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Education

Reality TV makes school more popular

A British secondary school which featured in an eight-part fly-on-the-wall documentary has seen improved behaviour and attendance rates. Cameras captured pupils and staff at the Thornhill Community Academy over weeks.

From the outside, the Thornhill Community Academy in the North of England looks like any other secondary school. Yet, to millions of Brits, many of the staff and pupils will be instantly recognizable.

Earlier this year, the school was part of a unique TV experiment, allowing 64 fixed cameras into class rooms, halls and offices. Over seven weeks, the cameras captured hundreds of hours of footage, resulting in the fly-on-the-wall documentary ‘Educating Yorkshire'. In eight 50 minute-long episodes broadcast by Channel 4, the daily workings of the school were laid bare - warts and all.

Listen to Lars' report about 'Educating Yorkshire'.

"People from outside this area would say ‘that's a massive gamble' or ‘you're very brave', or ‘you're very stupid'," 41-year old head teacher Jonny Mitchell told DW.

"I don't think it was ever a gamble - we knew very early on that the production company was an honorable one full of integrity. So stupidity or bravery didn't come into it. Obviously the students were well up for it, because it's exciting."

Before filming could begin, the TV production company spent a long time preparing pupils, staff and parents for what exposure like this might mean.

"Just a handful of parents said they didn't want their children to be involved," Mr Mitchell said.

'I didn't change'

The documentary details everything from educational triumphs to fights, and some of the students feature more than the others. One of them is Bailey Hill from year 11, who won audiences over with her bubbly personality.

Student Bailey Hill of Thornhill Community Academy, Yorkshire, England (Photo: Lars Bevanger/ DW)

Pupil Bailey Hill became a celebrity overnight and misses the TV crew.

"They chose people with a story behind them or somebody who looked interesting who people liked to see on TV. After a while they started filming me a lot more and I had a microphone nearly every day," said Bailey.

""At first it felt very unusual, but I didn't change."

Bailey, who had her face mauled by a dog as a small child, is seen in the series trying to cover up her scars with make up - sometimes too much for the liking of her teachers.

Since becoming famous, she has had makeup artists get in touch offering to show her how to cover her facial scars more subtly. Turning into a celebrity overnight at the age of fifteen was surprising but nice, she told DW, and she looked back at the experience with fondness.

"We already miss it, we do miss the cameras a lot and miss all the people we worked with because we became very close."

Not chasing fame

Thornhill was chosen out of hundreds of schools that wanted to appear in the documentary. But head teacher Jonny Mitchell did not apply because he wanted fame for himself or his pupils.

"I was born in this town. I thought there's an opportunity for us to redress the balance in terms of negative press and reputation," he said.

The school is in a relatively poor area, and the town of Dewsbury has featured in a string of serious crime stories - including being the home of the ringleader for the 2005 London underground bombings.

"There's an awful lot more to the fabric of this town and the people of this town. And I wanted to make sure that we could restore its reputation. I also wanted to show what a fabulous school we have here," said Mitchell.

Teacher Matthew Burton of Thornhill Community Academy,
Yorkshire, England (Photo: Lars Bevanger/ DW)

Teacher Matthew Burton hopes viewers saw that teachers do work hard.

The UK teaching profession regularly faces criticism in the tabloid media and by politicians. Teachers are accused of working short hours and of failing to instill discipline in pupils. Jonny Mitchell and his colleagues also felt the documentary could be a chance to demonstrate to the nation that teachers work hard and achieve good things.

"Teachers don't get into the job for any other reason than it's a career whereby you can feel like you're making a difference," said Matthew Burton, another of the Thornhill teachers who has become somewhat of a national hero for helping a student overcome his debilitating stammer.

"Yes, sometimes we are a little brow-beaten by politicians and sections of the media, but if [the documentary] has raised the profile of teachers and given us a shot in the arm, then I think that's a really positive thing and I'd be incredibly proud of that."

Improved results

In the wake of the TV series, the school's results have improved, explained head teacher Mitchell.

Head teacher Jonny Mitchell of Thornhill Community Academy, Yorkshire, England (Photo: Lars Bevanger/ DW)

Head teacher Jonny Mitchell says Dewsbury and his school have a lot to offer.

"Much improved behavior, much improved attendance. Results are getting better, our year groups are becoming more focused on making sure that they get the right results," he said, adding that he'd hope the improvements were down to hard work rather than TV exposure.

"Educating Yorkshire" has been universally praised with only a couple of exceptions. One critic on the Radio Times magazine felt the bad behavior of a female pupil had been exploited as entertainment, and that the episode in question was more akin to a soap opera than a documentary.

"She wasn't exploited," countered Rachel Crowther, the girl's teacher.

"The same as everybody else, they had the opportunity [to decide] whether they featured in the programme or not. It was made very clear from the beginning that if they didn't want to they didn't have to."

The staff and pupils of Thornhill Community Academy will return in a one-off Christmas special to be aired in the UK later in December.

DW.DE

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