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Studying at Thornhill Community Academy

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Seeing a billboard advertising your old high school on the London Underground is a pretty surreal experience.

Seeing your old teachers parade around their classrooms in front of four million people might be slightly weird, and seeing your old stomping ground subject to scrutiny by the national media is an incredibly nerve-wracking experience.

Yet that’s exactly what has happened to me over the past few weeks. I studied at the Thornhill Community Academy, the very place where Educating Yorkshire was filmed earlier this year.

Thursday’s final episode saw the whole country reaching for their box of tissues, flooded with tears of joy and happiness. Educating Yorkshire was a true cause for celebration, and I’m proud to call myself an alumnus.

Educating Yorkshire offered an honest, balanced, and stark look into a comprehensive secondary school amidst a rather divided community.

I joined the academy in 2005 to begin my GCSEs, and found myself serving as the Head Boy in my final year. Like the wide majority of students at Thornhill, my friends and I were all hard-workers; we struck the balance between work and play perfectly, thoroughly enjoying our time there and achieving high grades.

It was a harmonious relationship that we held with the teachers; we were treated like adults, and as we became more senior, we felt more like peers than subordinates. That’s what made Thornhill so special.

Balance, of course, is the key word here, and it’s clear that the show didn’t come without its fair share of controversy. I agree with commentators when they note that the series focused heavily on pastoral care, featuring pupils who may need additional help. 

I would, however, like to comment on the centre’s Gifted and Talented scheme that I was a part of. Each year, we would visit different universities across the country, and we were constantly challenged to achieve even higher marks. It was somewhat more intense compared to the mainstream aims, and I feel the production company missed a golden opportunity following this group of students.

Anyone following the comments on social media will realise that there’s a whole range of differing opinions out there, and whilst a lot of the comments were arguably off-the-cuff remarks without much thought, we noticed that a couple of episodes sparked a debate into the school’s procedures and policies. Not only that, it was also apparent that Mr Steer’s unshaven chin, and Mr Burton’s unbuttoned shirt, were getting plenty of air-time. The banality of Twitter never ceases to amaze.

I also dare  say that a large proportion of local residents in our area were nervous before the airing of the first episode. They were worried that the area may be portrayed in a negative light: would the students appear daft? Would the teachers receive abuse? Was it going to tarnish the area’s reputation?

These fears were clearly unfounded, and the impact on our local community has since been immense. Essentially everyone living in the village will have watched the show at some point. It has been the talk of the town, with people discussing it at the checkouts and in the hairdressers. It’s got the whole community interacting, sharing that same common joy, and feeling incredibly proud of what a fantastic institution we have standing in our midst.

Given the relatively small size of our village, we personally knew quite a lot of the people being featured. My Dad owns a local business, so comes into contact with a lot of the staff and students on a daily basis.

Mrs Marsden’s husband, for example, happens to be our car mechanic. Another year leader is related to the chap who works next door, and I performed in the school band with Mr Burton each year. I remember him rocking out on the drum-kit and guitar, really helping to lift our spirits after a full day’s rehearsal. Just the other day, my Dad saw Mr Mitchell walking into the local Co-op supermarket for a pint of milk. It is this personal connection that made the series so special to my family and I – we found ourselves constantly pointing familiar faces out on the television screen.

The final episode was an absolute treat, and one which I’m sure reduced the whole country to tears. I was expecting the final episode to focus heavily on exams, but it instead featured an incredibly heart-warming, personal, story of progress.

I’m sure it goes without saying that I’m incredibly proud of the school and its achievements right now. The show originally started as a novelty for me, and I was anxiously awaiting the first guest appearance of my old locker. I was looking forward to seeing my old teachers on the television, and I was looking forward to seeing if much had changed in the classrooms.

After a while though, this was somewhat sidelined, and I was drawn into the series just like everyone else. I became to appreciate not only the staff and students who represent my local community, but the education system as a whole.

We are living in an age where schools are expected to improve year on year; they are judged by exam results, and constantly under fire for (apparently) being soft on bad behaviour.

Educating Yorkshire shows that pumping money into pastoral care offers genuine results, both academically and socially, and we are offered a true insight into how students have directly benefitted from the school’s intervention.

Academic work doesn’t suit every pupil’s attitude to education, and I think that was the main message that I took away from the series. When a child walks through those school gates each morning, they are welcomed with open arms – there are no grudges or signs of bitterness, and each day offers a new chance for them to shine.

Each student is unique, charming, and challenging in their own way. Regardless of what life is like outside the gates, it is the teachers’ job to provide a safe, reassuring, and stimulating environment in which students have the ability to grow as good human beings. It is this vivid insight which made Educating Yorkshire such a national success, and that’s exactly why I’m so proud to be considered an alumnus.




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