Syrian School

The Syrian first lady is practically perfect in every way.

I expect I'm not the first to point out that one of the more horrifying ironies of the adventures of Blair (born-again Catholic) and Bush (born-again, full stop) in Iraq is that Christians have been forced to flee the country in great numbers. In Damascus, there are now some two million Iraqi refugees, most of them having fled sectarian violence.

Two million. It's hard to picture, isn't it? Individual stories, on the other hand, are rather more indelible, and, for this reason, I do hope that Tony Blair caught the first episode of Syrian School (10 February, 9pm, BBC4). It didn't sound promising - I was expecting mostly Ba'athist playground marching - but, in fact, it was wonderful.

In a classroom in Damascus, an Iraqi Christian boy called Yusif explained why the US invasion had been so terrible for him. First of all, there were the bombs and the shootings. His brother had been killed and even now, watching fireworks during the Syrian celebration of the Festival of the Cross, he found loud bangs hard to bear. Second, around the time his family left Baghdad, Yusif, a keen footballer, had been due to play for Dutch talent scouts. In becoming a refugee, he had missed his big chance. "If the Americans hadn't invaded Iraq, this wouldn't have happened," he said. You could see that he was concentrating very hard indeed on this wound, the better to staunch the bleeding elsewhere.

But Yusif was only one of the treasures Syrian Schools dished up. Oh my God, the women! Amal Hassan was the headteacher of a school for girls in a smarter part of the city, and she looked like the star of one of those crazy Egyptian films - all kohl and lipliner, hair as black and as gleaming as a raven's wing. She based the operation of her school on a combination of stirring nationalism ("We fought the world armed with our humanity!" she yelled at bickering teachers in the staffroom), warm sentiment (her girls were her darlings, beautiful within and without) and a curious kind of feminism (it was pretty clear that she would rather her students put their faith in the Estée Lauder counter than in the hijab).

Even more transfixing was Asma al-Assad, Syria's first lady, who conveniently dropped by Amal's school to talk about entrepreneurship. Watch out, Queen Rania of Jordan, is all I can say. Assad is stunning to look at and she gave the girls a great pep talk about skills and the dangers of abandoning your career just because some man has come calling. In fact, in the course of staring at this vision's cashmere sweater and catlike face, I became slightly obsessed. No sooner had the film finished than I was on Wikipedia, looking her up. Unfortunately, I think some naughty Ba'athist had been at her entry, for it was hagiography, alas. Either that, or she actually is a British-born hedge-fund manager turned all-round good and holy person. (She's keen on rural development, archaeology and promoting citizenship; I could find no mention of where she buys her shoes.)

Beside Syrian Schools, Channel 4's Leaving Home at Eight (11 February, 9pm) seemed a bit pathetic. I didn't mind the children's crying. If I'd been dumped in a boarding school aged eight, I would have cried, too (spending the day at school was quite bad enough). It was their mothers' ostentatious sobbing I couldn't stand, as if boarding their children was not a choice.

There was one mother in particular who annoyed me - and I promise that this had nothing to do with her also being the Sloaniest. Sarah was the mother of Lottie, a robust little darling. On a school visit, Sarah hugged Lottie in the manner of a bear going for a wheelie bin. Meanwhile, around her knees went the arms of April, Lottie's friend, whose own mother couldn't come that day. Sarah all but ignored this poignant display of affection, as if the unfamiliar child was a burr that had stuck to her jeans.

I've never been able to understand why you would have a child, only to send it away to school. But perhaps it's obvious. The ruling classes really are as tough as old boots.

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 15 February 2010 issue of the New Statesman, Everything you know about Islam is wrong