Readers of a certain age will be familiar with the extraordinary cultural phenomenon that was Grange Hill. Launched in 1978, the show was a mainstay of children’s television until it was decommissioned in 2008. Over the course of 600 episodes, it covered issues such as racism, drugs, teenage pregnancy, HIV/AIDS, sexual assault, mental illness, divorce, cancer, gun crime, alcoholism and death. It did so within a context that was relatable for young people and their parents.
Set in a fictitious north London comprehensive, it provided a dynamic context within which incredibly challenging subjects could be explored. Crucially, there was nothing censorious about its messaging and, in the early days at least, storylines tended to focus upon the children’s lived experiences and this was reflected in much of the jaunty camera work. Remarkably, there had been no realistic televisual portrayal of contemporary school life up to this point. The producer Phil Redmond, also responsible for Brookside and Hollyoaks, was doubtless influenced by an infamous edition of Panorama that was broadcast just a year earlier, in March 1977. Entitled ‘Best Days’ and introduced by a youthful David Dimbleby, the documentary aimed to provide viewers with a sense of an average day in a London comprehensive. It was hard hitting stuff and ‘Best Days’ sparked an immediate media outcry. It was bleak and disturbingly anarchic. Behaviour was poor and academic expectations were miserably low. One lofty commentator suggested that the school gave credence to Plato’s fear that democracy could soon collapse into tyranny and mob rule.
Since the sad demise of Grange Hill, various other dramas such as ‘Waterloo Road’ have attempted, with varying degrees of success, to explicit the rich dramatic setting provided by a school. None have done so as successfully as Grange Hill. On one level it is easy to dismiss Grange Hill as mindless teatime entertainment or to be distracted by its reputation for generating endless controversy, but there is no doubting its contribution towards social change. It shone a sympathetic spotlight on challenging aspects of childhood that hitherto received little attention. Reality programmes like Educating Essex are interesting enough but my feeling is that there are some issues and perspectives that can only be voiced within a fictitious setting.
Parenting is incredibly challenging. I think that we oscillate between believing that we are experts and feeling entirely helpless. The fragmentation of family life means that parents probably feel more alone than ever. As educators, we are only too aware that it is often difficult for us to engage with the parents of those children most in need of our support. Those who are struggling often fear judgement or they imagine that they are doing a bad job and yet I have yet to meet a parent who has not, in their heart, wanted the very best for their child.
Upon retirement, John Rae, the ex-headmaster of Westminster School, wrote a fantastic book entitled ‘Letters from School’. It is a collection of imaginary letters to fictitious parents. He writes with a directness and frankness that he felt unable to deliver within real life. Writing the book must have been a pleasingly cathartic exercise and although some of his views have not aged well, it contains a good deal of practical common sense. The book’s enduring popularity (it was first published in 1987) is due to its gentle, candid and empathetic tone.
There are no guarantees, but being a consistent and affirming presence in our children’s lives provides them with the best possible start. Allowing children the opportunity to roam free is very often a recipe for disaster. That is not a value judgement but a dispassionate reflection upon almost twenty years of working in schools. If you do not know where your children are or what they are doing then do not presume that they have gone to a late night poetry reading session in the local library. Do not imagine that long summer evenings ‘spent at a friend’s house’ are spent playing scrabble and drinking tea. Do not expect your child to have the wisdom of Solomon and the moral courage of St Francis of Assisi. Our children are human and, like us, they are fallible. Trust needs to be tempered with an acknowledgement of their fragility and the memory of what it was like to be fourteen years old.
As parents, we do not want to endure pompous moralising but there is much to be said for embracing an open and reflective spirit. To share in our frustrations and gain in strength from the knowledge that we are not alone is really important.
Finally, assume positive intent and engage with every opportunity to meet other parents both socially and within school. Do not think that a workshop on something like online safety or drugs education is aimed at some other child’s parents; it is there for you and your child.
It is always worth starting from the presumption that it could happen. Of course, children need to be provided with opportunities to grow in confidence. They need the affirmation that comes from the knowledge that our trust in their ability to successfully navigate the challenges of life grows with each passing year. Similarly, they need to be provided with opportunities to make mistakes and learn from them. However, our children thrive best if home and school are singing from the same hymn sheet and with a common purpose. As a parent it can sometimes be difficult to see things as they really are rather than how we might like things to be.
Headmaster of Rossall School