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Champion school

25 October 2013

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"YORKSHIRE schools" were, for Dickens and his contemporaries, particularly shameful blots on the face of British public life - sordid places, where illegitimate and unwanted children could be sent in the secure knowledge that they would hardly reach adulthood.

Nowadays, in certain sections of the media, it is, of course, the teachers who are thought to be unlikely to escape unscathed from a sustained encounter with the feral offspring of this benighted region. Educating Yorkshire (Channel 4, Thursdays), the distillation of a year's fly-on-the-wall filming of Thornhill Community Academy, Dewsbury, presents the true picture: challenging students - irreverent, disrespectful, and rumbustious, but full of life, and surely of far greater potential than they themselves realise.

Last week's episode told the story of Jack, a troubled 13-year-old, seemingly incapable of sitting still, or keeping his explosive temper - the "Olympic champion of [bad] behaviour points". The question was whether he was fit to be in a mainstream school at all. But the stars of the show were the staff, displaying amazing reserves of patience and hope, certain that, if only they persevered, something could unlock Jack's abilities. Eventually, he was sent to the school's "inclusion centre". And it worked: a month passed without incident, and he was accepted for the history stream, his favourite subject.

The process involved a parade of things from which I normally run a mile: sentimentality, jargon, cliché. But nothing could be more admirable than the patient faith in the power of education to give someone a decent start in life, and the prospect of future achievement.

Always keen to try something new, I tuned in last Saturday to BBC Parliament. Home at the Top was an evening devoted to the 50th anniversary of the choosing, against all expectation, as leader of the Tory party and Prime Minister in place of Harold Macmillan, of Alec Douglas-Home, 14th Earl.

The fun for me was watching ancient history that, paradoxically, I remember quite well. The heart of the evening was a repeat of the Panorama discussion, chaired by Robin Day, that was broadcast that evening. Television has now been around long enough to give us a reprise of half a century ago, exactly as we saw it then -something no previous generation has experienced.

In fact, if you discount the fact that the technology then available made everything seem, in contrast to today's Technicolor, irredeemably grey, and, if you ignore the style - everyone in a suit, everyone addressed as "Mr So-and-so" - I am not sure that the substance and the sentiments were different from what we would get in a round-table discussion today.

The most startling aspect was the refusal of the Labour representative to say anything negative about Macmillan: he just said how much everyone wished him a full recovery of health. Of course, the scenario has dated beyond recognition - nowadays, we take it for granted that our Prime Minister will have been educated at something like Thornhill Academy: surely no one in the 21st century could imagine a PM from Eton and Oxford?

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