poem. Musharaf read a poem. Out loud. It was a eureka moment, amazing. They stared at each other, neither could barely believe it, if they were other people they might have hugged. It was a triumph, we all cried and whooped. 'I have a voice!' Musharaf told his friend in the corridor, afterwards. ‘I’m the Musharaf Whisperer,’ Mr Burton told his colleagues.

I’ll declare my hand here: I’m a script editor and writer – how to tell stories interests me. A good chunk of my family are teachers and I have kids at state secondary school – education interests me. It goes some way to explain why I found this episode so effective. When shows like this work well, when the characters are compelling and their narrative grabs you, then it really pulls you along, and this one pulled me along with tears rolling my face. It was beautifully paced, emotional and funny in equal measure, elements of conflict, self-realisation, moments of pathos followed by relief, and thankfully a happy ending. 

But the timing is important too; it helps make a wider point. Last week, the teachers were on strike, it was a ‘disgrace’, they were a disgrace,  children were ‘suffering’ because that’s the hyperbole when teachers strike, everyone ‘suffers’. If you’d taken the temperature, it would have been pretty cold towards them. We’re ALL struggling, was the common retort, why shouldn’t YOU? If my life is shit, why shouldn’t your life be shit too? It’s not new; the denigration of teachers has gone on for years, and to ice the cake with the idea that unqualified teachers in free schools might in some way be superior to our trained professionals is massively derisory.

And then. Then you actually see a teacher at work. Not a celebrity teacher flown in for the sake of the teevee but an ordinary one, in an ordinary classroom, with ordinary kids, yours and my kids. A gifted and charismatic teacher, actually, but ordinary nonetheless, he’ll be doing his job whether we’re watching or not. The programme gave us all that skill, that care, that passion and compassion – not just from him but from all staff around him at work – and it’s boggling. Because for a while it dammed the flood of shit that’s spouted against teachers, and just showed what they do. Not by flashing big arrows at Mr Burton and his colleagues – WATCH HOW GOOD THEY ARE – it quietly let them reveal themselves. And yeah, daily badinage sometimes went wrong; punishment sometimes felt wrong, teachers sometimes said things I wouldn’t have done, because when you’re not scripted, that’s what happens.

That’s why this series is ultimately so good, maybe even important. It sets the record straight. Sets out that we owe Mr Burton, and the majority of teachers who do similar, a debt of impressed gratitude. They do this every day! For our children! I defy any one who watched it to still think that our teachers are a disgrace. And I challenge Michael Gove to watch it and call them the ‘enemies of promise’. They’re the creators of it. Ask Musharaf.

Teachers can't put on a show with pupils. They have to be left to quietly reveal themselves. Image: Getty
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Peculiar Ground by Lucy Hughes-Hallett asks how we shape history and how much is beyond our control

In Wychwood, a great house in Oxfordshire, the wealthy build walls around themselves to keep out ugliness, poverty, political change. Or at least they try to. 

The great cutting heads of the Crossrail tunnel-boring machines were engines of the future drilling into the past. The whole railway project entailed a crawl back into history as archaeologists worked hand in hand with engineers, preserving – as far as possible – the ancient treasures they discovered along the way. One of the most striking finds, relics of which are now on display at the Museum of London Docklands, was a batch of skeletons, unearthed near Liverpool Street Station, in which the bacteria responsible for the Great Plague of 1665 were identified for the first time. Past and present are never truly separable.

Lucy Hughes-Hallett’s ambitious first novel ends in 1665 in the aftermath of that plague, and it, too, dances between past and present, history and modernity. Like those skeletons buried for centuries beneath Bishopsgate, it is rooted in the ground. The eponymous “peculiar ground” is Wychwood, a great house in Oxfordshire, a place where the wealthy can build walls around themselves to keep out ugliness, poverty, political change. Or at least that is what they believe they can do; it doesn’t spoil the intricacies of this novel to say that, in the end, they will not succeed.

It is a timely idea. No doubt Hughes-Hallett was working on her novel long before a certain presidential candidate announced that he would build a great wall, but this present-day undiplomatic reality can never be far from the reader’s mind, and nor will the questions of Britain’s connection to or breakage with our European neighbours. Hughes-Hallett’s last book, a biography of Gabriele d’Annunzio, “the John the Baptist of fascism”, won a slew of awards when it was published four years ago and demonstrated the author’s skill in weaving together the forces of culture and politics.

Peculiar Ground does not confine itself to a single wall. Like Tom Stoppard’s classic play Arcadia, it sets up a communication between centuries in the grounds at Wychwood. In the 17th century, John Norris is a landscape-maker, transforming natural countryside into artifice on behalf of the Earl of Woldingham, who has returned home from the depredations of the English Civil War. In the 20th century a new cast of characters inhabits Wychwood, but there are powerful resonances of the past in this place, not least because those who look after the estate – foresters, gardeners, overseers – appear to be essentially the same people. It is a kind of manifestation of what has been called the Stone Tape theory, after a 1972 television play by Nigel Kneale in which places carry an ineradicable echo of their history, causing ghostly lives to manifest themselves through the years.

But the new story in Peculiar Ground broadens, heading over to Germany as it is divided between East and West in 1961, and again as that division falls away in 1989. Characters’ lives cannot be divorced from their historical context. The English breakage of the civil war echoes through Europe’s fractures during the Cold War. The novel asks how much human actors shape history and how much is beyond their control.

At times these larger questions can overwhelm the narrative. As the book progresses we dance between a succession of many voices, and there are moments when their individual stories are less compelling than the political or historical situations that surround them. But perhaps that is the point. Nell, the daughter of the land agent who manages Wychwood in the 20th century, grows up to work in prison reform and ­observes those who live in confinement. “An enclosed community is toxic,” she says. “It festers. It stagnates. The wrong people thrive there. The sort of people who actually like being walled in.”

The inhabitants of this peculiar ground cannot see what is coming. The novel’s modern chapters end before the 21st century, but the future is foreshadowed in the person of Selim Malik, who finds himself hiding out at Wychwood in 1989 after he becomes involved in the publication of an unnamed author’s notorious book. “The story you’re all so worked up about is over,” he says to a journalist writing about the supposed end of the Cold War. “The story I’m part of is the one you need to think about.”

A little heavy handed, maybe – but we know Selim is right. No doubt, however, Wychwood will endure. The landscape of this novel – its grounds and waters and walls – is magically and movingly evoked, and remains in the imagination long after the reader passes beyond its gates. 

Erica Wagner’s “Chief Engineer: the Man Who Built the Brooklyn Bridge” is published by Bloomsbury

Erica Wagner is a New Statesman contributing writer and a judge of the 2014 Man Booker Prize. A former literary editor of the Times, her books include Ariel's Gift: Ted Hughes, Sylvia Plath and the Story of “Birthday Letters” and Seizure.

This article first appeared in the 25 May 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Why Islamic State targets Britain

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