overthinking the idiot box

July 25, 2005

Bonafide British Person C.J. Quinn covers the strange intersections between British television and American television in

London Calling
The Great British Documentary, Take II
by C.J. Quinn

Unless you've been living under the proverbial rock, you'll know that quite a lot has gone on in this town since I wrote my last column. I watched an awful lot of rolling news in the last two weeks, but I don't intend to go down the terror-blogging road here.

Instead, I'd like to return to a topic I covered a couple of issues ago — the Great British Documentary, and specifically that strain of it concerned with filming things out of people's handbags and buttonholes. The undercover reportage documentary has a long history on British telly; one of my abiding TV memories is of being scared witless at the age of 11 or so by a documentary in the old Cook Report series on ITV, in which Roger Cook went off undercover to buy nuclear suitcase bombs from various dodgy Russians, and then had himself a high old time talking about how much of Birmingham one of these little doozies would destroy.

Roger Cook always looked a bit like a dirty old flasher, being portly and frequently attired in a mackintosh, but undercover documentaries have got a bit sexier of late. The BBC's Donal McIntyre regularly seems to get into some kind of scrape investigating gangland drug dealing or internet kiddie porn for McIntyre Investigates, but he has a laddish glint in his eye, and a crew-cut that gives him an air of macho insouciance viewers find hard to resist.

Recently, there's been a bit of a rash of undercover documentaries purporting to uncover the wretched state of our state (public, if you're reading this across the pond) school system. While the general public rants and raves about what a great public service these programmes are doing, and how flogging would be too good for some of the little buggers shown, my staffroom colleagues and I tend to approach these shows with a little more caution. A few months ago Channel Five, which used to be known for its late-night soft-core movies and trashy daytime chat shows, wheeled out a rather queer old bird who had gone round various state schools as a supply teacher, with a camera slyly concealed in her handbag. You can probably guess what their angle was from the title of the documentary — 'Classroom Chaos'.

A couple of weeks ago (on the 7th, in fact) it was the turn of Channel 4, whose 'Only Human' strand I was applauding on this very site recently. They had found a slightly more telegenic sneak in the shape of the fresh-faced Alex Dolan, a qualified science teacher, who had taken her concealed cameras to a variety of 'challenging' schools in London and the northern city of Leeds in order to reveal "the true state of British classrooms."

I first heard about this some time ago, while out for drinks one night with some colleagues from my teacher training programme (which is akin to Teach for America, and only places trainees in London's toughest schools). As we lingered over our pints in the late evening sun, two of my friends took calls from colleagues at their school, and to their absolute horror were told that the school had just been informed by Channel 4 that it had had an undercover teacher on their premises, and that the resulting film would be aired on July 7th. Under British law it's perfectly okay to get up to these sorts of hijinks, by the by, as long as you're very careful to obscure the identity of any children on the film (this, combined with the clandestine nature of the filming, renders watching these documentaries rather taxing upon the average viewer's patience). Their school was going to mount a legal challenge the next day, but didn't expect to be successful.

My friends felt violated and betrayed — the staffroom is a sacred haven, a retreat where teachers can let off steam and say deeply unprofessional stuff to one another without worrying, and you no more expect to be filmed there than you'd expect to be filmed whilst sat on the loo.
My friends were outraged and angry, but above all they were upset. You pretty much have to give a shit about the kids you come into contact with if you're going to make a career out of teaching, and if you're going to work in a challenging inner-city school and stay sane, you pretty much have to care deeply about your school. My friends felt violated and betrayed — the staffroom is a sacred haven, a retreat where teachers can let off steam and say deeply unprofessional stuff to one another without worrying, and you no more expect to be filmed there than you'd expect to be filmed whilst sat on the loo. What was more, they knew that this would be a massive blow to the kids, confirming all their deeply-held beliefs about the futility of trying to do anything when The Man will inevitably come along and piss all over you.

I ached for my friends, and for their kids, because I could easily imagine myself in their shoes. In fact, given the controversial nature of the sort of school I teach in, I fully expect to find myself in their shoes at some point if I stay in teaching for long. I knew, as they did, that this documentary was bound to be along the lines of 'Classroom Chaos' — because of those same confidentiality guidelines that require the programme makers to obscure the faces of the kids, no one would be able to explain the appalling circumstances their kids live in, circumstances that would contextualize their often terrible and antisocial behaviour. Were it not for those guidelines, dear reader, I could tell you some stories about the home lives of my students that would make your toes curl, and I know full well that some of my students would look just as monstrous and unsympathetic as the kids on 'Undercover Teacher', were someone to film them clandestinely.

