It’s ‘pure’ must-watch TV – Educating Cardiff is the latest in a series of Channel 4 reality documentaries following the fortunes of a school, its teachers and its pupils.
Previous series have been a runaway success – but crucially, not just for Channel 4’s viewing figures, but for schools, teaching and young people themselves.
All three often get a bad rep in so many ways; teachers finish at 3pm and get half the year off, schools are inflexible data-driven institutions and Britain’s school pupils are lazy and under-achieving compared to other countries.
From last night’s opening episode, it looks as though Educating Cardiff will have a similar effect to its predecessors, becoming a hilarious, heart-warming portrayal of the true realities of education system and the individual stories at that particular school.
The programme deftly deflects some of the usual media criticisms levelled at schools and teaching.
Maths teacher and house leader Mr Hennesey rings truanting pupil Leah every morning to get her up and out to school, despite- as Headteacher Joy Ballard points out to Leah – having 3 young children of his own at home to look after. No one on camera is surprised to see him there at 5pm still dealing with Leah’s issues, but it’s no coincidence that the show’s producers chose to highlight the time of day. A lovely scene with a Year 8 pupil steeling himself to call up local businesses to support the school’s newspaper reveals pupils often surprise themselves with their own skills and abilities, and perceptive one to one interviews with pupils reveal self-confidence is the major factor in their success or failure.
Despite the show’s previously positive record, taking part in the ‘Educating’ series cannot have been an easy and straightforward decision for Joy Ballard. From a both PR perspective and beyond it represents a huge risk. A similar Channel 4 series ‘Skint’ filmed in Merthyr purported to show the real human stories and issues behind the welfare system, but received a controversial response, with some critics branding it ‘poverty porn’, citing unfair editing as exploiting the individuals involved, resulting in a portrayal of Merthyr– another warm, funny and iconic part of Wales– as bleak, hopeless and ignorant.
In this context, many Headteachers and school governing bodies would be understandably wary. Mrs Ballard’s decision to allow cameras into Willows demonstrates a confidence and pride in her team and her pupils, which in itself is a strong statement for the school’s own internal communications and relationships, as well as an insightful understanding of the programme’s aims, previous record and a shrewd decision on Mrs Ballard’s behalf.
Like any other business or organisation, so much of a school’s success or failure relies on reputation. It’s perhaps too simplistic to talk about ‘brand’, but reputation management should be a fundamental part of a school’s overall management strategy. In the context of a school, and the impact of the community that surrounds it, reputation becomes an emotive subject – what parent wants to send their child off to a school with a ‘bad’ reputation? Something as complex as school’s ‘image’ is powerful enough nowadays to send house prices skyrocketing or tumbling as parents scramble to ensure they do the right thing by their children.
It’s a self-perpetuating equation – ‘bad school’ equals low expectations from all involved, ‘good school’, brings confidence, high expectations and therefore, achievement.
What defines a school’s reputation? Well, many believe results speak for themselves. Willows results have gone from 14% of pupils getting five A*-C grades at GCSE, to 50%, the best in the school’s history under Mrs Ballard’s leadership. On a wider national level, these results are still low, but in the context of the school’s high proportion of children receiving free school meals, it’s very good and also represents huge improvement.
Crucially what Educating Cardiff demonstrates about Willows is not just about results, but what happens to get to that point – teachers going the extra mile to build pupils self-esteem, the pupil’s own individual success stories, and Joy Ballard’s ‘warm family environment’, where every pupil matters as an individual and everyone from the Headteacher downwards gets involved in the school’s success.
Seeing the humanity behind the near hysteria that all too often accompanies exam results, Estyn inspections and council banding lists should reassure parents and the wider community that a school’s reputation should be comprised of more than just data.
Not every school will get its own documentary, but every school can learn from it and can take the time to tell their own wonderful stories – all schools will have them.
It’s telling the tale of these achievements, these human stories, that should be prioritised and alongside finance and teaching and learning in a school’s senior management strategy. Like a business, schools cannot afford to treat PR and communication as an afterthought. Resources are tighter than ever, but by taking the time to communicate success through social media, through newsletters to parents, by engaging with local media and building relationships with stakeholders, all schools in Wales could benefit from the ‘Educating Effect’.
Article by Sarah Wise, Account Director at Effective.