Sunday, 25 December 2016
570 Kingswood : A Comprehensive School
First viewed : Autumn 1982
I've been expecting this one to crop up for quite a while; I'm surprised it was as late as 1982.
Kingswood : A Comprehensive School was a sequel of sorts to Public School which featured Radley School and was broadcast a couple of years earlier. The format was the same, a fly-on-the-wall documentary capturing as many aspects of school life as naturally as possible. Kingswood was a medium-sized comprehensive school in the unemployment blackspot of Corby , Northamptonshire.
My mum seemed to be watching it just to wind herself up. Education was her obsession probably from the day we were born, fuelled by permanent regret at having left school at 14 without taking exams. She was a convinced meritocrat and regarded the scrapping of the 11-plus as an act of murderous vandalism. What made it worse for her was that its main political advocates, the likes of Tony Benn and Shirley Williams, hadn't used the state system at all for educating their own children but were preventing the talented children from less privileged backgrounds ( and, perhaps more pertinently, those who had slipped a notch or two down the social scale ) from rising up the ladder. She had mooted the idea of sitting the entrance exams for two local private grammars to me but I wasn't interested. When I went on to a middle school - which was crap, no doubt about that - my sister was pressed a bit more urgently and eventually went to one of them, with the later assistance of the Assisted Places scheme.
Now she had a new target in Kingswood's head, Brian Tyler, an interesting contradictory figure who looked like a cross between Eric Morecambe and Elvis Costello and employed some unusual hand gestures to get his point across. He was a posthumous child and a Londoner whose family had struggled on a low income. He'd got his degree as a mature student after doing A Levels at night school. He was a zealot for comprehensive education with a king-size chip on his shoulder about private education. He firmly believed that children from privileged backgrounds should be forced to sit next to poor children while being educated. I recall Mum discussing the programme with her more liberal-minded sister that Christmas and screaming "He called me a prostitute !" which was not quite true as he had applied the term to the staff who worked in private schools rather than the parents of the children.
I felt inclined to defend him somewhat as you might expect and in his interactions with the kids he seemed to be a decent guy though inclined to let negotiations drag on too long. Direct to camera though, sitting in his chair in a hideous pink shirt and theatrically throwing his head around, he came across as a self-regarding, opinionated wanker with a very Alpha male outlook. " A family's OK if Dad's alright isn't it ? It's not much more complicated than that" just makes you cringe.
There was much more evidence of this in the episode I recall best, number 6, where they had to appoint a new deputy head. It's hard to conceive that employment law as it currently stands would allow cameras into an interview and, even given the passage of time it seems astounding that all the seven candidates must have agreed to it. One of them , a nice lady called Mrs Pinner who looked a bit long in the tooth to be moving upwards, completely collapsed in the final interview and it's hard to believe the presence of the cameras wasn't a contributory factor.
The internal candidate was a man called David Bates, a thirtysomething Derek Jacobi lookalike who had been doing the job in an acting capacity for a few months. He came across as a decent guy but not really senior management material. That was the opinion of the staff panel under the chairmanship of a history teacher who Tyler described as "very Machiavellian" ( it would be interesting to know what their relationship was like after the programme was broadcast ). Bates had managed to wheedle himself out of having to face them and they were unanimous that new blood was preferable and he wouldn't be on their shortlist.
The final interviews were conducted by Tyler and two school governors with two representatives from the local authority present in an advisory capacity. At the start of the episode , Bates had said he thought the head and governors would be onside for him and it was the county representatives that he'd have to convince and boy, did he call that right. Both the LA men ( Alan and Alistair ) were unimpressed by Bates and agreed with the staff panel that he wouldn't have made the cut as an external candidate but fatally they had different preferences for the winner. Alistair thought the qualities of a Mrs Beardsley gave them an ideal opportunity to appoint a woman to the all-male senior leadership team while Alan preferred the intellectual heft of a Mr Shepherd . When the female governor plumped for Mrs Beardsley, Tyler threw his toys out of the pram and resorted to personal abuse calling Beardsley a hypocrite and a poseur. The look of incredulous contempt from Alan at that was priceless. Tyler then said he'd want to re-advertise rather than appoint her. The threat was enough to get Alan on his side and the governors meekly came to heel and agreed to Bates's appointment. It was a riveting demonstration of power politics. Tyler got some stick in the press for his apparent misogyny and deployed what would become the trusty shield for Big Brother evictees, that it was down to selective editing.
Tyler had a brief media side career on the back of the programme , appearing on Question Time, but the circus moved on and he fell back into the nitty-gritty of headship. He eventually retired in 1998. I didn't see the 2008 What Happened Next programme which re-visited the school. Today the name survives in a Secondary Academy but the original school merged with another in the noughties and the buildings featured in the programme were razed to the ground a few years ago.