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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Paul Auster's 4 3 2 1 is by turns rewarding and maddening – just like life

Auster’s epic new novel of immigration, politics and consciousness is rich but imperfect.

It’s a cliché, or a joke: the immigrant who arrives in the New World from the Old Country, to be greeted by an official who promptly renames him, mishearing the strange tongue that the arrival speaks. Paul Auster’s new novel begins: “According to family legend, Ferguson’s grandfather departed on foot from his native city of Minsk with one hundred rubles sewn into the lining of his jacket, travelled west to Hamburg through Warsaw and Berlin, and then booked passage on a ship called the Empress of China, which crossed the Atlantic in rough winter storms and sailed into New York Harbor on the first day of the twentieth century.”

Ferguson’s grandfather is called Isaac Reznikoff. Another Russian Jew advises him that it will be wiser to give his name as “Rockefeller” to the official. “You can’t go wrong with that.” But when it is his turn, “the weary immigrant blurted out in Yiddish, Ikh hob fargessen (I’ve forgotten)! And so it was that Isaac Reznikoff began his new life in America as Ichabod Ferguson.”

A joke or a fable: the way that so many stories begin in America, the stories of those who sailed past the Statue of Liberty and the words inscribed on its base, words to welcome the tired, the poor, those masses yearning to breathe free. And so Auster, in his first novel in seven years, presents the reader with an Everyman, Ferguson-who-is-not-Ferguson, not the man who stepped off the Empress of China but his grandson, Archibald Isaac Ferguson, the cranky protagonist and hero of this tale.

Ichabod begat Stanley and Stanley begat Archie, who was born, like his creator, in Newark, New Jersey, in 1947. This nearly 900-page epic is a Bildungsroman, though it would be more accurate to call it a Bildungs-Bildungs-Bildungs-Bildungsroman, because Archie’s story is told not once but four times. There are that many versions of the protagonist: in each version, his life takes a different turn, and so everything that follows is altered.

Auster is something of a prophet in exile in his own land. His brand of existentialist postmodernism – in which characters with the author’s name might appear, in which texts loop back on themselves to question the act of writing, in which the music of chance can be heard loud and clear – has sometimes found greater favour in Europe than it has in his native United States. For example, City of Glass, the 1985 meta-detective novel that forms part of The New York Trilogy, will be adapted for the stage here this year.

But City of Glass, like all of Auster’s previous books, is a slender novel. The New York Trilogy as a whole comes in at just over 300 pages. Where much of Auster’s work is elliptical, 4 3 2 1 can be overwhelming, but that is precisely the point. The author creates a vast portrait of the turbulent mid-20th century by giving his protagonist this series of lives. The book is divided into sections that clearly mark which Ferguson we are getting: 1.1, 1.2, 1.3 or 1.4.

Yet there is nothing supernatural about this journey lived and relived, as there was in Kate Atkinson’s Life After Life. The only magic involved is the magic of the novelist’s imagination, which allows both writer and reader to juggle realities as if they were balls in the air.

However, it is not as if one Ferguson is midshipman and another a circus performer, or one a loudmouth and another shy and retiring. The strength of this novel is that Ferguson remains himself while events shift around him, changing the course of his life. Ferguson’s father dies, or Ferguson’s father lives but divorces his mother, Rose. What happens then? Rose is a talented photographer; does she continue her work when Stanley prospers and they move to the suburbs, or does she take up golf and bridge? Ferguson is a good student, always a writer: does he go to Princeton or Columbia? What’s the difference between translating poetry in a Paris attic and working as a journalist for the Rochester Times-Union?

At its best, 4 3 2 1 is a full immersion in Ferguson’s consciousness, which, perhaps, is a consciousness not too far removed from Auster’s. His protagonist’s youth is wonderfully, vividly conveyed. Even if you don’t care about baseball, you’ll come to care about it because Ferguson does. The details of the young Ferguson’s life are carefully and lovingly created: the powder-blue Pontiac that his mother drives, the pot roast and cheese blintzes served at the Claremont Diner in Montclair, New Jersey – and  the floorboards in an old house that creak when two young lovers make their way between their separate rooms in the middle of the night. Auster builds a world of heartfelt, lived-in detail.

But this is a novel of politics, too. Ferguson is a young man during the tumult of the late 1960s, when dozens were killed and hundreds injured during riots in Newark in 1967; when students at Columbia occupied the campus in protest over the war in Vietnam; when young men such as Ferguson could be drafted to fight in that war.

It is in this last third of the novel that the book flags a little, as lists of events tumble on to the page: one paragraph contains the My Lai massacre, the killing of the Black Panther Fred Hampton and the Rolling Stones concert at Altamont. At times, history lessons threaten to overwhelm the narrative, and Ferguson’s story/stories lose the texture and particularity that have made them so compelling. And its ending is abrupt, a tying-up of loose ends that fragments on the final page.

But then lives – real lives – have strange, abrupt endings, too. This is a rich, imperfect book, often rewarding, occasionally maddening. Again, like life, or at least if we’re lucky.

4 3 2 1 by Paul Auster is published by Faber & Faber (880pp, £20)

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 19 January 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The Trump era