School’s out: How the “Educating” franchise became predictable and cynical

If this feels familiar, that’s because it is. Here are all the tired tropes, arranged for our middle-class delectation. 

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Educating the East End; 21 Up New Generation
Channel 4; BBC1

Mr Bispham, a trainee teacher at Frederick Bremer School in Walthamstow, east London, describes his Year Nine girls as “a force of nature”. But what do they think of him? “He looks like a little teddy bear with a bald head,” said one, telling it like it is. Both the teacher and the pupils are, you quickly gather, somewhat needy. Mr Bispham longs to be loved by his class, while its members seem mostly to be attention-seekers, camera-savvy and aching for stardom. “Why are you angry with me?” asks Mr Bispham of Tawny, when she sulks during his Shakespeare class. “I’ll stab your penis!” yells one of her peers, getting right into Mr Bispham’s Much Ado About Nothing-inspired role play.

This is Educating the East End (Thursdays, 9pm), an extension of the franchise that brought us Educating Essex and Educating Yorkshire. If it feels familiar, that’s because it is. Here are all the tired tropes, arranged for our middle-class delectation: “inspirational” teachers; “challenging” students; stories of hope, disappointment and bad behaviour on social media. By now, Channel 4 should be visiting a different kind of school: one that would give us a different set of stories. Alas, the station, no filming its sequel to Benefits Street on Teesside, is addicted to a certain kind of shouty narrative and blithely unaware of the law of diminishing returns. In this sense, its behaviour is no better than that of Mr Bispham’s pupils.

For light and shade in the matter of young people, education and social class, you needed to tune in to 21 Up New Generation (1 and 2 September, 10.35pm), the third instalment in the BBC’s 21st-century reprise of Michael Apted’s long-running series, which began with Seven Up! in 1964. And what a series this is, confirming some prejudices (Oliver, the son of a lawyer and last spied at Eton, is now – natch – at Yale) even as it crushes others (Asif, who spent his teenage years reading the Quran and attending mosque, is now at Paisley University, big into Rihanna and bravely shouldering the consequences of such choices when it comes to his community). It’s a series that forces the viewer into the position of surrogate parent, hoping things will turn out well for all of them and trying hard not to have favourites. I failed on this score, being unable to get enough of Courtney from Kirkby, now a student at Liverpool University, who sounds so wonderful when she speaks Russian with a Scouse accent.

What strikes you in this series is the importance of family to a young person’s well-being – fathers have disappeared from the lives of too many of these children, falling from the picture with the ease of an apple from a tree – and the way Thatcherite philosophies permeate the language and world-views even of those too young to remember her (our 21-year-olds, whom we first met in 2000, were only four when Tony Blair swanned into No 10). Each of the director Julian Farino’s subjects mentioned the importance of hard graft, with individualism and self-determination being their only shared philosophy. Even John, the party boy who works for a Slough building company and just wants to be able to enjoy his grime music in peace, put his job and flat at the top of his list when he came to balance up the book of his life.

The films, which ran on consecutive nights, were beautifully made. Farino knows when to prod and when to stay quiet. I had the sense that the participants trusted him; their candour was palpable, often for the simple reason that they found some things too hard to articulate. Judicious editing helped us see the minor miracles of their lives, a flashback to a younger version of Stacey from New Mills, Derbyshire – “I went to Manchester once. I didn’t like it” – swiftly followed by the revelation, amazing even to her, that she is now teaching English in China. I loved their confidence, particularly when it felt hard-earned. If I could tell my younger self one thing, it would be: give up your paralysing shyness. Confidence might well be a trick – “I despise being beaten,” said our Old Etonian, though his body language spoke to me more of fear than of loathing – but out there in the world, it’s often the most potent weapon of all. 

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 appears in the 03 September 2014 issue of the New Statesman, The summer of blood