Inevitably, when 'Undercover Teacher' aired, my colleagues and I sat around to watch it compelled by morbid curiosity. It was much as we'd expected — some sketchy background info about each school, followed by shaky, blurry footage of kids refusing to work, swearing, fighting, backchatting, walking out of lessons, and battleworn staff behind the scenes telling the new arrival not to worry, that this was par for the course. Dolan's motives for participating in this exercise were never really explored — one had to presume that she was hoping for some sort of nice little media career, as one couldn't imagine many head teachers jumping to employ her as a supply teacher now. These suspicions seemed to be confirmed to the answer she gave in a webchat on the Channel 4 website after the programme aired, after being pressed about her plans for the future: "I hope to continue a career in journalism, but would not rule out the possibility of returning to teaching one day."

Alex Dolan: Really feels for those kids.
Infuriatingly, as she drove away from each school, Dolan would glance soulfully into the camera on her dashboard and sigh about how she "really felt for those kids", despite the fact that she'd just royally buggered up their school and betrayed their trust. In the same webchat, Dolan was asked why she did the programme, and gave the following rather woolly response: "I left teaching in 2001 and in the period that followed I did a lot of supply teaching in inner-city schools in London and I was extremely concerned with what I saw which was a lot of kids not learning much because of a huge amount of disruption. The government were telling us that the school standards were improving, as were GCSE results and yet, from what I saw, it just didn't add up." So why did Dolan leave teaching? Does she imagine that there could be any connection between the huge amount of disruption she started seeing, and the fact that she was now working as a supply rather than a permanent member of staff? It's widely acknowledged in the profession that kids give supplies the run-around. As I can attest, they do the same to new teachers, and for the same reasons — kids like to test you, and test the boundaries, and they respect and trust you far more if you stick around long enough to form a bond with them.

Dolan insisted that she really wanted to raise the level of the debate around how standards can be raised in Britain's education system, but this kind of shock journalism does absolutely nothing to that end. In the live webchat, she made some excellent points about why teachers and students are under such pressures in British schools today, and what needs to be done to rectify matters (more in-class support staff; better salaries for teachers; less obsessive target-setting imposed from above), but she made none of these points in the film.

Like 'Classroom Chaos', 'Undercover Teacher' was simply a zoo attraction, underclass tourism, an invitation to the middle-classes to come and ooh and ahh in genteel shock and disgust at the antics of the chav children. It claimed to reveal the true state of affairs in Britain's classrooms today, but ignored the fact that this kind of disruptive behaviour is not the norm across Britain — it's not even the norm in the classrooms of a challenging school such as my own (although it is the norm in our classrooms wherever a supply teacher has the misfortune to be working).

I have no doubt whatsoever that Dolan and the Chameleon TV team behind 'Undercover Teacher' went out of their way to find the worst possible behaviour to showcase — they filmed in 16 schools, and yet only 3 (supposedly representative) examples were shown in the film. Tellingly, during the post-show webchat, a poster named Gemma asked Dolan "Why did u only show the bad points of intake[?] you could have shown good points like the performing arts, i love my school and i really don't want it to be shut down." Dolan admitted that as she mostly covered her own specialist area of science she didn't get a look at what was going on across the school in other faculties.

This is another drawback of the undercover approach — you may get the naked truth, but you only get a slanted, limited, distorted look at it.
This is another drawback of the undercover approach — you may get the naked truth, but you only get a slanted, limited, distorted look at it. I found it deeply enlightening to read Tony Mooney's account of his visit to Highbury Grove, one of the schools featured in the programme, undertaken two days before 'Undercover Teacher' aired, and reassured to find both Mooney and the Highbury staff asking the same questions as me: "Did Dolan's teaching abilities affect how she related to pupils and them to her, and did the purpose of her mission alter how she interpreted what she saw? Much has been written about how researchers affect the dynamics of a situation, and this has to be taken into account when viewing Thursday's programme."

A film like 'Undercover Teacher' raises profound questions about the ethics of undercover TV journalism. From my own experience I know that what children living in the most difficult of circumstances need to improve their behaviour and attainment — what they crave, in fact — is consistency and continuity, a sense of being able to rely on adults for support and boundary-setting. A year ago, when I arrived at my school, I too had to deal with kids taking calls on their mobile phones during lessons, starting fights in my classes, and swearing like sailors. Because I stuck around, because I kept the boundaries clear, because I built relationships based on trust and respect but also on discipline and firm authority, kids now know that swearing will find them out on their ear in seconds, and the rare child who is foolish enough to answer their phone while I'm teaching is quickly reduced to tears of contrition.

A supply teacher with an undercover agenda, who stays for four or five days and is then gone again, one of the long chain of adults who abandon and, in this case, eventually betray these children, doesn't get to see that side of things, and ought, in my opinion, to have trouble sleeping at night. If you really care about raising standards, Alex Dolan, get back into the classroom and start teaching some of these kids who desperately need permanent, committed teachers — if, that is, you can find a school that will take you.

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Return to Vol. 1, Episode 9.