What happened when one comprehensive let TV cameras into every corner?

Allowing cameras – 65 of them – into a school may seem like madness, but the headteacher of an Essex secondary has allowed Channel 4 unparalleled access. The result, he says, has taught everyone a lesson
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The Independent Culture

While Big Brother continues its curious afterlife on Channel 5, its days as a cultural force are now long gone. Young people having drunk sex under tables, the late Jade Goody bullying Bollywood starlets, and George Galloway pretending to be a cat... it all seems so Noughties now.

The real cultural legacy of Endemol's groundbreaking reality show is not to be found on Channel 5 but in its old abode, Channel 4, and any number of observational documentary series in which homes, institutions and workplaces have been given the Big Brother treatment and packed with wall-to-wall cameras. The Hotel, The Family, One Born Every Minute, 24 Hours in A&E and The Model Agency have revolutionised the television documentary with their relentless but unobtrusive scrutiny, and with their illusion (or perhaps the truth) that – as with BB – viewers are getting closer to unscripted and unrehearsed reality. And now, as of next week, this format is going to school.

Channel 4's Educating Essex is the most ambitious observational television documentary yet made in a school. The "bog-standard comprehensive" (in the words of its headteacher, echoing Tony Blair's infamous description) involved is in Harlow, Essex, and its governors agreed for it to be rigged with 65 cameras, so that every lesson, every staff meeting, every infraction of the school rules and every pupil pulling a face behind the teacher's back, is caught on camera. It's a candid, revealing and ultimately heartening insight into the workings of a modern comprehensive – or at least this particular comprehensive.

But what on earth possessed Vic Goddard, the headteacher at Passmores School and Technology College (this month, it becomes a co-operative academy), to risk letting his school come under such relentless scrutiny? Passmores recently earned its first "outstanding" Ofsted report – why jeopardise such hard-earned recognition with the notoriously mucky embrace of reality television?

"We serve a pretty tough community, certainly with regard to Essex... mainly white, working class," says Goddard, a large, warm and jovial man unafraid to lark about on camera. "We serve areas of real deprivation. It's a tough area but I love it and the staff are so dedicated and committed to the young people here."

Harlow – since I've mentioned Big Brother – is also the town where Jade Goody chose to spend some of her short life and where her two young boys continue to live now – but it was an altogether different tragedy that spurred Goddard to risk his school's reputation when independent production company Twofour Broadcast came calling.

"We'd unfortunately lost one of our dear students in the months leading up to the phone call from the production company," he says. "This young man was 15 and died of a heart defect. Life's very short... don't be afraid to make mistakes... that was the mantra in the school following Jamie's death. He had very close links to the school and the funeral procession actually drove up to the school, and I remember standing that day out on the roadside with 1,000 students and staff for 20 minutes in perfect silence."

Passmores was eventually selected from a shortlist of 20 potential comprehensives willing to be filmed. "We went for schools that either had outstanding or good Ofsteds, because we wanted to go to schools that felt confident about what they were doing," series director David Clews says. "We weren't looking to make an exposé about bad schools... there was no hidden agenda."

Carpe diem, in other words, as they're no doubt learning in Toby Young's new Latin-teaching free school. At Passmores, the final decision was left to the board of governors, and once they gave the project the green light, the enormity of the decision hit home. "The potential for impact on the school is huge – both positively and negatively," Goddard says. "It all became about trust. My default position is that I trust people – even the media – unless they throw it away, and David looked me in the eye and said he was going to be true to the school and make sure none of our young people were vulnerable."

Goddard is an unashamed supporter of the embattled comprehensive system. "I'm a comprehensive boy," he says. "I'm from a council estate and I went to an all-boys comp in south London. I got some fantastic life chances... I was given such support – and I think this school takes a bit of that, it puts an arm round kids' shoulders when it needs to."

He acknowledges that there are problems – particularly the ongoing battle for discipline – but that television shows such as this year's Jamie Oliver series, Jamie's Dream School, in which various leading lights were given the opportunity to teach some unusually recalcitrant pupils, didn't offer much in the way of useful insight or potential remedy. "We can't all be award-winning doctors or historians," he says. "Bizarrely, I was at a conference with Robert Winston on the day after his episode aired and he was very apologetic of how it was put together and how it made it seem that a celebrity could do what a teacher does without having to work at it. The demeaning way that it treated educators was enough to turn most of us off."

