For those of us who found school to be a less than jolly experience, Channel 4’s new series Educating Yorkshire has sometimes made for painful viewing. The cameras followed the children and teachers at Thornhill Community Academy near Dewsbury for seven weeks in 2012, and last week the second of four episodes was screened. “Groups, cliques, tribes,” said the blurb; “call them what you like, they have always been at the centre of school life.”
Thursday’s episode focused on two groups: the cool girls and the geeks. The cool girls admitted that they “tease” the geeks and call them names. The geeks said they didn’t know what they had done to deserve such abuse. So far, so typical – of school life, and, apparently, of exploitative reality TV.
The programme focused on two incidents in which a “geek”, Jac-Henry, lashed out physically after being “teased” by a girl called Georgia. The programme is fascinating in the way that it continually challenges viewers’ ideas of victim and villain – as it should, since, at age 15 or 16, nobody is a villain. Jac-Henry used violence, and accepted his punishment from the firm-but-fair head teacher Mr Mitchell. On the first occasion, Georgia was not punished.
At least, not by the school. On Twitter on Thursday night, viewers decided to do the job. “That Georgia” started trending, with hundreds of adults using her full name to abuse her looks, her character and more. A Twitter account that appeared to be Georgia’s returned insults, blocked a few accounts and eventually, showing more wisdom than her tormentors, asked what they thought they were doing calling her a bully.
When I was 16, I too knew a bully, and there were days when I would have happily traded my education and future to see her humiliated. But I am not 16, and the sight of adults handing out such abuse to a child is horrific. One man, whose tweet I will paraphrase on the grounds of taste, called Georgia a “flipping little scumbag”, and continued: “I’d love to volley your flipping punt in with a size 12 steeley on. Bully. Punt.”
Had Channel 4 hung the children out to dry? Absolutely not, I discovered – though obviously the same cannot be said of Twitter. “We cannot control social media reaction but we take our duty of care to the students incredibly seriously,” said a Channel 4 spokeswoman.”
In fact, the production company worked with the school, community, parents and children for months before consent was given. “We are working closely with an independent chartered child psychologist who met the students before filming and is viewing the final programmes before they are broadcast.”
All the children were given advice about social media, privacy settings and how best to react to criticism – or not react. In fact, on Friday, Georgia “was prepared for the reaction, she knew what to expect so is feeling okay with it all.” To be fair, she seemed it. (If the Twitter account really is hers.)
Was Georgia a bully? It looks that way, and obviously that touches nerves. “That sort of story’s always going to be a bit Marmite,” Mr Mitchell told me on Friday evening, “because everybody knows somebody who was a bully and everybody knows somebody who was bullied.”
His zero tolerance of bullying is made clear in the series. “In that particular programme it may have come across that bullying hadn’t been punished but that wasn’t the case,” he explained. “It was a reasonably accurate portrayal. Nothing major was left out, it was just that some of the beef behind it couldn’t be included ....
“In retrospect, had I known exactly what went on, Georgia would in all likelihood have been punished too.” She had been punished for bullying before, and Jac-Henry had received encouragement and support.
Have children of the Twitter age evolved to have thicker skins? It’s hard to judge when you’re my or Mr Mitchell’s age and you assume that bullying got left behind at school. It’s not Channel 4’s fault, or Georgia’s or Jac-Henry’s, but sadly the response to Educating Yorkshire suggests that we now accept bullying as part of life. Georgia and Jac-Henry will be fine: they seem already to have understood that a happy life is the best revenge. But for their sake, I’m sorry that not everybody can be sent to stand outside the head’s office until they learn how to behave. School is hard enough; Twitter is an insult too far.