Jonny Mitchell interview for Educating Yorkshire
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Two years ago, the students and teachers at Passmores Academy in Harlow became legends in their own break time courtesy of Channel 4’s BAFTA-winning fly-on-the-wall documentary series Educating Essex. Now, it’s the turn of Thornhill Community Academy near Dewsbury. Here, Thornhill’s headteacher Jonny Mitchell reveals why he allowed cameras into his school, and what he feels about the experience now.
What was it that made you want to submit your school to take part in this project?
There were a couple of reasons, really. The first is, I’d walked into this school not long before the approach was made for schools to be involved in this and I thought the school had an awful lot to shout about - and that it was on an upward trajectory. I thought we could present ourselves as a really positive role model for others in education and others outside. The other main reason was our location. Dewsbury has suffered quite a lot in the last ten or 15 years with some adverse press. I thought this was an opportunity for us to show the positive side of the town as well. And the third reason is - I think the kids are brilliant - I think they deserve to experience something a little bit different.
Had you watched Educating Essex?
Yes. Every episode. Twice.
What did you think of it?
My initial impressions were that it was funny, pretty honest, quite raw on occasions. It was quite an emotional piece of documentary-making on occasions. Some of the individual stories were very moving, and I thought some of the relationships between the students and the staff were really quite powerful.
I recall having a conversation after it first aired, back in 2011 and I had a meeting with my team the following morning and we were just chatting before everyone arrived, and a couple of the other staff had seen it as well, and we had a laugh about it. I very jokingly said “Wouldn’t it be great if they did something like that here?” And lo and behold, a couple of months later, the email was sent out by Twofour (the production company). I mentioned it again and asked if we should put our name forward and everyone was jumping up and down saying, “Yeah, that would be fabulous.”
Initially it was all very speculative, and we thought nothing would ever come of it, but that it would be an interesting exercise to evaluate ourselves and show people from outside just how good we are. And then things went on and on and on, and we got to where we’ve got to now. And I’m hoping we’ll never look back from it.
Did you speak to anyone from Passmores Academy before you started filming?
Absolutely. We were advised by Twofour to get in touch with Vic, the headteacher down at Passmores. And I did speak to him quite quickly, and we regularly exchanged emails and text messages, and then when the decision had been made to go with us for the series, a colleague, Matthew Burton, and I went down to Passmores for the day to talk to Vic in a lot more depth. And prior to that, Vic had been up here and addressed our staff, to answer some of their questions. I thought it would be better getting something from the horse’s mouth, somebody who’s been through it, rather than listen to me and Twofour garble on about the benefits of the experience. I’ve stayed in constant contact with Vic throughout the process, he’s been very supportive and very, very helpful.
Why do you think your school was chosen for the series?
For the real answer to that, you’d have to ask the production company and Channel 4, but I would say the thing that stood out – not that this is unique to our school – is that we’re not a massive school, we’re quite small and reasonably intimate, and most of the staff know most of the kids, so that’s quite important. I also thought they wanted to reflect the situation in a school somewhere completely different from Essex. But I think the thing that really sold it was the brilliant relationship between adults and children at the school. The fact that every adult who works in this school bends over backwards just to make sure the kids get the best deal. I’m not saying that doesn’t happen in a lot of other schools, we really do take that family responsibility very seriously. I think that’s what came across. The fact that we’re immensely intelligent and brilliantly funny as well obviously is a major boost!
You said yours is a small school. How many students do you have?
We’re hovering around the 750-mark. The average is about 1100-1200.
Did you have any misgivings going into this?
The niggling concerns I had were, “How will some of our more vulnerable students come across?” – because we don’t want to put them in any sort of situation where they’re status is jeopardised or they’re going to be laughed at or ridiculed or mocked. The misgivings I had on a personal level were “What might this do to my career?” You can think of all the positives that might come out of it, but you’ve always got to keep in the back of your head, “I might come out of this looking like a complete and utter wazzock.” But it was made very clear at the outset by the production company that they weren’t interested in selling us down the river for ratings.
Whatever misgivings anybody had, we discussed them very openly as a staff body and I was able to take those concerns to Twofour. They were able to talk us through their experiences working in Essex, and what their intentions were behind it. And that built up a huge bond of trust, so that you never felt that you were talking to TV and media professionals who were spinning you a line, or saying things to appease you, you actually believed what they were saying. And on the back of the fact that I’ve seen a cut of a couple of the programmes now, I can absolutely say that if all the other programmes are done in the same way, it will reflect very well on the school and also vindicate the trust we placed in Twofour to make the programme.
How long were the cameras there for?
They were there from early January until the week after February half term, so they were in for a total of seven weeks. Those were the fixed rigs. Prior to that, some hand-held filming had been done setting the scene, and since the fixed rigs have been dismantled, the cameras have been in various times to film really key events, such as exam mornings, results days, the prom, and various other major events. They’ve also kept their interview Portakabin and colleagues of mine, myself and quite a lot of kids have done pieces to camera in there as well, which provides that narrative for the programmes going forward.
