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On Watching Educating Yorkshire

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I probably wasn’t the only one with reservations before watching Educating Yorkshire, the fly on the wall doc (when did documentaries such as this start being dubbed ‘reality TV’?) that showed eight weeks in the life of a West Yorkshire comprehensive school.

After the TV advert, which featured one student declaring that letters and numbers are “the same thing” and year ten pupil Bailey debuting her drawn on eyebrows, I had a very strong feeling that the pupils of Thornhill Community Academy in Dewsbury were going to be sold up the river in a quest for high ratings. Despite the likelihood that Thornhill’s teachers would have their pupils’ best interests at heart we have, after all, become increasingly used to laughing at people on television over the last few years, especially when the guise of ‘reality TV’ is being thrown around.

Thornhill Community Academy is only eight miles from my (possibly very similar) secondary school, and (without having watched its predecessor Educating Essex) the thought that these kids might be exploited as ratings fodder was irking on a personal level.

Add to this the views of Thornhill such as that from Mail Online, which featured a charmingly catch-all headline that included the words “A school full of unruly pupils with no future in a recession-hit town”, and the expectation that the view presented would be largely one-sided is understandable.

So Educating Yorkshire premiered last night, against this backdrop, and pulled in 3.3million viewers – double the usual amount for a Thursday night 9pm slot.

And what did we find? A surprisingly honest and balanced look at a school that is making huge gains (after a prediction that 45% of pupils would receive five A*-C GCSE grades in 2012, 63% hit the mark), and a documentary that wasn’t scared to depict the students as real people, rather than categorising them as good, or bad, or geeky, or rebellious.

Instead Channel 4 opted not for the easily route and thus we had year 10’s Bailey, frequently in isolation “death” but determined to improve her behaviour and work on her desire to be elected prefect, Ryan, the self-confessed 12-year-old “little old man”, and Kamrrem (not Cameron as has been reported elsewhere), the angelic looking yet badly behaved year eight, who by the end of the episode appears to have come to the realisation that he needs to work hard at school, as this will lead him on to “having a job and being able to look after other people” in the future.

This melting pot of challenging behaviours and personalities (the scene where Kamrrem is temporarily excluded after snowballing a pensioner in the street is slightly difficult to watch) are backed up by the teachers, most notably head Jonny Mitchell, who has the unique gift of being able to talk to students in a non-patronising way that immediately manages to garner respect. His success at communicating with his pupils is proved when Bailey feels comfortable enough to nip into his office for a chat about how she can best go about becoming a prefect. The Thornhill teachers deserve phenomenal amounts of respect.

There is of course the concerning issue of consent. Documentaries and/or reality TV concerning children is always going to be questionable, but when a kid goes on a televised talent show there is a conscious decision by someone along the line to put them in front of a camera. When the cameras are coming into the safe environment of a school, however, there is a level of passivity involved that invites questions. But it took a good few months for all pupils, teachers and parents to be on board, Mitchell says, and the school’s relationship with the filmmakers, despite Channel 4 retaining full editorial control, was such that as head he trusted the that results  would be nothing but positive. After seeing how he deals with his pupils, it’s difficult not to trust his judgement.

If Educating Yorkshire (and of course its predecessor Educating Essex) are dubbed ‘reality TV’, then they’re a step forward from that which we usually see: as Mitchell says, behaviour improved whilst the cameras were present. He adds, “I want to pull in nearby kids, and we can only do that by improving and being successful. This show will add kudos for us. I hope it works.”

Based on the first episode, this looks likely to be the case. Let’s hope it continues.

Educating Yorkshire is on Channel 4 on Thursdays at 9pm.

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