What to do with a group of Year 9s who can’t get through a line of Shakespeare without erupting with laughter? How can you make GCSEs more important than a teenager’s first heartbreak? How do you convince a proud 13-year-old that a bad haircut isn’t an assault on his credibility? How do you carry on as normal with a girl whose mum is slowly dying?
It’s all in a head-spinning day’s work at Frederick Bremer School in Walthamstow, the latest stop after Essex and Yorkshire on Channel 4’s whistlestop tour of English schools.
Being a television programme, Educating the East End is a tear-jerking soap opera, edited for maximum drama. By no means is this a comprehensive portrayal of a school at work – by and large, this is a programme about behaviour, and a fascinating one at that.
With the exception of one episode in which well-meaning students make their election bids for head boy and girl, the lion’s share of attention in the programme, as in the school itself, goes to a handful of students whose behaviour is exquisitely bad.
Year 10 pupil Jebb put on quite a show in episode four with an incredible display of stubbornness. His apparent fearlessness of authority often leaves teachers, headteacher Ms Smith included, standing alone in corridors, watching him walk away, yanking at his blue messenger bag which he seems to use as a stress ball.
After refusing to respond, refusing to leave home and refusing to leave classrooms, his future at the school hangs in the balance. Jebb’s parents have split up, compounding his already-short tether.
On the day that Educating the East End aired Jebb’s story and that of his similarly short-tempered sister Summer, Sir Michael Wilshaw, Chief Inspector of Schools, released a report slamming schools around the country for “casual acceptance” of disruptive behaviour.
“Every hour spent with a disruptive, attention-seeking pupil” says Wilshaw, “is an hour away from ensuring other pupils are getting a decent education.”
Speaking to the East End Review, head teacher Ms Smith responds bluntly to these allegations: “I totally disagree that there’s a casual acceptance of bad behaviour in our school,” she says.
“Dealing with behaviour is a two edged sword – it’s both challenge and support.”
Refusing to engage with misbehaving pupils, she insists, “defers the problem”.
Having had a look inside Frederick Bremer School, it’s difficult to imagine things being handled any differently than they are.
At Frederick Bremer, adults have the official power. But when they want to be, these teenagers are masters of manipulation and wilful enemies of reason. They keep pushing and pushing until the disciplinarians set a foot wrong, and – poof – as if by magic, it’s all the teacher’s fault.
Gobby Year 9 Tawny’s ambition to attend the Brit School, and her secret rejection, was exposed by English teacher Mr Bispham in episode one.
Tawny’s persistent refusal to focus during a Shakespeare reading led Mr Bispham to call out to the class: “They wouldn’t have this at the Brit School, would they?” A humiliating assault, not least because few fellow students knew she’d applied, and been rejected. Her secret out, she had Mr Bispham grovelling by the end of the lesson. A masterstroke.
Soon after, in a game of spectacular hot-and-cold, the same raucous group did Mr Bispham proud by behaving impeccably during a lesson observation – apparently, says Tawny, “as a way of saying thank you”.
It seems incredible that any headteacher would want to put these challenges in the spotlight. But according to Ms Smith, Frederick Bremer fought for the privilege through months of consultation, weighing up the needs of the shy, the fame-seeking and the indifferent of her cohort; their uncertain parents, guardians, grandparents; and her staff. But this is a risk which could only have been evaluated in hindsight. Has it been worth it?
Apparently so, according to Mr Bispham, who spoke to the East End Review about life among the cameras.
“East London doesn’t get the best press” he says. “But the biggest effect was knowing that a national TV company wanted to film in our school. (The students) were walking two foot taller, they were so proud.”
Watching the aftermath on television is another matter. Teachers sing to themselves and students dance in corridors; democracy and anarchy reign in equal measure as free and fair elections collide with mini-revolts.
It’s all exposed a common humanity among everyone at Frederick Bremer. With a sigh, Mr Bispham concludes: “It’s been a real process of self-reflection.”