Stranger than Fiction 2 – Gove’s Epic Dickensian Nightmare on Waterloo Road

COMMENT – A few weeks ago, I wrote a piece which mentioned how badly television fiction represents schools.  It was with some astonishment, therefore, that I realised this week how wrong I had been about programmes such as ‘Please, Sir’, because if we compare them with the latest series of ‘Waterloo Road’  – which has most definitely jumped the shark and all its fishy friends this time – ‘Please, Sir’ was practically a fly-on-the-wall documentary.

I have to confess to a minor interest in ‘Waterloo Road’, because it used to be filmed in Rochdale, where my last school was situated.  Even more interestingly, one of the regular cast is a former pupil of mine and a group of other pupils featured in the first few series as extras.  I recall clearly the morning after the first-ever episode aired, when one of these kids bounded up to me in the dining room to ask if I’d seen her in it.  “Of course I did!  You were very good.”  I replied, which was a big fat lie because I’d bailed out after about ten minutes of the utter nonsense.  I’m not terribly successful at watching fictional representations of schools, because I always end up shouting at the television and the words ‘Oh, come ON!’ feature, alongside a bit of swearing, if I’m honest.  I’m a joy to watch television with.

Waterloo Road has moved lock, stock and head teacher’s biscuit barrel to Scotland, along with some of the Rochdale staff and bizarrely, some of the same pupils.  I did a bit of research (yes, it was via Google, what else do you expect?  Me spending several weeks down the BBC archives?) and apparently, a former pupil is a millionaire and offered to fund the re-establishment of the school.  Quite why Scotland was chosen is beyond me, but it turns out that this is an independent school, some pupils are going to board, solving at an easy stroke the problem of how to transplant some of the same children all the way north of the border.   I have to say, however, that this ex-pupil must be a billionaire if she’s going to continue funding the school ad infinitum, since it seems unlikely that these pupils’ parents can afford to start stumping up fees.

Now, I’m often accused by those closest to me of being unable to suspend disbelief sufficiently to allow them to enjoy most television programmes and it is at this point that I must mount my own defence.  If you spend as much time as I do reading what’s going on in the real world of education, you’ll understand why I’m so perpetually unable to tell fact from fiction and thus enjoy the latter for what it is.  This past week, the steam roller that is Michael ‘I never lie, but I’m often misinformed’ Gove’s tenure as education secretary flattened the hopes and dreams of a fair number of 18 and 16 year olds, as they found that the goal posts of exam boundaries had been moved at the very last second.  We were thus denied the usual film and photos of attractive girls bouncing around and hugging each other whilst waving their exam slips and were instead shown scenes of frowning, deeply disappointed children being cuddled by their mums.  It’s at this point that I’d like to sit down next to Gove and shout into his ear, as loudly as I can, the words ‘They’re CHILDREN, you brainless excuse for a human being!’ but presumably he merely sees ripping away college places from 16 year olds as character-building ‘experience’.

Of course, Gove refuted all suggestions that he’d had anything to do with the first fall in both A level and GCSE results for decades, but as he subsequently went on to imply that GCSEs were the creation of the last government, you’ll forgive me for not believing a word the man says, since memory and the historical record suggest it was Mrs Thatcher who introduced them.   Gove will probably argue that what he meant was that it was under Labour that coursework was included in GCSEs – which makes him either a big fibber or worryingly misinformed, because those of us who taught both before and after the introduction of GCSEs know very well that in some subjects, such as English, there used to be far more coursework, even on Thatcher’s watch.   Soon afterwards, Michael ‘I never said that’ Gove claimed he did not want to bring back O levels, which amazed those of us who’d read all the papers on the day the relevant leak first made its oily way out of the DfE, because we read – and you’ll be unsurprised that I made a careful note of it – that Gove reckoned the creation of GCSEs by his lot under Thatcher in the 1980s was a “historic mistake”.  He also said, apparently, that it has “’failed pupils” and this has in turn led to an utter collapse of standards via grade inflation and the invention of ‘soft’ courses, such as BTECs.

