Grace Dent on TV: Educating Yorkshire, Channel 4
An eyebrow-erasing encounter with Bailey, Kayleigh and the saintly Mr Mitchell
At Thornhill Community Academy, near Dewsbury, the eyebrows of Bailey from year 10 – or more accurately the thick pencil stripes representing eyebrows – are causing mass discombobulation amongst staff. Why, oh why, oh why would a young girl, who could be SO pretty, shave off her naturally sprouting eyebrows and paint them back on? In absolute fairness Bailey's brows do lend her a permanent Toon-town “gazzooinks!” look of shock about her.
I rather like Bailey, star of this week's opening episode of Educating Yorkshire. Channel 4's well-loved secondary-school fly-on-the-wall show has had a change of scenery, quitting Essex and moving up north to a diverse community where the student population is almost exactly half white-British and half British-Asian.
For what it's worth I completely understand Bailey's eyebrow situation. At times, I too have been seduced by the lure of the Scouse-brow. Exposure to one paparazzi shoot too many of well-dressed WAGs and bolshie Geordie Shore girls with glossy hair and thick-pencilled brows makes even a strong-minded woman think, “ooh, I'll have a go at that”.
But I doubt Bailey would care for the empathy of a woman of my age – to a 14-year-old, anyone past 26 should probably be put down out of kindness. One of the wondrous things about this TV venture is the stark memory jolt it provides about being young and stubborn. Thornhill's pupils, like almost all teenagers, are damn certain they're experiencing box-fresh emotions about love, looks, jealousy or bullying never experienced before.
“Your eyebrows. They're very… um… big,” says Mr Mitchell, head teacher. Bailey stares back at Mr Mitchell, her expression is a rhapsody of wild boredom, slender tolerance and some pity. Mitchell has inherited a school with a shaky reputation. Not bad, as such, just not one parents rush to send their children to. His adamance that this will change is wholly heartwarming. Just like Educating Essex, this show is a good-news story. Teachers have integrity, patience and wisdom. In the opening episode some pupils terrorise an OAP with snowballs and face the wrath of Mitchell and his two deputy heads in a dressing-down that – as the colour drained from the culprits faces – was rather edifying to behold. Mr Mitchell has faith in Bailey. The stand-off about her eyebrows is only one of many times he's seen her face – which is thick with dark bronze foundation – outside his office door. Bailey sincerely believes – she tells the TV crew this on a one-to-one – that her face is lopsided. In fact verging on deformed. Only a thick covering of matt foundation can make Bailey even acceptable to the outside world.
“Bailey,” I'd like to shout at her. “You're not deformed. You're very pretty. And you'll never ever be as young and flawless and free as you are right now. In fact, Bailey, in 2033, you'll look back at pictures of 2013 and realise how slim and alluring you were and feel mad you didn't spend today in a quick slick of lipgloss lost in blissful glee.” Bailey wouldn't listen to this either, but at least she's not as stubborn as Kayleigh, who, earlier in the episode, was caught smoking and given the option of spending a day in isolation (supervised, but with laptop and headphones) or, failing that, facing a full exclusion. Bailey tries to convince her friend to take the minor punishment: “Look, if you wanna be a fuckin' lawyer, Kayleigh,” she says, “you don't wanna get excluded.”
“I don't care,” says Kayleigh. It's not that Kayleigh minds a few hours of isolation. It's just that it's not fair. Smokers don't normally get put on isolation! They get detention! The teachers can't just change the punishments. “I'm not havin' HIM [Mr Mitchell] thinking he can do what he wants!” roars Kayleigh. Ah, more rookie mistakes: believing that people in positions of power can't do what they want and that life is ever fair. I could watch Educating Yorkshire all day long savouring the fact that I might be older but I'm slightly less daft.
I'm a fan of the old Essex setting, but Educating Yorkshire seems every bit as compelling, whether it be focusing on Mr Barraclough's latest haul of smokers from behind the IT block, or Bailey's bolshiness, or, at one point, a fight in the lower-school toilets which reportedly involved racist abuse. Or did it really? Was the racist word really said or added later by the pupil for effect? Just like in previous shows the crew stay close to the action right through the investigation. I'm still amazed they get full consent from everyone involved to document their flaws in full colour, but I'm jolly glad they manage, particularly this off-guard moment from Bailey about her enemy the headmaster.
“He's the best thing that happened to this school,” she says, her face losing its teen sullenness momentarily. “He's fair. He'll have a laugh with you and listen to you. I didn't think I'd ever like him… but now I do.”
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