Education Quandary: 'Can you ever make a good film about teaching? In "Happy-Go-Lucky", the girl made a totally unconvincing primary teacher'

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The Independent Online

Hilary's advice

Couldn't agree more. The teeth-grindingly irritating Poppy glided about her classroom like an actress pretending to be a primary school teacher, touching a caring hand to one child's shoulder and frowning meaningfully over another who seemed to have problems at home. She and the handsome social worker were quickly able to sort out these problems, before repairing to his flat for an energetic night of multi-agency working...

Why is it so hard to convey the true texture of school life on film? Happy-Go-Lucky had quite a good stab at it, with its bright classrooms and rainbow-of-nations kids. But the essence just wasn't there.

I think it's two things. First, the smell. Films can't do this, but if you walk into a school blindfolded you know at once where you were. It's that distinctive mixture of musty sweatshirts, school dinners, glue, paint, lab chemicals, floor cleaner, damp coats and too many people's sweat in too small a space.

Then there's the pesky question of narrative structure. Films need to narrow their focus to one or two relationships – usually ones where teachers are "saving" kids from themselves, or their backgrounds – but real teachers build relationships with all their pupils. As a result, the true hallmarks of their days are fragmented conversations, countless bits of business started and left unfinished, and an awful lot of chasing their own tails.

It would never cut it on the big screen. Audiences couldn't stand either the pressure or the frustration. A vacuously smiling Poppy is much easier to take.

Readers' advice

I think there are films about good teachers and good films about teachers out there, but they are often not the big box-office hits, perhaps because the "action" tends to be more subtle. But try Stand and Deliver (1988, with Edward James Olmos).

Sonja Karl, Bangor

My recommendation is Etre et avoir (2002), a French documentary by the director Nicolas Philibert. The focus is on a single-classroom school in a French village, where the teacher has to meet the needs of pupils ranging from nursery age to the end of primary education. I was a teacher (many moons ago) and was gripped by it.

Hayley Henderson, Cheshire

The best film about teachers must be Etre et avoir. There are lessons galore on how to engage and encourage children to learn, from their environment and from each other. Here is a truly gifted educator, with a masterful questioning technique, drawing out his pupils' understanding. But don't watch it just for the teaching; observe the learning – especially the scene with the photocopier! This film will have you in tears of laughter, joy and emotion. Forget Hollywood; this is real drama. You can't fail to learn from it, but you might have to turn a blind eye to the National Curriculum from time to time. The film should be a compulsory part of all teacher training programmes.

Richard Cousins, Dorset

Next Week's Quandary

Dear Hilary, My 14-year-old daughter is behaving quite badly at the moment, and often gets after-school detentions. But these make my life hell because she can't then get the bus and I have to put her young brother in the car and drive to pick her up. Why can't schools have lunchtime detentions, or other punishments that don't punish the whole family as well?

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