A couple of weeks ago I was lucky enough to be invited to the screening of Channel 4’s latest school documentary Educating Cardiff. Just like they did with Essex, Yorkshire and the East End, the team behind the documentary have created a portrait of what it’s like to grow up in a rather distinctive area. Indeed, in the Q&A following the screening, the directors revealed that for the latest series they wanted to focus on a school outside of England. So, after looking at many schools in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, they eventually settled on Willows High School which lies just on the outskirts of the Welsh capital.
What surprised me early on was that Willows’ Head Teacher Joy Ballard wasn’t Welsh and indeed has hardly picked up any of the native language during her three years in charge at the school. What Joy has done however is to turn around the school’s results and has improved the reputation of the institution vastly during her time at the helm. One of my favourite anecdotes during the first episode was Joy recounting her arrival to Willows and seeing a rather explicit message painted on the back gates. However, judging by the attitudes of both the staff and the students, Joy has definitely got Willows on the right path to success.
I think it is Joy who marks Educating Cardiff out from its predecessors as she’s a different sort of head teacher. The three previous head teachers in the Educating series were all quite dominant presences even if all demonstrated their soft side throughout the process. Based on the evidence on episode one alone, Joy is the opposite and seems to favour kindness over discipline. Although at the screening she claimed that she can go off on one if needs be, it was her compassion that shone through here. In fact, during the screening, I noted how she broke out into floods of tears as the rather emotionally-tinged episode reached its conclusion.
Episode one of Educating Cardiff focuses on two Year Eleven girls both of whom need help in different areas of their personality. Leah is the more obvious troubled student as she has a history of arriving late at school and bunking off halfway through the day. Alongside best friend Courtney, Leah’s exploits include regularly evading the gaze of teachers and messing about during lessons. The episode focuses on Leah’s relationship with her Head of House Mr Hennessy, who has resorted to calling her every morning to check that she’s coming into school. I personally adored the relationship between the troubled schoolgirl and the world weary maths teacher with the former finally realising how much the latter actually cared about her. The final five minutes of the episode is tinged with emotion and demonstrated that Mr Henessy actually cared a great deal about his students even though most of Willows’ pupils believe he’s the strictest teacher at the school.
Whilst Leah’s problems where quite obvious the same cannot be said for straight-A student Jessica who, unlike her classmate, has a perfect attendance record. However Joy recognises that Jessica has problems with communicating with her peers and instead preferred the company of the teachers. To try and get her to come out of her shell a little more, Joy decides to give Jessica the role of editor of Willows’ new school newspaper. The episode then tracked Jessica’s progress as she learned to communicate with her peers and as a result gained in confidence. I personally related to the rather quirky Jessica and again felt it was rather touching when she received an award for her role on the paper during the episode’s final scenes.
After the patchy, Educating the East End, it seems that Educating Cardiff is a return to form and this first episode was a joy to watch from beginning to end. However I do feel that a lot of Channel 4’s observational documentaries suffer from a lack of compelling stories due in part to an inflated number of episodes. I’m personally hoping that Educating Cardiff doesn’t fall into this trap and based on my experiences both watching the episode and hearing from the team behind it I do think that we’ve got a quality series ahead of us.