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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If you don’t know who Willy Vlautin is, you should

Vlautin is one of literature’s greats: so why is he still not a big-hitter in contemporary American fiction?

Over four previous novels Willy Vlautin has quietly crafted a body of work a world away from the perceived big-hitters of contemporary American fiction. Yet any one of his books offers as valuable an insight into the day-to-day grind of existence in a country whose dream has long turned sour as anything published this century.

In small scenarios he tackles big themes such as loss and loneliness, almost always against backgrounds of transience, poverty and the endless battle of simply getting by. His characters are not restless wanderers, but rather survivors questing towards the chance of a better life. Their situations are harsh but, crucially, never entirely devoid of hope. Vlautin’s debut The Motel Life concerned two brothers on the lam after a tragic hit and run accident, while Lean On Pete (adapted for a forthcoming film by the British director Andrew Haigh) beautifully explored the relationship between a teenage boy and a failing racehorse. As in his songs (as a musician Vlautin is best known for his work with the band Richmond Fontaine) these are lives that pivot on luck or resourcefulness, with reviewers drawing comparisons to Steinbeck and Carver, though I’d stir Denis Johnson, Tom Waits and Bruce Springsteen into the mix too.

Don’t Skip Out On Me tracks the journey of 21-year-old Horace Hopper, a half-Paiute Indian, half-white Nevadan ranch worker who was abandoned as a child to a “a grandmother who drank Coors Light on ice from 11am until she fell asleep on the couch at nine, who chain-smoked cigarettes, who ate only frozen dinners, and who was scared of Indians, blacks and Mexicans”.

Horace is also an aspiring boxer. He finds employment and surrogate love from good-hearted ageing rancher Mr Reese and his housebound wife, who want to gift him their family business, but his ambitions in the ring prove too great. Reasoning that all the best fighters are Mexican he moves to Tucson, Arizona, where he reinvents himself as “Hector Hidalgo” by adopting Hispanic clothes, eating spicy food that he dislikes and finding a Mexican trainer, who rips him off.

Fights come his way, brutal undercard battles in which Horace/Hector takes frequent beatings, but is often saved by his big-punching abilities. Rarely has the aftermath of boxing been so well portrayed: the sobbing in the shower, the reset noses, the constant need for codeine. And the emotional scars too.

For at the core of Don’t Skip Out On Me lies a deep well of existential emptiness that is distinctly American. The expansive mirage of the country – “Texas is just a line in the dirt,” shrugs one character – and the empty promise of consumerism found in drab retail parks and fast food diners amplify the young Horace’s solitude and his slim chances of success. Vlautin is hardly the first to note the overwhelming sadness of a neon sign flickering in the darkness or miles of empty car parks where fields once stood, but his are scenes bathed in pathos. Alone beside a strip mall Hector watches the cars pass by: “Every single person in every single car had a TV, a phone, a bed, and ate chicken and got the runs. How many chickens got killed every day?”

Food features heavily throughout, but it is only ever cheap and functional, consumed for quick gratification and always with a nauseous belched-back aftertaste. Stifling heat plays its part too; the pages of this book almost feel slick with the border states’ sweat. The prose smells of synthetic sugar, salt, frying oil, locker rooms and desperation.

Vlautin is particularly adept at fleeting encounters and sorrowful glimpses that add a Homeric dimension. An immigrant shepherd tending to Mr Reese’s flock has a complete mental collapse high in the mountains. A pregnant woman and her toddler are stranded at a Greyhound bus stop, her diaper bag and the child’s stuffed rabbit continuing the journey without them. When he discovers two teenage stowaways in the back of his truck en route to Mexico, Mr Reese sees that their maltreated dog has worms, an eye infection and an injured paw, and buys it off them for $50. A desperate life is made a little better. Such moments are what elevate Vlautin to literary greatness: he understands the necessity for compassion through small acts of kindness.

Ultimately, Horace’s core strength is engulfed by his overwhelming alienation when he washes up in Las Vegas, the vulgar end-point of America’s briefly glorious boom-time. Vlautin’s characters are the walking wounded yet manage to carry themselves with dignity, and only a reader with a heart of anthracite could be unmoved by their situations. They continue to live on long after Don’t Skip Out On Me has ended in devastating style. 

Don’t Skip Out On Me
Willy Vlautin
Faber & Faber, 304pp, £14.99

Ben Myers’ novels include Pig Iron and Richard, a Sunday Times book of the year. His writing has appeared in The Guardian, NME, Mojo, Time Out, 3:AM Magazine, Caught By The River and many others. www.benmyersmanofletters.blogspot.com

This article first appeared in the 13 March 2018 issue of the New Statesman, Putin’s spy game