Was it disruptive, having the cameras there, or were you barely even aware of them?
Two answers. Initially, yes, it was a distraction. We were clear, before we undertook this venture, that the welfare, the safety, the achievement and the progress of the kids was paramount. We’d do nothing at all to jeopardise that, and if it became such a distraction that school life was being disrupted and it was having an adverse effect on life at the school, then we would do something about that. And Twofour and Channel 4 were very clear about that as well.
For the first couple of days, it was different – some people played up to it – and that was staff as well as students, of course – “I’m going to be on television” – we dealt with it really quickly, and said to kids in particular, “If you’re going to jump up and down in front of the cameras, I don’t think Channel 4 are going to be terribly interested in that. Any pretentions you have towards future stardom are probably going to be nipped in the bud.” And they calmed down.
From my own point of view, and some of my staff have commented on this as well, where they had the fixed rigs in their offices or classrooms, the first couple of days were weird, and you were very mindful of everything that you said or did. After that, you just forgot the cameras were there. It was only on occasions where a camera might have moved that you suddenly remembered they were there. But there was absolutely no deterioration of behaviour across the Academy – and you could argue, based on our behaviour trawl and our data and our teaching and our kids’ results over the period in question that behaviour actually improved while the cameras were there. So maybe that was an added benefit.
Was there any footage or incident that you asked them not to feature?
No. Some colleagues who didn’t want to appear in the series were aware that they may have been caught on camera, so they needed reassurance that Twofour weren’t going to show their faces. But there was nothing where I actually asked them to stop filming. We did have really open dialogue with Twofour – I met them at least once a day, normally at the end of the day, where they’d talk me through the things they’d been following in particular that day, and they’d ask me if I had any concerns or comments to make, and on occasion I’d say, “I’m not concerned about that as long as you’ve treated it sensitively, and as long as you’ve not included this or that.”
I never vetoed anything. Essentially, I had no editorial control. Channel 4 retains ultimate editorial control. But the strength of the relationship we had with Twofour and latterly with Channel 4 has been that we can talk openly about things that might concern us, and it will be taken into consideration when the final cut is made.
Some of the children will be shown retrospectively to have lied or misbehaved at the time, and got away with it. What will you do about that?
I take the attitude that, had the cameras not been here, we would never have found that information out. We’ve got to be very careful for what purposes we use the cameras. It’s very clear that the programme will show that we are human beings. We don’t get everything right all of the time. In a modern day secondary school with hundreds of kids, it’s not possible to get everything right.
What it will show, I hope, is that over time, issues of people being dishonest or ‘getting away with things’ do become resolved. We do take the whole child, and we do take the whole situation into consideration. Yes, we will get things wrong. If the staff made as many mistakes as some of the kids, this would be a poor excuse for a school. We get things wrong on occasion. But on the basis of what I’ve seen so far, in the final analysis things work out.
I think it would be unfair for us to take retrospective disciplinary action against a student who has been shown to have lied, or admitted something on camera. But we will, as a very natural consequence of watching the programmes, analyse whether our systems work perfectly in every circumstance.
What’s the toughest part about being a headteacher?
I’ve not been doing it for a very long time, so some of the things that I find difficult are probably not the things that more seasoned headteachers find. I find sometimes remaining totally correct in everything that you say quite a difficult thing to fathom. For example, on any one given day, I may have the full range of a governor, a parent, a member of staff and a student asking me to make a pronouncement on something. And it’s the expectation on a headteacher to have the wisdom to be able to say ‘this is the answer’. That’s what I find toughest about being a head teacher. People expect you to know everything.
The other thing that I find difficult is making sure that I am consistent in everything that I do. People involved in situations remember what happened, but as a headteacher, you may be involved in so many situations that you can’t always remember precisely how you dealt with a situation. So it’s about trying to maintain that level of consistency.
What’s the best thing about your job?
The kids. I love working with children, and I love working with like-minded adults. I’m blessed that I’ve got a staff body here who are, to a man and a woman, highly professional, really engaged, want to see the best for the kids, work phenomenally hard, and make my life far easier than a lot of headteachers have it.
I get paid to come to work and do a job that I love doing. The first day that I walk into school of a morning and think, “I don’t want to be here today” is the time that I think headteacher is not the role for me anymore. But seeing the kids achieve, whatever it is they achieve, even if, to other people it’s not a lot, to see them make progress from the time that they’ve spent with you, to turn out well-rounded people with decent values that want to respect others and that are going to make a solid contribution to society in the future, that’s the best part of my job.
Educating Yorkshire is on Channel 4 on Thursday 5th September at 9pm.