If you’re a teacher, you’ll know what it’s like when television drama decides to turn its attention to schools. Everyone who’s not a teacher will assume that your working life is just like that of the teachers depicted on Grange Hill or Waterloo Road or whatever the current favourite might be. When I was a fairly new entrant to the profession, the series everyone was watching was Teachers on Channel 4, and my then Year Tens were obsessed with the idea that all of their teachers spent every evening in the pub and every breaktime crammed into a toilet cubicle, discussing their sex lives and enjoying a crafty cigarette. According to Teachers, we were all hopping in and out of each other’s beds: it was amazing we had time to do any marking. Teaching must be a brilliant job. And the kids on Teachers could call their teachers by their first names, so why couldn’t they?
Teachers doesn’t feel like a particularly old series, but it made its screen debut on Channel 4 in the spring of 2001. That’s twenty years ago, and twenty years before that the TV shows that made their debut in the UK included Juliet Bravo, Bergerac and something called Only Fools and Horses. Channel 4 didn’t even exist, back in 1981. Now I’m starting to feel ancient.
I’m watching Teachers again on All 4, and it’s all so familiar. The bouncy Belle and Sebastian theme tune, the random donkeys appearing in the background, the days of the week appearing on road signs or adverts. The first couple of series focus on Simon Casey, played by Andrew Lincoln, fresh from the iconic 90s drama series This Life. Simon is a newly-qualified English teacher, but there never seems to be a huge amount of English teaching going on in his lessons: there are a few cursory references to The Crucible, a random GCSE coursework task on Shakespeare’s sonnets, and after that he seems to get bored and give up. One of his students, played by a very young James Corden, is worried about whether they’ve covered everything they need to, but Simon doesn’t care. Off to the pub for another few pints, and he’s back again tomorrow for another desultory day at the chalk face. He does use chalk, too: it’s another world.
Simon has his sidekicks: there’s IT teacher Kurt and PE specialist Brian, plus Susan, who teaches Psychology and spends far too much of her time listening to everyone’s relationship woes. He has his nemesis too, in his fellow English teacher Jenny, who he both hates and fancies. In Series Two, they’re joined by a fresh-faces Shaun Evans with long hair and a Scouse accent as JP the Modern Languages teacher. Simon, Kurt and Brian spend a lot of time playing would-you-rather games focusing on who they’d rather have sex with (Clare, the headteacher, or Carol, the dopey secretary? Jenny with Clare’s head or Clare with Jenny’s head?) and it’s all a bit Neanderthal and unreconstructed.
Simon is essentially the kind of man-child who you wouldn’t want near your department in a million years. He gets through his NQT assessment by the skin of his teeth, and my blood pressure is rocketing as I imagine chasing him up about schemes of work or student data. I know exactly how he’d react, too: he’d shrug, his lip would curl, and he’d sneak off behind the boiler room to smoke an illicit ciggie and whinge about me to a passing Year Eleven. Eventually, he gets bored with playing at being an adult, and decides to go off travelling. It’s probably a relief for everyone concerned.
Where would Simon be now, twenty years later? Working in a pub specialising in craft beers, I reckon, or running a website dedicated to obscure pieces of football trivia. I don’t think he’d still be teaching. You don’t get much of a sense of him being dedicated either to his profession or to his subject, and that’s sad. It’s clear that teaching is something he’s fallen into, without really knowing why. But at least he does the decent thing, and leaves. And maybe, at some point, he learns how to be the grown-up in the room.