You can see why I get confused and why I rail against fictional representations of education on television, because it’s my considered opinion that Michael ‘I’ll say what I like, because I can’ Gove believes he’s just a character in a far-fetched educational soap and can therefore throw in any old daft idea, or throw out any existing concepts whenever he fancies.  What he wants, he claimed yesterday, was not to bring back O levels and CSEs – “We don’t want a two-tier system, we do want additional rigour and stretch.”  He wants, therefore, to do away with those examinations which offer two tiers (English, maths, science, modern languages) and have only one paper and to give all pupils the ‘opportunity’ to take it.  He presumably has had it explained to him that some pupils will thereby be given the ‘opportunity’ to sit doodling aimlessly on their exam desks for a couple of hours, since the reason for the creation of lower tier papers was to enable such pupils to at least stand a fighting chance of answering some of the questions.  Gove’s not a big fan of asking the question ‘I wonder why this happened?’ however.

So, putting together Gove’s desire to make exams harder to pass with his intention – announced in June – to raise the ‘floor target’ of 5A*-C (including maths and English) from 35% to 50% by 2015, we appear to be getting a most peculiar and confusing set of mixed messages and paradoxical intentions.  On the one hand, GCSEs must be made ‘tougher’ because so-called grade inflation has led to far too many students passing them; on the other, we want far more pupils to pass them, so those schools currently failing to get at least 50% of each Y11 cohort through the magic 5 passes will be deemed to be failing.  Has no-one explained to this dolt what effect making the exams ‘tougher’ – so that fewer can pass them – will have?

In a speech at The Spectator on 26 June this year, Michael ‘I really do not have a clue what an average is’ Gove said, “I want us to ensure that in the next ten years at least 80% of our young people are on course to securing good passes in properly testing exams in Maths, English and Science – more rigorous than those our children sit now.”  Just to make this absolutely clear:  he thinks the current exams are too easy because more and more children each year are passing them, so he’s going to make them harder.  Within 10 years, however, he wants 80% of children to be passing these much harder exams.

I’m looking forward to a future episode of ‘Waterloo Road’, in which the secretary of state for education orders further ‘turn back time to a time that never was’ reforms.  As it’s now an independent school, stand by for the re-introduction of fagging, tuck boxes and the roasting of boys over a fire by large, ugly bullies called Flashgit.  Gruel will be served at every meal, top hats and wing collars will be worn as standard uniform and any pupil who cannot parse a whole book of Virgil’s Aeneid by the end of Year 7 will be locked in the school stocks and pelted with stale Bath buns from Mrs Miggins’ pie shop by the classics master (definitely not a woman).  GCSEs passes, of course, will be restricted to only the top 50% via norm referencing, but the heads of all schools failing to secure for at least 50% of the cohort the magic 5 passes will be made to dress in sacking and walk through the streets carrying a placard on which is inscribed the message ‘My school was below average’.

Please submit your comments below.

Helen Freeborn

Helen Freeborn was a secondary headteacher for 11 years until she gave it all up to live in Greece. Now returned after four years abroad, she divides her time between consultancy, training, a range of writing projects and catching up with all the television she has missed.

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6 total comments on this postSubmit yours
  1. I think the plot of Waterloo Road is more believable than anything Gove has said/ done so far. Great article but very depressing!

  2. Certainly, the writers of ‘Waterloo Road’ have a tighter grip on reality than Michael ‘asset-stripping state education as we speak’ Gove does.

  3. There is no doubt but that Gove has deep personality defects and is highly dishonourable. It is a crying shame that he has been accorded the power to play fast and loose with children’s futures and then to lie shamelessly about what he has done. Keep up the good work of exposing his deceits, Ms Freeborn!

  4. I gave up watching fictional educational TV programmes because they could never match the actual antics of staff and pupils in real life.
    Hasn’t Mr gOveLEVEL encouraged this to happen (not that he has PERSONALLY put pressure on exam boards) so that more schools now meet the new 40% failure rate for OfSTED inspection
    I also gave up exam work when pressure was put upon us as moderators to increase the numbers of pupils at higher grades – so that the exam board I worked with didn’t have schools going over to “easier” boards.
    NEVER believe anything – there is ALWAYS some personal or political motivation involved.

  5. Surely the anticipated cabinet reshuffle will rid us of Gove…….he must have his eye on something else…..number 11 perhaps?

    • Gove at Downing Street – be afraid, be very afraid!

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