Jenny Smith is headteacher of Frederick Bremer School in Walthamstow – the subject of last year’s Channel 4 ‘Educating the East End’ series – and in this guest post takes to task Sir Michael Wilshaw over recent comments on the impact of reality TV programmes on teacher recruitment.
We have a simple mantra at Frederick Bremer which applies to pupils and staff alike: celebrate in public, challenge in private. Challenge is an inherent part of every leader’s role, and we work very hard to ensure it is done with tact, sensitivity and based on evidence rather than anecdote. We work on an appreciation model, and an understanding that a healthy school environment is based on developing strong, mutually appreciative trusting relationships.
It is unfortunate that many in positions of national influence do not share this approach. It seems to have become so culturally acceptable to berate and belittle schools, and school leaders, that we now exist in a state of constant fear. We have an imminent Ofsted inspection, which should be an opportunity for us to be recognised for our considerable progress and hear some supportive feedback. Instead, to be blunt, we are terrified and the consequences of a poor inspection are too horrendous to process. I want to be involved in a debate about education, I want to be professionally informed if the work I do can be improved and I appreciate feedback about other strategies and ideas. However, I am the headteacher of the school and I make decisions for no other reason than I believe they are the best for the pupils I am responsible for.
I have worked in inner city London comprehensives since 1999. I have seen the profession revolutionised and school standards soar. Accountability is important, but also shared standards and greater professional growth have had a significant impact. Of course there is more schools can do, that is the perpetual and infinite challenge of our work, but we should get some praise rather than what feels like unrelenting criticism (especially against an incredibly challenging, constantly shifting, landscape).
So, as I finally sit down at 9pm on Tuesday night after a 12 hour shift, I am looking forward to watching my day job on TV. I am one of only 4 headteachers who have been privileged to be part of the ‘Educating…’ experience, and as a result I think I am uniquely placed to respond to Mr Wilshaw’s recent comments about the impact of programmes like this on our profession and that they are a poor advertisement for teaching . His argument is based on anecdote and not evidence; I have seen huge surge in recruitment as a result of Educating the East End against a trend of a growing national recruitment crisis.
There is a deep seated cynicism amongst some educationalists about schools involvement in TV programmes. It is not celebrity we crave, I personally couldn’t think of anything worse. And the decision to open ourselves up to public scrutiny is not one we took quickly nor lightly. We were not naïve, and we knew the risks. We also knew there would be bad behaviour and some uncomfortable viewing. Unfortunately watching pupils doing what they do 99.9% of the time, learning, does not make great TV.
But ultimately our decision was political.
When visitors come to my school, they are always surprised. ‘It is so quiet, calm, purposeful’ ‘Your pupils are so lovely’, ‘This is not what I thought schools were like’. Why is the public perception of our schools so wrong?
My staff, like thousands of others up and down the country, work ourselves to exhaustion day in day out for the young people of our community. Why? Because we work with the most inspirational, interesting and talented group of young people who deserve the very best in life. We see the difference great quality teaching, guidance and care makes to them. We are tired of professionals being criticised and told we are not good enough. We are tired of the media negativity and the crude generalisations about our professionalism.
We are tired of seeing the young people of our community labelled as gangsters, rude and lacking manners.
And we are tired of our community being ripped to pieces by the increasing segregation imposed by the unregulated growth of free schools and their accompanying propaganda that local schools are just not good enough. This segregation which only serve to further divide the amazingly inclusive and tolerant Walthamstow community, who have had their fill of the EDL marching on their streets.
If Mr Wilshaw watched ‘Educating the East End’, he would have seen learnt a lot about our school. Yes there was some poor behaviour (of which I am not proud), but what emerged in the narrative were powerful personal stories about some children who were (understandably) struggling to cope. Teenage years are tough, they are even harder when you are dealing with extra ‘stuff’. He would have seen pupils from all spectrums; behaviourally challenged, academically gifted, lonely, autistic. He would have seen hugely talented staff unpicking their issues and supporting them to make the right choices and get back on track. Care, support and nurturing alongside a restorative approach can have a powerful long term impact – far more than sanction and punitive discipline. This does not mean we are soft or don’t have incredibly high standards, we just go about it in a different way.
Since ‘Educating…’, we have been inundated with applications for every single post at every level in the school. The quality of applicants is incredible. What unites people who want to work for us? They want to work in a school which is making a difference to the local community. Many have moved from the academy sector, and taken a pay cut to come to work for us. They want to work in a school where they feel supported and their expertise is welcomed. Where young people are seen as far more than the sum part of their GCSE results. I have hundreds, if not thousands, of emails and tweets saying the programme inspired them to go into teaching. Many, usually from women, are wanting advice about taking the next step into leadership.
The reason, in my humble opinion, why people do not want to go into teaching is far deeper that a TV series. It is the intense pressure, the ever changing goal posts, it is the incredibly long hours and the unrelenting criticism which are off putting. It is the responsibility and the huge expectations. It is culture of bullying, modelled at the highest level, which permeates so many institutions. It is the fear of losing your job because you did not achieve your targets. For my authority, it is the reality that teachers working one mile down the road receive £4k a year more because they are in ‘inner London’, yet Waltham Forest is one of the most deprived London Boroughs with soaring property prices.
However, it is an amazing job and so rewarding. ‘Educating…’ has over the last few years opened the debate about education and helped inform the public in a more accurate way about school life. We should be proud and celebrate what we do in our schools, and some positive feedback will do more to raise standards than more public slating. We might not like everything we see on a highly edited TV programme, but this is not representing the wider picture, merely a brief snapshot.
There is a constant high political debate about education, from which education leaders appear to absent. We are informed about educational priorities by diktats issued in the media. It is, indeed, a sad indictment of our times that we now have to resort to TV documentaries to make our voices heard, and to change perceptions of our schools.
You can follow Jenny Smith on Twitter @
I have no evidence either way, but I believe series like Educating will do far more to build positive perceptions about our schools, our teachers and our children than any negative impact they may have.
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