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A fictional school for the Gove era

The man in the restaurant was unkempt, and brandished a carrier bag. As he railed against the involvement of private money in education, as much as I agreed with him, I could feel the producers had set him up as the villain.

But the start of the latest series did at least confirm that Waterloo Road has moved firmly into the Gove era.

The fictional school has graced our TV screens for six years now, and we’re on series number eight. Presumably because there’s only so many times a school can burn down and still remain on the same site, Waterloo Road has relocated from Rochdale to Greenock. A move which we are all expected to view as entirely conventional and understandable.

But the key difference: Waterloo Road is now essentially a private school – only one which does not charge fees and is supposedly open to anyone who rocks up to its doorstep. Entirely reliant on the benevolence of a rich ex-pupil of the school’s head, the set-up sounds eerily reminiscent of Tory education secretary Michael Gove’s ‘free schools’. Except of course, that free schools are highly unlikely to accept anyone off the street – for that’s not the point. I can feel the romanticisation of the concept kicking in already.

The danger is of course that the series has a tendency to romanticise the school community spirit as well as depicting scandal – and with a state vs. private conflict introduced so early on, you can bet by the end of the series there’ll have been a lot of fawning over how injecting private money can deliver results. And how you can start off suspicious of the profit motive, but ultimately it’s all about the same thing: delivering for each individual.

Or something like that. I’m making a lot of presumptions here about the series ahead. We’ll see. But if I’m right and it is sucking up to Govey’s agenda, even that won’t stop some saying that it’s the BBC politicising a drama about education.

The programme has touched on political direction before – but never this heavily. Perhaps it just goes to show that no matter how much people moan about targets and directives and reform under Labour, this government makes Blair look like the bloke who told the teachers to get on with it.

For Gove’s agenda has filtered through both the big and the small. For his preference for certain subjects, schools are labelled as failing. Teachers who make the mild demand to hold onto the pension they’ve paid for are labelled “Trotskyites”. For his faith, each school must take delivery of a book they almost certainly own already.

It’s only natural that the least silly school drama should be thinking about Gove too. But if the scriptwriters lionise the education secretary’s agenda they will not be a response to the onslaught of the profiteers – but part of it.

Will I miss the old Waterloo Road? It was almost as clichéd and unrealistic as this series, but there was always something quite pleasant about one tiny nugget of the media which showed that good things too could happen in our comprehensive schools. When the newspapers print little other than hysteria and self justification, at least clichéd TV presented cliché. Let’s hope that doesn’t become suck-up cliché.

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