Last Night's TV: Educating Essex/ Channel 4 <br/>Young Soldiers/ BBC3

Classroom cameras get an A for observation

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The Independent Culture

The only thing seriously wrong with Educating Essex is the title. It's tawdry, ratings-chasing and cynical and it suggests that someone isn't really that fussed about the dignity of this series, just so long as it draws an audience. If they could have found an excuse, you find yourself thinking, they would probably have called it "My Big Fat Gypsy School". The good news, though, is that the documentary itself is infinitely better than its marketing. Another of Channel 4's exercises in saturation CCTV, it offers a portrait of an Essex comprehensive that is striving to ensure that none of its pupils leave without at least some kind of qualification. Striving with equal, if not greater vigour, to ensure the exact opposite are several of the pupils themselves.

You will have to judge for yourself whether the use of 65 fixed cameras offers a better account of the muddled truth of such an organisation than one or two cameras in the hands of a skilful crew. The theory is, I take it, that it's much easier for the subjects to forget they're on film if the lens doesn't have a person behind it – and it's a theory that seems to have been borne out by similar exercises such as The Hotel and 24 Hours in A&E. If you remain sceptical, though, I'd advance two pieces of evidence to support the claim.

The first was the lovely sequence of Mr Drew, the school's deputy head, singing tunelessly along to the Pogues' "Fairytale of New York" while he ate his Minibix in the morning. As he wiped his nose, and winced at the taste of his coffee and pulled faces, he did not look like a man who felt he was being watched.

The second piece of evidence was a telling grammatical nuance when Mr Drew was discussing the filming with his colleagues. "What really, really worries me about doing that Channel 4 thing," he said, "is that people watch it and they just think we're a bunch of idiots. And the nice people go, 'Oh, how hard they're working, how hard they're trying', and then, bloody hell, Michael Gove stands up in the House of Commons and is asked, 'Have you seen what that deputy head...' 'Yeah, man's an idiot... kick 'em out... this is not what we want in the British education system'. And the greater public watch and think, 'You're a bunch of fucking idiots. What do they have to say to you in order for you to get rid of them? No wonder you have such discipline problems. You're all spineless!'" The critical words here were "that Channel Four thing". At that moment, Mr Drew clearly didn't think the project was in his office right then, keeping a beady eye on him. He thought it was somewhere else.

I don't think he'd foreseen that some viewers might recognise his efforts (and his undeniable backbone) and yet still despair at the amount of time consumed by just a small group of "challenging" students (a euphemism that doesn't begin to do justice to their mind-shredding surliness). Pupils such as Charlotte, for instance, a smirking "am-I-bovvered" caricature who seemed almost proud of her intransigence: "In year nine I was worse... and in year 10 I was worse and year 11 I was worser," she said. "Is that a word?" Or Carmelita, who takes a dim view of the school's no-hoodie policy and effectively ended up accusing Mr Drew of assault when he tried to confiscate hers. Fortunately the CCTV cameras exonerated him, at which point even the headmaster's elastic patience ran out and Carmelita was excluded until the New Year. She wouldn't be gone for good, though: "Permanent exclusion is morally wrong," said Mr Drew fiercely.

His faith in the second chance and the clean sheet was genuinely touching, but it was impossible not to ask yourself who was really paying the price for it. Mr Drew loves teaching history and is obviously good at it, but he's so busy putting out pointless fires that he can only do it for an hour a week. Kindness to the few, it seems, means they end up short-changing the many. Because it isn't just teachers' time that Carmelita and Charlotte are gobbling up – it's time that rightly belongs to their fellow pupils.

There's almost nothing but discipline in Young Soldiers, a touching account of basic training. Pedagogical methods this week included live-firing over the recruits' heads, bayonet targets filled with fake blood and a compulsory spell in a room filled with CS gas, an experience none of the squaddies looked eager to repeat in a hurry. Now there's a thought for a beleaguered deputy head.