Educating Essex chiefly focuses on the 160 students in Year 11, the GCSE exam year, the school being rigged out with cameras during the autumn half term of last year. "They're not hidden in any way, but the kids got used to them very quickly," says David Clews, who believes he can capture scenes that would have been unobtainable had he filmed them the traditional way, with him present and a camera slung over his shoulder. Vandalism was a fear. "We were a bit worried that there were going to be loads of Blu-Tack put on the lenses, and we had 70 ambient microphones as well; they hang down and none of them were pulled down."

And it wasn't just the pupils who forgot that they were on television. "I had four cameras in my office," Goddard says. "By week two, I was driving home thinking, 'Oh God, I forgot I had the cameras in there... what did I say about that?' It became quite tortuous because you just beat yourself up all the time, thinking, 'Now I know I handled that as I would have handled it, but how will it look?' Mind you, I think staff dress improved dramatically during the filming process. You didn't have to worry about open-toed sandals..."

In fact, the staff had rather more important things on their mind than sartorial elegance – such as whether they would come across as proficient enough in the classroom. "The teachers were incredibly nervous," Clews says. "They were worried about how they would perform in a lesson. Some didn't want their lessons filmed – they were too nervous or shy... a couple didn't want to be filmed at all, even in the background of shots."

Perhaps with less to lose, none of the pupils opted out of filming, though a handful could not be included for legal reasons (such as their being in care). Letters were sent out to every pupil in the school, while the heavily featured Year 11 students received a home visit and counselling from an independent psychologist. "We have to be very careful," Clews says. "We make the series, the series goes out, and these children are still living in Harlow... we have to make sure they're OK afterwards."

The show's transmission was deliberately delayed until after the Year 11 students received their GCSE results last month – many of them having gone on to study at the nearby sixth-form college. It was important, Goddard says, that any aftercare continued there. "The production company are still in contact with the ex-students now, making sure they're being sensible with the social media, because that's a worry," he says. "I'm hopeful that when the programme comes out it won't affect them negatively. It's important we keep the wagon circle around them, tell them not to read the newspapers, and if they go on Facebook to keep their account private rather than public, things like that. Their view on the reality of the virtual world and mine are quite different..."

One potentially vulnerable student could be Carmelita, who, during this week's opening episode, makes a career-threatening malicious accusation of assault against the deputy teacher, who has asked her to remove a hoodie – such an allegation somewhat reckless in a building bristling with television cameras (plus the school's own CCTV cameras).

"All the main students who are featured get to see the film before it goes out, with their parents," Clews says. "As for Carmelita – she could see that it wasn't her best behaviour and she says she learnt from it; they were fine about it."

There is an ethos of second and third chances at Passmores ("If they do something wrong, we try and pick them up and change their minds through care rather than the stick," Goddard says) that may strike some viewers as over-forgiving – especially those who blame schools for everything from the riots to illiteracy. The headteacher, however, is proud of the school's unwillingness to resort to permanent exclusion, a drastic "solution" Goddard calls "morally wrong".

"I know there will be certain individuals in the media, probably the Daily Mail, who will be thinking we're too liberal and that we should just be kicking these kids out – but you kick them out and where do they go? I'm very proud that we serve a tough community, but we serve them every day and give them more and more chances.

"People's opinions are people's opinions – I guess the worrying part is opening ourselves up to those opinions. The timing of the [recent] disturbances... the looting... I'm aware that this could very well get hijacked for the 'broken Britain' agenda rather than being about a school that works very hard and the kids love.

"Ultimately the national public is less important to me than what my local community thinks. As long as my local community thinks we're still trying to do the right thing by everybody then that is all that really matters." I'd say that the local community in Harlow is very lucky indeed in having Mr Goddard and his staff to teach their children. And whatever you think of some of the educational abilities on display "What is 'pie' [ie, pi]?" asks one pupil, having a Jade Goody moment – or arguably showing a healthy inquisitiveness – during a maths lesson. "Where did it come from?"), if my daughter were at Passmores, I'd at least think she was in good hands and had every chance of passing a happy and productive time at school.

'Educating Essex' is on at 9pm, Channel 4, 22 September