Educating the East End: school as soap opera

The latest fly-on-the-wall education doc shows how British schools have become centres of therapy rather than learning.

Gareth Sturdy

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Meet Joe. He was a boy who always just wanted to help people, and so grew up to be a government special adviser. But he soon discovered that politics doesn’t really help people at all; it’s made up of self-serving types who are only interested in their own careers, he says. While mulling this over, Joe chanced to watch Channel 4’s 2011 series Educating Essex. Overnight, Joe decided to become a teacher. When the same TV company made a follow-up, Educating the East End, it just so happened to pick Joe’s school. So, now Joe has become a minor TV star, too. As the poster boy for the programme, the rookie English teacher, whose full name is Joe Bispham, is doing his bit to encourage more people to become teachers.

Bispham’s biography reads like a modern morality play. His sense of disenchantment with modern politics is a common one, and many dissatisfied people today turn to teaching in search of a sense of purpose. The irony for Bispham is that, while he became a teacher to escape politicians, the government has been extending its tentacles into the classroom for decades. As Frank Furedi writes in his book, Wasted: Why Education Isn’t Educating, the government today views schools as a means to tackle practically all of society’s problems. Indeed, Bispham joined the profession through Teach First, a state-funded charity set up to enable graduates to parachute into schools in an effort to drive up teaching standards.

Bispham typifies the celebrity moral entrepreneur: someone who uses their status, however fleeting, to encourage others to attach virtue to a particular kind of behaviour.

As a teacher working in the East End myself, I put all my scepticism to one side as I watched the first episode, which aired in the UK on 4 September. Bispham’s struggles with an unruly Year 9 became the plotline for the first episode, and it was easy to sympathise with him. Any teacher would tremble at the thought of an observation from their headteacher being shared with an audience of millions. And you couldn’t help but be won over by the hardworking, friendly and conscientious staff of Frederick Bremer School.

But now, at the end of the programme’s run, my sympathy has dried up. Educating the East End wasn’t what it said it was. Not only was it not set in the East End (the school is in Walthamstow and, as every true Cockney knows, the East End stops at Victoria Park), but it wasn’t really about education, either.

The staff may well know what the point of education is, but the programme didn’t. If Bispham and the show’s producers have persuaded others to swap town for gown, then this was the vision of education on offer:

Pop psychology over knowledge

At every opportunity, Frederick Bremer headteacher Jenny Smith used the show to espouse her belief that a lack of student self-belief is the biggest problem in education. Yet the students clearly had no lack of self-assurance. What was absent was any belief from the teachers that acquiring knowledge could transform their pupils’ lives. The seventh episode focussed on the therapeutic interventions being made into the life of a clever but lazy pupil called Paris, who kept losing it in lessons because of the expectations being placed on him. He had learned well to parrot back the language of low self-esteem, but in this clip he admits the real reason for his behaviour was that he just couldn’t be bothered. When he asks in genuine frustration ‘what’s the point?’, the teacher has no reply, other than to rhetorically ask ‘what’s the point of your GCSEs?’. The point of education is to broaden one’s horizons through expanding one’s knowledge, not the empty passing of exams.

School as soap opera

As Joanna Williams has pointed out previously on spiked, there is tendency among this new procession of fly-on-the-wall education documentaries to turn everything into a bad episode of Grange Hill. But the sight of PE staff discussing hickies with students, or Bispham beating himself up for mentioning a pupil’s mother’s illness, is dispiriting. Clearly, these teachers see their duty as caressing teenage angst rather than imparting knowledge. Smith, whether she was excluding naughty boy Jebb or electing the head boy and head girl, was in a dewy-eyed state for much of the series. This is more Eastenders than education.

You are what you are

In every episode of Educating the East End, there was a constant sense that the pupils’ thirst for knowledge was being straitjacketed by their teachers’ concerns about their emotional wellbeing. This was epitomised in the final episode by the treatment of Christopher, a child on the autistic spectrum. What did an East End education offer him? Well, according to Smith, it taught him to socialise and interact with other people. She even voiced her concern that Christopher wouldn’t be able to cope after leaving school because he would be out of his ‘comfort zone’. But schools shouldn’t be comfort zones. They should be places where all students, no matter their impairment, can challenge their own limits and transcend them.

As Smith recently intoned in an interview with the Guardian: ‘The voices of educators are missing from the [education] debate.’ After watching Educating the East End, it seems educators are missing from the classroom, too.

Gareth Sturdy is a physics teacher working in the (real) East End.

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