Educating Yorkshire

Totally schooled

Educating Yorkshire: wonderful stories, beautifully told

Educating Yorkshire: wonderful stories, beautifully told

Like other parents with a 10 year-old child, I am apt to start frothing at the mouth when the matter of secondary education and school choice comes up. It can really put me off a person if they do something I don’t quite approve of…  I’m nasty like that.

And I remember being miserable at school. So it might seem odd to bother immersing myself each week in a school, but Educating Yorkshire is a triumphant series.  It’s my favourite programme each week, and it stays with me.    The biggest compliment you can pay is that it’s even better than the previous series, Educating Essex.

Its success rests on masterful story-telling. I am currently reading John Yorke’s brilliant explanation of how stories work, Into The Woods, and suddenly the secret behind Educating Yorkshire’s power becomes clear.

All archetypal stories are defined by this one essential tenet: the central character has an active goal. They desire something. If characters don’t then it is impossible to care for them… essentially they’re us.

Storytelling explained

Storytelling explained

Yorke quotes Stanislavski’s idea that all characters are motivated by desire.. they aren’t just living, they are seeking something. ‘purpose must be bestowed and actively sought or the character is dead’. Stanislavski’s observation about desire is true of the audience too.  They have needs… to escape their lives and to spend it following the journey of someone else.  And they want someone to care for.

So we are left with a balance: audiences are driven by their own desires and needs, and these are best satisfied by spending time relating to others who are doing the same thing.

We know what good teachers want, but the makers drive the point home.  Every week we hear the Headmaster Jonny (Mr) Mitchell’s stated purpose: to turn out good citizens.

I came to this school knowing exactly what I wanted to achieve.  Along side everything else, that they walk out of here as decent human beings and ready for the world. And if that doesn’t happen, we have failed them.

So this series has focussed on what the pupils are like as people – are they decent?  It’s not rite of passage, and it’s not who can cop off with whom (it’s not American Pie, or Grease.  or even Gregory’s Girl).  But it is a classic story nonetheless.

In Episode 3, we followed two pupils, Hadiqa and Safiyyah.  One is academic, and one is not.  One wants to become an air stewardess, and the other the Prime Minister.  We understand what they desire.

Our two heroines. Educating Yorkshire, Episode 3

Our two heroines. Educating Yorkshire, Episode 3

But they have other, less overt needs.  Hadiqa wanted to find a friend because she had moved school every year or two. And Safiyyah might want to work for an airline, but she also wanted to keep her existing friendships while also spending time with Hadiqa.

There is the familiar story arc – the changing relationship between the girls – including a falling out – and a cliff-hanger ending:  will Safiyyah achieve the C grade she needs to qualify for stewardess training.

It isn’t a very complex story, but it has everything you need. And the characters and stories are improved by the juxtaposition.  We understand each girl from their proximity to the other. And we understand both because of their relationship with the teachers.  It’s complex but simple, casual but compelling, understated but Shakespearean.  The production team may have shaped the story but it worked because Hadiqa and Safiyyah were so likeable.

At the end Yorke’s prescription comes true:  ‘Characters … should not always get what they want, but should, if they deserve it, get what they need’.

Safiyyah gets her place despite not quite getting a C.  Hadiqa gets her friend. And Mr Mitchell makes a difference.

What is in it for the audience?

The audience gets what it needs and more. It gets to escape its daily life and ride in someone else’s story.

In Educating Yorkshire at times we are travelling with the Headmaster. At times we switch to the pupils.  We are taken from our lives and carried through a portal to their magical other world.

Last week the number of people living the life of a Muslim schoolgirl jumped, for one hour, by 3 million.

I loved it.


Being young